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Monday, July 05, 2021

Milwaukee Versus Phoenix Preview

NBA Finals

Milwaukee (46-26) vs. Phoenix (51-31) 

Season series: Phoenix, 2-0 

Phoenix can win if…the Suns continue to be the healthiest team left standing. Sadly--but perhaps inevitably, considering the compressed time frame from the end of the "bubble" to the beginning of the 2020-21 season--the 2021 NBA playoffs have been a war of attrition more than a battle of skill, and the losers have been the fans. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Anthony Davis, Joel Embiid, James Harden, Kyrie Irving, LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Jamal Murray, and Trae Young are just a few of the stars who have been seriously affected by an injury during the 2021 playoffs. It is not a coincidence that the Suns defeated three teams (Lakers, Nuggets, Clippers) who each have at least one player on that list. 

There is no doubt that the Suns are a very good team--but if all teams had been at full strength during the regular season and the playoffs, it is very doubtful that the Suns would have outperformed the Lakers, the Clippers, the Nuggets, or the Jazz. Taking a broader, historical perspective, consider the teams that have reached the NBA Finals in the past 10-15 years: how many of those teams would it be reasonable to expect these Suns to beat if both teams were at full strength?

Objectively assessing the Suns takes nothing away from what they have accomplished: they eliminated the three teams they have faced thus far in the 2021 playoffs, and they earned the right to play in the NBA Finals. 

Offensively, the Suns' utilize the midrange game to good effect, Deandre Ayton is a high percentage scorer in the paint, and several Suns are excellent three point shooters. Defensively, the Suns use their speed, agility, and craftiness to good effect, though they can be overpowered in the paint by a team that has the necessary personnel and discipline to do so.

Milwaukee will win because…the Bucks' version of a Big Three--when healthy, and that is the major key, as noted in the above discussion about injuries--is better, bigger, and more versatile than the Suns' version of a Big Three. 

Giannis Antetokounmpo averaged 26.5 ppg, 10.0 rpg, and 5.5 apg while shooting .608 from the field in the first four games of the Eastern Conference Finals before spraining his knee during the fourth game. His overall 2021 playoff numbers are 28.2 ppg, 12.7 rpg, 5.2 apg, and .551 FG%. He missed the last two games of the Eastern Conference Finals, and the Bucks have not publicly released a timetable for his return. If Antetokounmpo returns to action and is reasonably healthy, the Suns have no answer for him; if Antetokounmpo does not return, or if he returns at less than 100%, the Bucks could still win the series but the path to victory would be much more difficult.

Khris Middleton averaged 23.7 ppg, 8.0 rpg, and 6.5 apg in the Eastern Conference Finals, and he is averaging 23.4 ppg, 8.0 rpg, and 5.1 apg overall in the 2021 playoffs. He is an All-NBA caliber performer who, for some inexplicable reason, is not given the respect that he deserves. Middleton does not have any skill set weaknesses; that is not to say that he is the best at any one particular skill set, but it means that it is difficult to exploit him in a matchup at either end of the court because of his size, mobility, shooting touch, rebounding, passing ability, and defensive prowess. He can explode for 15-20 points in a quarter or 35 points in a game at any time, and he can do that while also having a positive defensive impact.

Jrue Holiday contributed 22.0 ppg, 10.0 apg, and 5.0 rpg in the Eastern Conference Finals, and he is producing 17.6 ppg, 8.4 apg, and 5.6 rpg overall in the 2021 playoffs. He has struggled with his shooting efficiency at times, but he filled a big void at both ends of the court after Antetokounmpo got hurt.

In addition to the Big Three, the Bucks have a good supporting cast. Brook Lopez is a solid three point shooter who also can score inside, and he is a good rim protector (1.8 bpg in the 2021 playoffs). Bobby Portis provides rebounding, toughness, and timely scoring. P.J. Tucker is often assigned to harass the opposing team's best scorer. Pat Connaughton has filled in capably for the injured Donte DiVincenzo.

Sans Antetokounmpo, the Bucks pounded the Hawks into submission in the paint in game five of the Eastern Conference Finals, and then finished the series off with a strong inside/outside attack in game six. The Bucks' size, versatility, and defense will pose challenges that the Suns have not yet faced during the 2021 playoffs.

Other things to consider: This is Chris Paul's first NBA Finals appearance in 16 NBA seasons. In game six of the Western Conference Finals, Paul tied his playoff career high with 41 points as the Suns eliminated the L.A. Clippers, but throughout most of his career Paul has gotten injured and/or worn down as the playoffs progress; this year, he has been more durable than usual despite dealing with a shoulder injury suffered during the first round and despite having a brief stint in the league's COVID-19 protocols. Not only has Paul been more durable than usual, he has been more durable than most of the stars on the other top contenders--and the disparity between the Suns' health versus the health of the league's other top contenders is the biggest single factor explaining how the Suns advanced to the NBA Finals. 

Paul has received most of the headlines and accolades during both the regular season and the playoffs, but a strong case could be made that Devin Booker is the Suns' best and most valuable player. Booker led the team in scoring during the regular season (25.6 ppg), during the Western Conference Finals (25.5 ppg), and during the playoffs overall (27.0 ppg). When Paul missed the first game of the Western Conference Finals because of the NBA's COVID-19 protocols, Booker dominated the Clippers with 40 points, 13 rebounds, and 11 assists. The media narrative throughout Paul's career is that he "makes his teammates better"--a meaningless phrase--but the reality is that he is a great player who has been able to bring out the best from talented teammates. Booker clearly does not need Paul to "make him better"; Booker can control a game without Paul even being on the court.

Similarly, Deandre Ayton is a talented player who does not need Paul to "make him better." Ayton was the number one overall selection in a draft class that included both Luka Doncic and Trae Young, so it is silly to pretend that Paul is creating something out of nothing when he passes the ball to Ayton.

Holiday has the necessary physical and mental traits to match up well with Paul. Middleton versus Booker should be a draw, or perhaps a slight edge to Booker. Ayton is superior to Lopez, but the Bucks' "drop" coverage should prevent Ayton from matching the .706 FG% he has posted thus far in the 2021 playoffs. Antetokounmpo is obviously the key. The Suns cannot match up with him, while he can guard multiple positions. If Antetokounmpo is able to perform anywhere close to his normal capabilities, the Bucks are too big and too versatile for the Suns.

My expectation is that Antetokounmpo will lack some explosiveness and lateral mobility, but he will still be able to attack the hoop, rebound, make plays, and be an effective defensive presence.

Based on that expectation, I predict that the Bucks will win in six games.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:58 PM



At Wednesday, July 07, 2021 3:36:00 PM, Blogger Jordan said...

Hi David, I enjoy your series previews. This one is shaping up to be an exciting finals. I do want to make one comment about your position on Paul. I agree with most of your takes on Paul regarding his size being a limiting factor, his "making players" better being overblown, etc. However, I do want to point out that his "making players better" at least for the Suns, is not on the court. It doesn't mean he opens up more space for them, or delivers better passes than some other player.

But, make no mistake, he has made them better. DeAndre Ayton has repeated this many times, but he credits Paul for being the first person to really get in his face and challenge him. The biggest knock on Ayton up to this season has been his commitment to working hard. He's supremely gifted with height, athleticism, etc. but he never had the work ethic. Paul, being Paul, has pushed him. (Monty too). Paul obsessively watches film, a habit Ayton has picked up. Paul has taught Ayton the correct angles on both offense and defense, on screen setting, on rolling, etc. Paul continues to be the a-hole yelling/barking at Ayton (something DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin grew tired of). And Ayton has responded. He's in the gym. He's watching video. He's giving maximum effort. And again, nearly every postgame presser, he's effusing praise on Paul.

Booker already had that in him. The dog. The desire to improve. The work ethic. The video study. Where Paul has helped Booker is evident in the way Book plays. Watch him penetrate and survey the landscape, hesy dribble, stop to try and draw fouls, hunting midrange shots. It looks like Paul. Book is a sorta hybrid of Kobe and Paul (in terms of playstyle, not in terms of ability. He's got a ways to go before he becomes as good as either of them were in their primes).

The other youngsters on the team have benefitted from Paul's ability to get them open looks, but Ricky Rubio was able to do that as well.

It's more the off the court stuff, the details, and the fire that Paul has instilled in them.

At Thursday, July 08, 2021 11:48:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I agree that Paul has had off court impact in the ways that you described.

My point is that there is a media narrative dating back for well over a decade that simultaneously exaggerates Paul's impact while also ignoring or minimizing a similar or greater off court impact provided by other players who have accomplished more individually and collectively than Paul has. The most notable example is Kobe Bryant. Bryant's off court impact on teammates contributed to five championships and two Olympic gold medals. Bryant's off court impact extended beyond his team and even beyond his death, as Kyrie Irving, Jayson Tatum, Julius Randle, and many others (including Devin Booker!) have cited specific advice/inspiration that Kobe provided to them that is contributing to their success even now.

Perhaps Paul's leadership will contribute to winning his first NBA title in 16 seasons, but I find it odd that he is so highly praised as a leader and off court influence despite the demonstrable fact that several of his peers have led their teams to greater success.


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