B/R Expert Predictions for Suns-Bucks 2021 NBA Finals
And then there were two. After a long, winding, injury-infested road through their respective conferences, the Phoenix Suns and Milwaukee Bucks are set to square off in the 2021 NBA Finals.
Phoenix enters the championship round having bested the Los Angeles Lakers, Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Clippers. Opposing stars were banged up in each series, but the Suns have grappled with their own bundle of concerns, including a Chris Paul shoulder injury and COVID-19 absence, Devin Booker's broken nose and even food poisoning for Cameron Johnson. Making it this far is a testament to their star power, depth and two-way balance. Deandre Ayton has become a household name. Booker's superstar turn is now universally accepted as a matter of fact. CP3 remains the Point God—and, in Year 16, is making his first-ever trip to the NBA Finals.
Milwaukee comes to the Larry O’Brien fight after exacting sweet, series-sweeping revenge on the Miami Heat, surviving the Brooklyn Nets and fending off the plucky Atlanta Hawks. James Harden, Kyrie Irving and Trae Young all battled injuries in the previous best-of-seven sets, but the Bucks aren't much better for wear. Donte DiVincenzo suffered a season-ending ankle injury, and Giannis Antetokounmpo missed the final two games of the Eastern Conference Finals with a left knee issue. Jrue Holiday, Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez and, yes, Bobby Portis all played mission-critical roles in navigating his absence.
This matchup profiles as the ultimate chess match if both teams are at full strength. There will be no shortage of storylines either way. How healthy is Giannis? What about Booker's nose? Which supporting cast has the edge? Will Suns head coach Monty Williams continue pulling all the right strings? Is Bucks head honcho Mike Budenholzer getting enough credit? Will featuring two non-glamour markets in the Finals be a blessing in disguise for the NBA?
Game 1 is July 6. The time for analyzing and predicting every nook and cranny of this Bucks-Suns showdown is now. So, Bleacher Report's panel of NBA experts are here to do just that. We'll assume Antetokounmpo doesn't play.
Will Giannis Play?
The key question on every fan and Vegas bookmaker’s mind: will Giannis play? Before Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals, Chris Haynes reported Giannis would attempt to play if the series went 7. Is that a good sign for the Bucks? Unquestionably. Does it guarantee he’ll play? Not necessarily.
The previous reporting from ESPN did indicate there is no structural damage to the knee. You don’t mess with knees, especially when it’s your franchise cornerstone. But if Milwaukee trainers, the front office and Giannis all agree he’s good to go, the series will take a very different shape.
This Is CP3’s Defining Moment
Paul is arguably the best true point guard of his generation, but every year either he’d get injured at the worst possible moment, a key teammate would go down, or he’d make one fundamental mistake that would cost his team a series.
In his 16th year, Paul is on the cusp of cementing his place in NBA history with a title. And while the Suns have benefitted from other teams suffering injuries, Paul has been on the unlucky side of that so many times; nothing can diminish this accomplishment.
Beyond his play on the court, Paul has capably represented the National Basketball Players Association since 2013. He’s kept the NBA out of lockout. He has led teams deep into the playoffs. Finally, I believe he’ll get his ring.
Is This Really a Subpar Finals Matchup?
Injuries have been the biggest storyline of the playoffs, which is a bummer, and it will cast a big shadow over the Finals with the two-time MVP still out of commission. But despite that, there’s a lot here that’s going to make this series more compelling than it would seem on paper.
For one thing, we finally get to see Paul in the Finals. For another, with every round that has gone by, the Suns’ “inexperienced” young core has proven themselves up to whatever raised stakes come with advancing to another stage.
And on the Bucks’ side, they’ve found a way to get it done even with this injury to one of the best players in the world. At different points, the likes of Lopez and Portis have stepped up to fill the void behind the two remaining members of their Big Three. The Suns are more talented than the Hawks, so it will be a tougher challenge, but the series won’t be a walk by any means. It would be better with Giannis, but there’s plenty to enjoy regardless.
Predicting the Unsung Heroes
For the Bucks: With no Antetokounmpo because of a hyperextended knee, Middleton, Holiday and Lopez will all need to step up to carry the offense in his absence. But you know those guys.
One potential Finals hero for Milwaukee? Portis, who has the scoring chops and no-fear attitude needed to be a force as the team's new starting power forward. Although primarily the Bucks' sixth man this year, Portis averaged 14.4 points, 11.4 rebounds, 1.4 steals and shot a blistering 42.1 percent from three in his seven regular season starts.
For the Suns: Jae Crowder will be called on to do a little bit of everything for Phoenix, and his experience from last year's Finals and the Miami Heat's takedown of the Bucks in the second-round will certainly be needed. Crowder will likely be one the primary defenders on Middleton, who will be the go-to scorer for Milwaukee if Giannis Antetokounmpo is still out and serve as a floor spacer for Paul and Booker on the other end. While he can absolutely run cold at times, Crowder has shown the ability to get white hot in previous playoff series.
Devin Booker Will Take over
Booker is now a household name because of Phoenix’s impressive postseason run. He has scored in bunches, gotten in the face of league MVP Nikola Jokic as well as played with a busted nose, all of which has elevated the 24-year-old’s appeal far beyond the Valley of the Sun.
His scoring, leadership and toughness, will all come to the forefront as Booker officially makes that leap from being a talented up-and-comer, to an established star with a championship under his belt.
Paul will be the best point guard on the floor every game. But while he will dominate, there will be another Sun guard who rises up to be the best player in the series.
Biggest Concern for the Suns
One word: complacency. It was evident during the Western Conference Championship celebrations just how much was weighing on the franchise’s shoulders. It can be hard to bounce back from an emotional toll like that. I am on record saying too much emotion before the final goal is achieved is never a good sign. Suns head coach, Monty Williams said that he and assistant coach Randy Ayers shed some tears thinking about how far they have come since New Orleans.
Now they have to turn around and get it together for a Milwaukee team that will be playing pressure-free basketball because of the injury to Giannis. The Bucks are different without Giannis, of course, but they are still capable of playing high level basketball. Middleton can get off on anyone in the league and Holiday is as capable a perimeter defender as anyone on the planet. If he can just take out one of Paul or Booker, the Bucks will have a great chance to win an NBA championship.
But ultimately, I believe Paul will keep the young guys on that Suns roster focused on the prize. He will cement himself as one of the greatest point guards to ever play in the NBA. Deandre Ayton will earn himself a max contract in the process, and Mikal Bridges will line himself up for a significant future payday as well. Champagne will be spilled in the “Valley of the Sun.”
How Coaching Moves Could Decide the Series
The game on the court is one thing, but the chess moves between Williams and Mike Budenholzer could decide the series. Budenholzer will have to decide if he can stay with the aggressive switching scheme the Bucks used to get past the Hawks. It is one thing for Lopez to switch onto Kevin Huerter, it is another against Paul or Booker.
Williams has been great drawing up plays after timeouts to put the Suns in scoring positions. However Milwaukee has thethird best points per possession defense after timeouts. Williams will have to be particularly clever about what he runs with every chance they have.
Both coaches will have tough decisions to make in this series and it could decide who holds up the Larry O’Brien trophy at the end of the season.
Expert NBA Finals Winner Predictions
(reminder: we're assuming Giannis doesn't play)
Mo Dakhil: Suns in 6
Jason Dumas: Suns in 6
Sherrod Blakely: Suns in 6
Greg Swartz:Suns in 6
Eric Pincus: Suns in 5
Dan Favale: Suns in 6
Sean Highkin: Suns in 6
Chris Trenchard: Bucks in 7
Finals MVP Picks
(reminder: we're assuming Giannis doesn't play)
Mo Dakhil: Chris Paul
Jason Dumas: Chris Paul
Sherrod Blakely: Devin Booker
Greg Swartz: Chris Paul
Eric Pincus: Chris Paul
Dan Favale: Devin Booker
Sean Highkin: Chris Paul
Chris Trenchard: Khris Middleton