In 1969, the Milwaukee Bucks won a coin toss over the Phoenix Suns to win No. 1 in the NBA draft and then chose Lew Alcindor, better known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who completely transformed the trajectory of the franchise, winning three MVP awards with the team and an NBA championship in 1971.
Since then, though, the Bucks have only returned to the Finals once, and the Suns, who took down Florida’s solid but unspectacular center Neal Walk No. 2 overall in that 1969 draft, have yet to win. a title in the 53 seasons that have existed, reaching the final twice, but falling short each time.
If it hadn’t been for Abdul-Jabbar, the Bucks would likely be as bitten a franchise as the Suns.
Oh, what could have been for Phoenix.
While that draft is essentially ancient history, echoes of one of the biggest “what ifs” in sports still resonate as the Bucks and Suns kick off the 2021 NBA Finals starting Tuesday.
After a season playing through a pandemic and some unprecedented injuries to the league’s stars this postseason, these two teams have emerged in what was a postseason that at times felt like a war of attrition.
From a pure basketball perspective, this is an intriguing showdown between the top two defensive clubs during the 2021 playoffs and they’ve had flashes of offensive brilliance in the moments they’ve run.
When it comes to the roads, the Suns have looked more impressive, having only needed 16 games to reach the final, mostly filtering the nuggets in the second round. Milwaukee, on the other hand, has been on a losing streak, needing 17 games and dogfights in the second and third rounds after sweeping the Miami Heat in the first.
However, regardless of their respective paths, the Suns and Bucks have come this far and now both have their sights set on the ultimate prize.
Here’s a closer look at the 2021 Finals: the big story coming to the series, the key showdown to keep an eye on, the X-factors on both sides, and of course who we think will win the series.
Stream select games from the NBA Playoffs, including the NBA Finals. Plus, get the NBA Draft, Stanley Cup Playoffs, Blue Jays, and MLB and more.
Before we dive into the details, here’s a quick look at the finals schedule.
• Game 1: Milwaukee at Phoenix on July 6 at 9:00 pm ET
• Game 2: Milwaukee at Phoenix on July 8 at 9:00 pm ET
• Game 3: Phoenix at Milwaukee on July 11 at 8:00 pm ET (on Sportsnet)
• Game 4: Phoenix at Milwaukee on July 14 at 8:00 pm ET
• Game 5 (if necessary): Milwaukee at Phoenix on July 17 at 9:00 pm ET (on Sportsnet)
• Game 6 (if necessary): Phoenix at Milwaukee on July 20 at 9:00 pm ET (on Sportsnet)
• Game 7 (if necessary): Milwaukee at Phoenix on July 22 at 9:00 pm ET
The big story
Technically, there are two main stories heading into these endings, but one type of game turns into the other.
The main one is what these finals will do for the respective legacies of the two superstars of each team, Chris Paul and Giannis Antetokounmpo.
An infallible Hall of Famer, Paul had never competed for an NBA championship before in his 16 seasons. Although his credentials are impeccable, having been an All-Star 11 times, an NBA team selection 10 times, and a fully defensive team selection nine times, unless he wins a ring, he will fall into infamy, along with, ironically. , other Suns greats like Charles Barkley and Steve Nash as a great player who never won a title.
At 36, this could be Paul’s only chance to finally win that elusive ring he’s been chasing his entire career.
Although he is a decade younger than Paul, Antetokounmpo’s legacy is also at stake, as he is fighting the perception of being a great player who simply cannot win the great one.
The two-time MVP is a fabulous talent, but he has been rightly questioned over the years because of the Bucks’ disappointment, as well as his inability to shoot the ball from the perimeter and the overall predictability of his offensive repertoire.
If he can have a great series and the Bucks manage to win, all that noise should go away.
However, that’s a big “yes” and it brings us to the other great story looming over this series: Antetokounmpo’s health.
The Greek star’s status is uncertain at this point after he injured his knee during Game 4 of the Bucks’ Eastern Conference Finals against the Atlanta Hawks. He reportedly suffered no ligament damage and his injury is listed as a hyperextended left knee, but he was forced to miss the final two games of the series and was excused from media day on Monday due to his unknown condition. for Game 1 of the Finals.
Obviously not having Antetokounmpo would hurt the Bucks’ chances in this series, but beyond that, it would be brutal if he couldn’t play due to injury because, as Paul evidenced, getting to this point is extremely difficult to do. Although Antetokounmpo is only 26 years old, this could be the pinnacle of his career and potentially missing it would be heartbreaking.
Antetokounmpo’s status, for better or worse, will dominate much of the discussion surrounding these finals.
Key Pairing: Paul and Booker vs. Holiday and Tucker
Even if Antetokounmpo can play, this series could come down to these matchups, regardless.
The key to beating the Suns is finding ways to control their dynamic backcourt from Paul and budding superstar Devin Booker. This task will probably fall on the shoulders of Jrue Holiday and PJ Tucker.
Two of the best guards in the world faced off against two of the best perimeter defenders in the world. There is nothing better than this.
Given the midrange areas that Booker and Paul like to operate in, Holiday and Tucker’s individual defense will be key to the Bucks’ hopes. Although the midrange is not considered a great place to shoot analytically from, it is difficult for many teams to defend because there is so much emphasis on getting shooters out of the three-point line and protecting the paint.
The Bucks particularly like to play “drop coverage,” where many of their guys, their greats in particular, will sink into the paint to try to avoid penetration and shots to the basket. This type of defensive scheme could be exposed by mid-range assassins like Booker and Paul, who could make wide jump shots as the Bucks fall back.
That’s why Holiday and Tucker would have to be solid in their potential singles matchups with Paul and Booker. If they stick with them, those mid-range shots get really tough and they might not even be there.
While it may be a bit of a stretch, the series may be determined by how well Milwaukee manages to contain Paul and Booker’s chances from the mid-range.
Bucks: Khris Middleton
Although he’s not the Bucks’ best player, Middleton might be Milwaukee’s most important player.
Another potential cover for one of the Suns’ two great guards, although there’s a chance he could, he’s probably best off those assignments because the Bucks will need his offense.
Milwaukee’s best shooter when the going gets tough and they need a bucket, though it doesn’t always happen, Middleton is the guy the Bucks need to go to.
In the Bucks’ last two games against Atlanta without Antetokounmpo, Middleton stepped up, scoring 29 points per game and shooting 37.5 percent from three-point range.
From Phoenix’s perspective, he really has no one who can match the combination of length and shooting ability that Middleton offers. In all likelihood, the Suns will put Mikal Bridges or Jae Crowder on Middleton, but Middleton should be able to shoot over both.
If you’re looking for a crafty Finals MVP pick, you could do worse than Middleton.
Suns: Deandre Ayton
One story to watch during the Finals is how the Bucks could contain Phoenix’s deadly pick-and-roll, which runs mostly between Paul and Ayton.
The Suns center could be a nightmare for the Bucks, as his strength and athleticism could surpass Brook Lopez, especially if the Suns have Lopez in pick-and-roll actions where his feet are not the fastest. of the world.
Paul’s balloon threat to Ayton is always there, and against Lopez it would be much more dangerous as he is not a player who plays above the basket at all. This can normally be negated by Antetokounmpo’s length and athleticism, but, again, his status is uncertain at the moment, which means this could be a great series for Ayton.
Suns in seven.
The state of Antetokounmpo has overshadowed this series that is too big.
With him in the lineup, you have to like the balance of the Bucks and especially what they can do on defense, but we don’t know how effective he could be, even if he plays in the series.
So the safest bet is Paul, Booker, Ayton and the Suns, who don’t really make mistakes and need to be legitimately defeated if they’re going to lose.
No team has been able to beat them four times yet this postseason, so why stop now?
Chris Paul is going to get his ring.