9:00 PM EST, ABC – Line: Suns -6, Over/Under: 219.5
Finally after a whirlwind campaign contested at a furious pace, the National Basketball Association’s 2020-2021 Season has reached it’s climax as the Phoenix Suns play host to the Milwaukee Bucks in Game One of the NBA Finals from Phoenix Suns Arena in Phoenix, Arizona. Needless to say, this moment has been a very long time coming for the Bucks (46-26, 3rd in Eastern Conference), who find themselves back in the Finals for the first time since 1974, with the hopes that they will be hoisting what would be their second Larry O’Brien trophy, which was earned on the strength of Hall of Famers such as Oscar Robertson and a young Kareem Abdul-Jabbar back in 1971. While half a century is certainly a long time to wait, this current iteration of the franchise has been knocking on the proverbial door for a few years now, and after some very savvy maneuvers has managed to navigate through the obstacles that had blocked their path in each of the previous two postseasons. Indeed, (Head Coach) Mike Budenholzer’s charges entered the Playoffs in both 2019 and 2020 armed with the best record in the NBA, only to meet their premature demise on both occasions; in 2019 they relinquished a 2-0 lead to the (eventual champion) Toronto Raptors in the Eastern Conference Finals, dropping four consecutive contests, and a year later found themselves thoroughly vexed by the Miami Heat in the East Semifinals, crashing out of the Bubble in disappointing fashion over the course of just five games. As a result, Milwaukee went about retooling in a manner that would leave them better suited for a prolonged postseason run, and it began with tying down their greatest asset, (two-time MVP) Giannis Antetokounmpo (28.1 PTS, 56.9% FG, 30.3% 3FG, 11.0 REB, 5.9 AST, 1.2 STL, 1.2 BLK, 29.2 PER), to the richest contract extension in NBA History (5 years/$228 million). From there, Management swung a trade for (veteran Point Guard) Jrue Holiday (17.7 PTS, 50.3% FG, 39.2% 3FG, 4.5 REB, 6.1 AST, 1.6 STL, 20.0 PER), while also strengthening their Bench with the additions of Bobby Portis (11.4 PTS, 52.3% FG, 47.1% 3FG, 7.1 REB, 1.1 AST, 0.8 STL, 19.9 PER) and Brynn Forbes (10.0 PTS, 47.3% FG, 45.2% 3FG, 1.6 REB, 0.6 AST, 12.8 PER), before adding further veteran experience in the form of (journeyman) P.J. Tucker (2.6 PTS, 39.1% FG, 39.4% 3FG, 2.8 REB, 0.8 AST, 0.5 STL, 5.7 PER) at the Trade Deadline. As a result, these Bucks weren’t quite as dominant in the Regular Season (particularly with much stronger competition in the East), but have nonetheless exorcised their postseason demons, beginning with the aforementioned Heat. Milwaukee made short work of last Fall’s tormentors, sweeping them in merciless fashion; after narrowly edging Miami in Game One (109-107, OT), they outscored them by a total of EIGHTY points over the final three games of the series. The next round set up a titanic clash with the Brooklyn Nets, which would go the distance in a matchup that could only be defined as survival of the fittest; rallying back from an 0-2 deficit, the Bucks would outlast the depleted Nets in seven games, winning the final chapter at Barclays Center in Overtime (115-11). With the top-seeded Philadelphia 76ers coincidentally falling to the upstart Atlanta Hawks in the other Eastern Semifinal, the path to the Finals appeared clearer than ever, though Atlanta would prove peskier than many initially thought. The Bucks were upset 116-113 in Game One and found themselves in a 2-2 stalemate just last week, while the aforementioned Antetokounmpo fell victim to a hyperextended left knee that would sideline him for the rest of the series. Calling back to the high ankle sprain that effected him in their postseason ousting last Fall, his teammates would exhibit the kind of resilience that they had been lacking in previous Playoff runs, toppling the Hawks in Games Five (123-112) and Six (118-107), with the latter victory coming on the road. As the Greek International sat helpless on the Bench, the supporting cast filled the void admirably; (veteran Center) Brook Lopez (12.3 PTS, 50.3% FG, 33.8% 3FG, 5.0 REB, 0.7 AST, 0.6 STL, 1.5 BLK, 15.4 PER) exploded in Game Five for thirty-three points on 14-of-18 shooting (77.8%), along with seven rebounds and four blocks, while (All-Star Swingman) Khris Middleton (20.4 PTS, 47.6% FG, 41.4% 3FG, 6.0 REB, 5.4 AST, 1.1 STL, 18.2 PER) and the aforementioned Holiday combined for an average of 55.0 points, 16.0 rebounds, and 18.5 assists over the two contests. Simply put, everything that had worked against them in years past, has worked in their favor during this postseason trek. After years of shaky performances in the Playoffs, Middleton has developed into not only a stout second option next to Antetokounmpo, but the bonafide closer that the club had lacked, averaging 28.3 points, 8.8 rebounds, and 5.3 assists in games in which his side could clinch or were facing elimination. Furthermore, Holiday has proven to be a MAJOR upgrade at Point Guard, particularly on the defensive end where his dogged pursuit of Atlanta’s Trae Young helped swing the momentum of the series (to say nothing of the bone bruise that sidelined him for Game Four), while every member of the supporting cast has had at least one moment that they can hang their hat on. Of course , this is of the utmost significance for on the eve of the Finals it appears that the Bucks will once again be forced to exhibit their resilience, for all signs point towards Antetokounmpo missing tonight’s affair, for he has listed been as Doubtful despite reportedly exhibiting good progress in yesterday’s practice. These teams met on two occasions during the Regular Season, both of which ended in defeat for Milwaukee despite only a scant two points separating the two combatants. The 26-year old was certainly prolific in the two meetings, averaging a robust 40.0 points on 60.0% shooting from the field, along with 9.5 rebounds and 3.5 assists, even sinking a confident 26-of-31 attempts from the charity stripe (83.9%) which as we all know is well above his season average (68.5%). Needless to say, replacing that kind of production at this stage of the campaign is an arduous task, but one that the Bucks have proven capable of accomplishing.
Meanwhile, the Suns (51-21, 2nd in Western Conference) may not have waited as long to return to the NBA Finals as their counterpart has, but that doesn’t make their first trip to the final stage since 1993 any less sweet. That is because you would be hard-pressed to find a more unlikely participant in the Finals; nobody believed Phoenix would manage to escape the treacherous West a year after finishing a mediocre 34-39, let alone in a condensed campaign following the shortest offseason in NBA History. Simply put, the Suns’ rise (no pun intended) is unprecedented; never before has a team advanced to the Finals after missing the Playoffs in the previous season, and this franchise had gone ELEVEN long years without a postseason appearance. This is a group that improved by a whopping SEVENTEEN games in 2020-2021, thanks in large part to the brilliant acquisition of a certain veteran Point Guard, Chris Paul (16.4 PTS, 49.9% FG, 39.5% 3FG, 4.5 REB, 8.9 AST, 1.4 STL, 21.4 PER). It’s crazy to think that just two years ago the general train of thought was that the eleven-time All-Star was in decline, with the Houston Rockets eager to discard him in a blockbuster trade with the Oklahoma City Thunder in exchange for Russell Westbrook. In fact, (Rockets Owner) Tilman Fertitta publicly stated that Paul’s contract was arguably the worst in NBA History. With that said, the ten-time All-NBA Selection worked wonders in Oklahoma City with a young inexperienced supporting cast, nearly advancing to the Western Conference Semifinals last Fall. Prior to the postseason finally beginning in the Bubble, Phoenix was performing a miracle as well, winning all eight of their seeding games before narrowly missing out on a spot in the Play-In Game. And it’s with that said that (General Manager) James Jones wasted no time in brokering the deal for Paul, with hopes that the 36-year old would have a similar impact on the young nucleus of (emerging superstar) Devin Booker (25.6 PTS, 48.4% FG, 34.0% 3FG, 4.2 REB, 4.3 AST, 0.8 STL, 19.2 PER), (promising big man) Deandre Ayton (14.4 PTS, 62.6% FG, 10.5 REB, 1.4 AST, 0.6 STL, 1.2 BLK, 20.3 PER), and a plethora of other young talent. Well, nine months later and it’s safe to say that the experiment couldn’t have gone any better, for Paul has masterfully accelerated the development of this team, while still proving to be at the top of his game in what for all intents and purposes should be the twilight of his career. After sixteen seasons in the Association, he’s finally making his first appearance in the Finals, looking to add that elusive Larry O’Brien trophy to his considerable trophy case. It’s quite a turn of events for a player who has oftentimes been defined by his teams’ (sensational) failures in the Playoffs, along with the litany of injuries that he’s suffered in the postseason. Though this particular run has certainly left it’s mark on his body, with a bruised shoulder hampering him throughout the First Round against the Los Angeles Lakers before COVID-19 cost him the first two games of the Western Conference Finals against the Clippers, it’s been nothing short of ironic that his side has unquestionably benefitted from unfortunate injuries to their competition; the Lakers’ Anthony Davis missed nearly three whole games with a sore hamstring, while the Nuggets and Clippers were without both Jamal Murray and Kawhi Leonard for the entirety of their respective series. (Head Coach) Monty Williams, who coached Paul back in his early days in New Orleans, must be elated with the growth of his charges, with Booker looking more and more like a coldblooded assassin with each passing game (despite playing through a broken nose), and Ayton beginning to realize his lofty potential; the latter has seriously impressed in these Playoffs, averaging 16.2 points on a stellar 70.6% shooting from the field, along with 11.8 rebounds, outperforming more heralded big men such as the aforementioned Davis, Andre Drummond, and (2020-2021 MVP) Nikola Jokic. Furthermore, his miraculous finish off an inbound lob as time expired to best the Clippers in Game Two of Western Conference Finals was arguably the defining moment of the Playoffs thus far. However, it all comes back to Paul, and it’s difficult imagining this team failing at this point with their fate in his very capable hands; with the opportunity to close out the series on the road against Los Angeles (whom he spent six seasons with), CP3 authored arguably the greatest performance of his venerable career, torching his former employers for FORTY-ONE points on 16-of-24 shooting (66.7%), including a torrid 7-of-8 from beyond the arc (87.5%), along with eight assists and ZERO turnovers. Furthermore, in the Playoffs as a whole he has dished out 8.7 dimes and committed only 1.6 turnovers, meaning that these games have in large part been played at Phoenix’s pace, with Paul operating like a proverbial surgeon in the Halfcourt. As we touched on earlier, it should be interesting how this series plays out with Milwaukee, particularly given the status of the aforementioned Antetokounmpo; though the Suns narrowly triumphed in their two meetings during the regular season, they were both very high-scoring affairs with veteran floor general averaging 25.0 points on 50.0% shooting, 5.0 rebounds, and 10.0 assists and committing a scant total of just three turnovers.