As the 2021 NBA Finals begin tonight, the storyline revolves around the lack of past championships for both teams. One team, the Milwaukee Bucks, looks to capture their first title since 1971. Meanwhile, the Phoenix Suns look to win their first title in the history of their franchise. Both the Suns and Bucks have had a great season thus far, and have battled through the playoffs against tough opponents. However, the challenge ahead for both teams will be the greatest that most players in the series have ever faced in their careers. The superstars in this series: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Chris Paul, Devin Booker, Khris Middleton, and Jrue Holiday will all be making their first NBA Finals appearance. The story remains the same for nearly every player in the series, as Phoenix's Jae Crowder is the only player in the series who’s played in the Finals before. This series will be a chess match as usual, as head coaches Monty Williams and Mike Budenholzer will look to dissect their opponent's weakness, to lead their side to a title. With all this said, let's break down the keys to the series, and predict the next NBA Champion.
1) Will Giannis Antetokounmpo play, and if so how effective will he be?
Unfortunately, one of the top storylines for this series is the health of the best player in the series, and former back-to-back MVP, but injuries have been the storyline in the playoffs this year in general. Antetokounmpo went down against the Hawks in game four after hyperextending his knee and did not return in the series. Giannis is listed as doubtful for game one, but I do believe he will play at some point this series, as it’s been reported by NBATV that Giannis has been working out in private with “an army of observers” to test how his left knee is feeling. The next question, if Giannis does play, is how effective will he be? If Giannis does play in this series, it’s hard to believe that he’ll be completely himself. However, Giannis’s presence on the floor will still affect this series one-hundred percent. Giannis is a huge key to the Bucks’ success in all aspects of the game, especially the boards as Giannis is averaging 12.7 rebounds per game in the playoffs, the most per game amongst all players who were in the playoffs. Antetokounmpo’s health will also be key to the defensive success of Milwaukee, as opposing offenses suffer a large decline in points per game and shooting percentages with the 2020 defensive player of the year on the floor. If Giannis plays and plays at one-hundred percent, the outlook of this series will completely change.
2) How will the Bucks defend the Suns' pick-and-roll offense?
Phoenix is one of the best pick-and-roll offenses in the league, led by the great Chris Paul. Paul has killed three teams these playoffs with his ability to consistently knock down mid-range and three-point jumpers off of both pick-and-rolls and in the general flow of the offense. Milwaukee defends the pick-and-roll differently than most teams in today’s game. The Bucks typically choose to stay low on the pick-and-roll and defend the rim, rather than putting their bigs in situations where they have to switch onto the opposing teams' guards or hedge enough to allow their guards to get back in front of the ball on defense. How Milwaukee defends Chris Paul and the Suns’ guards in pick-and-roll situations will play a huge role in this series. If the Bucks decide to defend Phoenix's pick-and-roll offense the same way they have been defending in the playoffs, Chris Paul will keep them scratching their heads with his ability to easily shoot coming off of ball screens, or create open looks for others. Regardless, the Bucks big men must be ready to step up on ball screens this series, or Phoenix’s offense will come all too easily this series. This aspect of the game is where the real chess match between coaches begins, as Mike Budenholzer will have to decide how to slow down this aspect of the Suns offense.
3) Which team will shoot better from the three-point line?
Milwaukee has struggled from beyond the arc so far in the playoffs (31.1%) which is unusual for a team who shot the ball so well from out there during the regular season (38.9%). While Phoenix has allowed their spacing and success from behind the line to propel them past their opponents in the playoffs. The Bucks' struggles from the three-point line have hurt them in the playoffs, but their ability to pound the ball in the paint and score there easily has offset their struggles from the three-point line to an extent. One specific player that will need to knock down their threes to make life easier for the Bucks, is Brook Lopez. Lopez is shooting 35.3% from three in the playoffs, a respectable percentage which will force the Suns to step out on him. Thus being said, if Lopez continues to knock down the outside shot at the rate he has been, the Suns’ Deandre Ayton will be forced to step out, opening up the paint for Milwaukee, where they score easily and efficiently. However, if Milwaukee struggles from the three-point line in this series, I don’t know if they’ll be able to win the series. With that being said, I strongly believe that whichever team shoots better from the outside will end up hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy.
Predictions: Who will win the series, and who will take home finals MVP?
1) Who Wins the Series?
The question marks surrounding the health of Giannis Antetokounmpo, the three-point struggles of Milwaukee, and the inconsistent offensive play of their supporting cast are all factors that make me wary of picking the Bucks to win this series. However, the size, defensive efficiency, and aggressiveness on the glass are all strong suits for the Bucks and could help lead them to victory. The Bucks have dominated the boards in every one of their matchups thus far and although I see another dominant rebounding performance for Milwaukee in this series, I don’t think their defense and rebounding ability can carry them in this series, especially if the Greek Freak isn’t on the floor or at one-hundred percent. One area of concern for Milwaukee as previously stated is their pick-and-roll defense. I believe that Chris Paul, Cameron Payne, and Devin Booker are going to punish the Bucks in pick-and-roll situations and create open shots on the perimeter and mid-range all series long. Once again, I believe that whichever team is more successful from behind the three-point line will win the series, and considering the Bucks’ recent struggles from three, I believe the Suns will be the team to win the battle on the three-point line and win the series. I’m picking the Suns to take the series in six games.
Prediction: Suns win the series 4-2
2) Who will win Finals MVP?
This series is full of superstar players that have been cornerstones in this league in the past, and players who will be key faces in the league for the future. If the Suns take the series as I predicted, I could easily see Chris Paul, Devin Booker, or Deandre Ayton take-home finals MVP. On the other hand, if the Bucks take the series, the clear favorite to win Finals MVP would be Giannis. However, with Giannis’ current status, players like Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday are more likely to take home the award. If Milwaukee wins the series I’m taking Jrue Holiday to win Finals MVP. But, I chose the Suns to take the series so Holiday is not my pick to win the award. In a series like this, the stars are either going to shine or fold under pressure. One superstar that has shined on the Suns for years is Devin Booker. Even through the seasons of losing, missing the playoffs, and being laughed at by the entire league, Devin Booker has always stood out like a diamond in the rough on the Suns. Booker has made the most of his first playoff appearance, averaging twenty-seven points per game while shooting 44.4% from the floor. Booker has been splitting the load offensively with Chris Paul but has been carrying more of the scoring load than Paul has. Booker has been eagerly waiting for this moment for years now as the Suns have failed to make the playoffs every year before this one in his career. I believe Booker will rise to the occasion that he’s desired for so long. Booker will continue to carry the scoring load for Phoenix and will take home Finals MVP.
Prediction: Devin Booker wins Finals MVP
*All stats were received from NBA.com