And then there were two. After years of dynasties, the National Basketball Association looks more competitive than it has ever been. Each playoff round was rich with its own unique storylines, and each team that was lucky enough to make it had its own argument for success. For the mid-market Milwaukee Bucks and the Phoenix Suns, it took grit, teamwork, and ultimately a bit of luck.
Fans chafed at the mere thought of a Finals series without the likes of Kevin Durant and LeBron James, especially after a litany of superstar injuries throughout the association. But here’s an objective truth: this is not the subpar finals matchup many are making it out to be. After years of star-studded big-market teams overpowering their way to the top, it’s a welcome sight to have two teams outlasting the opposition on the heels of smart, fundamental basketball.
Here’s a quick preview of what to expect ahead of Game 1 of the NBA Finals.
Bucks vs. Suns: Playoff stats
- 1st in defensive rating (105.0 points given up per 100 possessions)
- 1st in rebounds per game (49.9)
- 4th in net rating (+6.2)
- 4th in assists per game (22.8)
- 10th in effective field goal percentage (52.2 eFG%)
- 11th in offensive rating (111.2 points per 100)
- 2nd in defensive rating (106.7 points per 100)
- 2nd in net rating (+6.9)
- 3rd in assists per game (24.4)
- 4th in rebounds per game (44.1)
- 6th in effective field goal percentage (54.4 eFG%)
- 10th in offensive rating (113.6 points per 100)
Defense wins championships
That the two stingiest defenses ended up the last ones standing is a testament to the old basketball adage. Both the Bucks and the Suns sport stout, robust defenses anchored on the talents of their lanky and mobile bigs coupled with the service of mobile and malleable wings. Both teams have relied on hardline switching tactics down the stretch of close games to excellent results. It’s clear they’re both here by way of their defensive prowess.
The individual matchups alone show how much of a toss-up this series can be: PJ Tucker, Khris Middleton, and Jrue Holiday have what it takes to make life difficult for Devin Booker and Chris Paul, who will no doubt run multiple screens in search of more favorable matchups.
On the other end, Deandre Ayton, Jae Crowder, Mikal Bridges, and Torrey Craig have the girth and wherewithal to build the vaunted Giannis Wall and make the Greek Freak look like DeAndre Jordan. Crowder in particular has seen great success defending Giannis after holding him to 9-of-22 field goal shooting (40.9%) in last year’s playoff exit. Ayton is one of a few centers in the league who have the mass to slow down Giannis.
Defense isn’t about winning, after all; it’s about making sure the other team loses. For two middle-of-the-pack offensive teams, the better defense may just end up with a championship this season. Scoring efficiently and consistently will be an insurmountable challenge on both ends of the floor. Both teams will have to make each other work for every point.
It’s a shooter’s league
The cards are stacked against Milwaukee when it comes to the three-ball, and a quick look at the season series should tell you all you need to know.
The Phoenix Suns shot 48.4% and 40.5% from three-point range in both of their one-point wins over Milwaukee this season. They have a surplus of hyper defensive wings that can clamp the Bucks on one end and stroke the basketball from range on the other. Though none of their role players are elite shooters by any means, the consistent floor spacing they afford this team has made all the difference in allowing their star guards to operate offensively. But that was up against a regular-season Bucks team that labored to defend the three-point line.
Milwaukee has shown, perhaps for the first time, a willingness to adapt to their opponents’ schemes. Against Trae Young, Mike Budenholzer’s team toyed around with drop coverage for a time before it switched screens for practically the entire latter half of the series. In these playoffs, the Bucks held the opposition to just 34.4% shooting from downtown. Phoenix, however, did them one better with 32.6% conceded from beyond.
The Bucks, too, depended on their shooting to propel their offense all season long. Unfortunately, their range has seen a dry spell through the first three rounds of these playoffs. As it currently stands, they’re shooting a pitiful 31% from distance. A few players have gotten hot from beyond, to be sure, but the three-ball has just not been their friend as a team. Will Mike Budenholzer know when to wave the white flag on his ‘let it fly’ motto and let his dominant big men go to work?
Where will the points come from?
Owing to their prowess from mid-range, Chris Paul and Devin Booker may be the most equipped superstars to take down the Milwaukee Bucks on their own. The two guards have the well-developed arsenals to hit mid-range jumpers and floaters all game long to counter the patented drop coverage that Mike Budenholzer will surely throw at them.
Phoenix is a pick-and-roll team through and through. The Point God is good for any number of left elbow jumpers and alley-oops to Ayton on any given night, and it’s tough to imagine Brook Lopez getting stops once he’s forced to meet Paul at the three-point line. Paul looks sharper than ever and doesn’t look like he’ll be toying with his shot at an elusive title any time soon.
The Bucks will rely on the pick-and-roll too but will not have the benefit of elite shot-making to bail them out of good defenses in the half-court. Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton are fine scorers but have nowhere near the offensive capabilities of Booker and Paul. They will no doubt have to lean on the verticality and post game that Antetokounmpo, Lopez, and Bobby Portis bring to the table. We’ve seen it work against lesser defensive units like the Hawks, but it remains to be seen if Ayton’s mobility can snuff these plays out before they happen.
Middleton in particular has drawn well-deserved criticisms over his inconsistency. As quickly as he can heat up in a close match, he can also go cold. This is in stark contrast to the two Phoenix stars who can give you the same production any given night. If Antetokounmpo is indeed not seeing the floor in the first few games, Khash Money will have to put the team on his back for the third game in a row.
Nobody expected a Bucks vs. Suns matchup, and this is due in part to the balanced, almost nondescript caliber of basketball the two teams play. With two coaches whose lineages trace back to Gregg Popovich, it’s not at all a surprise that both teams like to share the rock and spread the wealth. Both the Bucks and the Suns like to swing the ball around the perimeter in search of the open man, and both teams like to cut in opportune moments as evidenced by their assist totals.
The midrange versatility of Paul and Booker is all the leverage Monty Williams needs, but history has shown the Suns’ system knows how to keep opposing defenders on their toes. They’re always running actions to get their stars good looks, as proven by their third-ranked assists per game.
Team basketball means trusting your teammates more than anything else, and bench production will be important in this matchup on both ends of the floor when the stars go cold. Both teams have eight players who play within their roles; the Suns have 8 who are capable of chipping in at least 8 markers a night, while Milwaukee has 6 averaging double figures in scoring.
The Milwaukee Bucks as of late seem to have rediscovered their identity sans Antetokounmpo. Though it’s only been two games, resurgent performances by the Bucks’ starters have shown they’re at their best when they work together. Their balanced and disciplined showing against Atlanta will have to replicate itself if they want a chance against this well-oiled machine without their two-time MVP.
Will the Greek Freak play?
As in most basketball discussions, the X-factor is still the presence of superstars. Phoenix will have their two best players in Paul and Booker, but it remains to be seen if the Bucks’ own superstar will be available to play in this series. Giannis Antetokounmpo is the best basketball player still in contention for an NBA title. His availability and overall health will be the major swinging factor in this series, with the Bucks holding an 8-5 record without him during both the regular season and playoffs.
The 26-year-old has been nothing short of dominant through the Bucks’ playoff run, averaging 28.2 points, 12.7 rebounds, and 5.2 assists on 55.1 percent shooting. He also dropped 47 and 33 points in their two matchups against the Suns this season. His Bucks still lost both games, but both contests came down to the last shot.
It’s tough to come up with a prediction when so much is still unknown about the status of arguably the best basketball player in the world. After years of playoff disappointment, this writer argues that experience will give the Bucks the upper hand versus the surging Suns. As is the future of the Bucks organization, everything depends on Giannis Antetokounmpo in this series. Assuming he is clear to play for the better half of the series, the Milwaukee Bucks are the better defensive team and can rally behind the best player in the series. Bucks in seven.