9:00 PM EST, ABC – Line: Suns -4.5, Over/Under: 220.5
With Game One of the 2021 NBA Finals in the books, it’s clear that only one of these teams was ready for the grandest of stages, as the Milwaukee Bucks look to get back into this series before it shifts to Wisconsin, while the Phoenix Suns have designs of building upon their lead in Game Two from Phoenix Suns Arena in Phoenix, Arizona. After finally ending a 47-year drought, the Bucks (46-26, 3rd in Eastern Conference) find themselves back in the NBA Finals for the first time since 1974, but they had better get over that feeling of elation quickly lest they continue to wait to hoist their first Larry O’Brien Trophy since 1971. After back-to-back postseason failures led to some fairly dramatic changes, Milwaukee was left better suited for the Playoffs, a notion that has been validated throughout their trek to these Finals. In the First Round, they mercilessly swept the Miami Heat, who upset them in last year’s Bubble in Orlando, outscoring them by a whopping EIGHTY points over the course of the final three games of the series. Next up were the star-studded Brooklyn Nets in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, whom they outlasted in an entertaining seven-game epic that could only be described as survival of the fittest; rallying back from an 0-2 deficit, the Bucks would outlast the depleted Nets, who were without the likes of both (All-Stars) Kyrie Irving and James Harden for multiple games, and withstanding some herculean performances from (former MVP) Kevin Durant, winning the final chapter on the road at Barclays Center in Overtime (115-111). As the top-seeded Philadelphia 76ers coincidentally fell to the upstart Atlanta Hawks in the other Eastern Semifinal, the path to the Finals appeared clearer than ever, though their next opponent would prove peskier than many initially thought. (Head Coach) Mike Budenholzer’s charges were upset in Game One (116-113) and found themselves in the middle of a deadlocked series after four chapters, before being dealt what figured to be a crushing blow in the form of (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) suffering a hyperextension to his left knee. The Greek International would miss the final two games of that series, but fortunately for the Bucks, the supporting cast was up to the challenge, with the likes of (veterans) Khris Middleton (20.4 PTS, 47.6% FG, 41.4% 3FG, 6.0 REB, 5.4 AST, 1.1 STL, 18.2 PER), Jrue Holiday (17.7 PTS, 50.3% FG, 39.2% 3FG, 4.5 REB, 6.1 AST, 1.6 STL, 20.0 PER), and 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) all playing their part in triumphing over the Hawks, setting up a date with the Suns this past Tuesday Night. Heading into that affair, much of the concern was in regards to Antetokounmpo’s health, and rightfully so; the 26-year old averaged a robust 40.0 points on 60.0% shooting from the field, along with 9.5 rebounds and 3.5 assists in two meetings with Phoenix during the regular season, 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%). Receiving around the clock treatment, the five-time All-NBA did everything within his power to participate in Game One, and after being initially labeled doubtful, he was then upgraded to questionable, and hours before tipoff a game time decision, before ultimately receiving the green light from the team’s medical staff. So would the titan’s return be enough to spur Milwaukee to success in Game One? Well… not exactly. The Greek Freak certainly started off strong, showing no ill-effects of his tender knee en route to posting eight points on 3-of-4 shooting (75.0%), along with five rebounds and a pair of assists in the First Quarter, though overall he would only attempt eleven field goals in just over thirty-five minutes of action, while continuing to struggle from the charity stripe; with the boisterous home fans relentlessly (and swiftly) counting to ten every time he walked to the line, Antetokounmpo knocked down just 7-of-12 attempts (58.3%), which when you consider the team’s overall struggles in this regard (9-of-16 FT) proved to be the biggest difference between the two sides. In a 118-105 affair, the hosts knocked down a near-perfect 25-of-26 free-throws (96.2%), outscoring the visitors by a staggering sixteen points. Furthermore, while Middleton certainly carried his weight (29 PTS, 7 REB, 4 AST), Holiday was little more than an afterthought on both ends of the floor, finishing with a mere ten points on 4-of-14 shooting (28.6%), including 0-of-4 from the perimeter. And then there was Lopez, who despite scoring seventeen points was routinely taken advantage of in the Pick & Roll by the Suns’ spectacular Backcourt, forcing Budenholzer to relinquish his team’s size advantage and add another Guard to mix. This adjustment did bear fruit, with (sharpshooter) Brynn Forbes (10.0 PTS, 47.3% FG, 45.2% 3FG, 1.6 REB, 0.6 AST, 12.8 PER) scoring six quick points in just under twelve minutes of play, a period in which the Bucks managed to trim an 18-point deficit down to a more manageable seven. Unfortunately it wouldn’t be enough, as Phoenix pulled away midway through the Fourth Quarter, leaving Milwaukee to face an early deficit after Game One for the third consecutive series. With that said, this is a team that has proved it’s resiliency time and time again throughout these Playoffs, and there is plenty of time get back into this series.
Meanwhile, in their first trip to the NBA Finals since 1993, the Suns (51-21, 2nd in Western Conference) certainly made the most of the event in Game One, running away with a convincing 118-105 victory. Arguably the most miraculous Finals participant in recent memory, Phoenix has reached this point after missing the Playoffs in each of the last ELEVEN years, becoming the first team in NBA History to advance to this stage after missing the postseason the year beforehand. With that said, their impressive performance in last Fall’s Bubble (8-0) provided us with a glimpse of what (General Manager) James Jones and (Head Coach) Monty Williams had been building, and with the addition of (All-NBA 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) to the mix their fortunes would rise exponentially. This is a side that improved by a staggering SEVENTEEN games this season, with the presence of the 36-year old Floor General accelerating the development of their young nucleus exponentially; (All-Star Guard) Devin Booker (25.6 PTS, 48.4% FG, 34.0% 3FG, 4.2 REB, 4.3 AST, 0.8 STL, 19.2 PER) has blossomed into a bonfide superstar, while (former No. One Overall Pick) Deandre Ayton (14.4 PTS, 62.6% FG, 10.5 REB, 1.4 AST, 0.6 STL, 1.2 BLK, 20.3 PER) is emerging as significant two-way presence at Center, with a slew of other talented youngsters growing with each passing game. Entering the Playoffs as the Two Seed out West, Williams’ charges upset the reigning NBA Champion, Los Angeles Lakers, in convincing fashion, before sweeping the Denver Nuggets and (2020-2021 MVP) Nikola Jokic in four games. The Los Angeles Clippers proved to be a more difficult challenge, even without the presence of (All-NBA Forward) Kawhi Leonard (knee), though the Suns manage to fend them off in six games, embarrassing them 130-103 on their home floor. At this point all of the storylines have revolved around Paul, who in his sixteenth season in the National Basketball Association is finally making his first appearance in the NBA Finals. Simply put, a Larry O’Brien Trophy is the last missing piece in this guy’s portfolio; he was the 2005-2006 Rookie of the Year, an 11-time All-Star, 10-time All-NBA Selection, 9-time All-Defensive Selection, 4-time Assist Champion, and 6-time Steals Champion, along with an Olympic Gold Medal winner, but with all that said he has routinely been criticized for his team’s repeated and oftentimes sensational collapses in the Playoffs, many of which coincided with his own untimely injuries. Now on his third team in as many years, Paul has made the most of this postseason, overcoming a bruised shoulder that cost him a game and some change against the Lakers and a positive COVID-19 case that robbed him of the first two outings against the Clippers, to average 19.0 points on 48.4% shooting from the field and 42.9% from beyond the arc, along with 3.9 rebounds, 8.7 assists, and 1.3 steals, while committing just 1.6 turnovers during this run. After seeing off his former employers with 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, he promptly turned his attentions to the Bucks, whom he took apart with surgical precision in Tuesday Night’s victory. Though relatively quiet in the First Quarter, Paul exploded in the Third Quarter, scoring sixteen of his thirty-two points on 6-off-7 shooting (85.7%), routinely toying with the aforementioned Lopez and other Bucks’ bigs within the Pick & Roll. Apart from the veteran, Booker and Ayton enjoyed very strong performances, with the former totaling twenty-seven points, overcoming a poor shooting night (8-of-21 FG, 1-of-8 3FG) by taking residence at the Free-Throw Line where he knocked down all ten of his attempts, while the latter continued his postseason coming out party, posting twenty-two points on an efficient 8-of-10 shooting (80.0%) and nineteen rebounds. The 22-year old joined some esteemed company, becoming only the second player since the venerable Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to score total twenty points and fifteen rebounds on over 75.0% shooting in his first game in the Finals. Furthermore, his overall Playoff stat line of 16.5 points on 71.1% shooting and 12.2 rebounds is the first of it’s kind since Shaquille O’Neal helped propel the Heat to their first NBA Title back in 2006. The rest of the supporting cast also performed well in their first Finals appearance, with the likes of (young two-way sensation) Mikal Bridges (13.5 PTS, 54.3% FG, 42.5% 3FG, 4.3 REB, 2.1 AST, 1.1 STL, 16.4 PER), (sharpshooter) Cameron Johnson (9.6 PTS, 42.0% FG, 34.9% 3FG, 3.3 REB, 1.4 AST, 11.8 PER), and (journeyman) Cameron Payne (8.4 PTS, 48.4% FG, 44.0% 3FG 2.4 REB, 3.6 AST, 17.4 PER) combining for thirty-four points on 12-of-27 shooting (44.4%), including 6-of-13 from downtown (46.1%). Something to keep and eye on heading into tonight’s showdown is if Phoenix able to continue their dominance from the charity stripe. we touched upon earlier how the hosts held a sizable advantage in this regard, which is really saying something because Milwaukee is not a team that is accustomed to sending their opponents to the line; no team yielded fewer free-throw attempts this season than the Bucks (18.8), and the Suns routinely created ways to get to the stripe. Needless to say, this is place where they’ve managed to dole out quite a bit of damage in these Playoffs, shooting a sterling 87.0% thus far, which puts them on pace for the highest such mark in postseason history.