Updated B/R Staff NBA Finals Predictions
Following three straight double-digit victories in the 2021 NBA Finals, the Phoenix Suns and Milwaukee Bucks finally gave us a classic in Game 4.
With a chance to tie the series before heading back to Phoenix for Game 5, Milwaukee's stars more than rose to the occasion.
In the fourth quarter alone, Khris Middleton had 14 of his 40 points (including 10 in the final three minutes). In that same frame, Giannis Antetokounmpo added seven points, five rebounds, two assists, two steals and two blocks, one of which was an all-timer to break up an alley-oop to Deandre Ayton.
Those two had to be stellar, because Devin Booker put up 42 points of his own (without hitting a single three). He also got away with what would've been his sixth foul late in the fourth quarter. And though crew chief James Capers admitted the mistake after the game, officiating figures to be a storyline going forward.
The point guard battle will be in the spotlight, too. After a spectacular Game 1, in which he had 32 points, nine assists and two turnovers, Chris Paul has averaged 5.0 turnovers in Games 2 through 4. The defense of Jrue Holiday has a lot to do with that, but the 12-year veteran has had his own troubles on offense, with a 33.3 field-goal percentage in the series.
Now, with a maximum of three games left (two of which would be in Phoenix), it's time to assess all of the above, including what it means for the reminder of the matchup. Who will win the 2021 NBA Finals, and why? B/R's experts dive into the answer.
A Series Doesn't Really Start Until the Home Team Loses...
They say a playoff series doesn't really start until the home team loses.
That isn't going to happen until the very end.
So far, the Suns have won both games in Phoenix and the Bucks have won both games in Milwaukee. That will hold, with Phoenix taking Game 5 at home and Milwaukee evening it up again Tuesday at Fiserv Forum.
But in Game 7, you go with the team with the best player in the series, and it's pretty clear so far that it's been Giannis Antetokounmpo.
This particular Finals has been good enough that it's only right it goes the distance.
Khris Middleton's Activation Is Key
It's tempting to side with the Suns for two reasons.
First, they have home-court advantage, and clubs in this series have protected their home arenas like they're castles housing some ancient relic. Second, the backcourt combo of Devin Booker and Chris Paul is brilliant more often than not, and Deandre Ayton has finally uncovered the secret to consistency.
But Khris Middleton's activation in Game 4 felt massive, especially when Milwaukee already had the series' best player in Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Middleton's shot-making plus Antetokounmpo's overwhelming physical tools, with a little of Jrue Holiday's savvy and some support three-point splashing sprinkled in, feels like the franchise's long-awaited championship formula.
Still the Suns' Series
Because I am a person of principle, and also because I will not ruin the potential victory lap that comes with having picked Phoenix to win it all before the playoffs, I'm sticking with the Suns.
It helps, of course, that I actually believe it will be the Suns.
Elements of their performance through two games in Milwaukee left much to be desired. Devin Booker's off-night Game 3, Chris Paul's off night in Game 4, turnovers, failing to keep the Bucks in check on the break and the offensive glass, the need for a backup center who is both adequately stout and not named Frank Kaminsky—it all matters.
But the Suns have turned in one truly hopeless outing (Game 3). Even in Game 4, they had a late fourth-quarter lead despite getting far from their best top-to-bottom effort.
Deandre Ayton will provide more efficient offense. Mikal Bridges will have higher-volume nights. CP3 won't commit all the turnovers again, even if that left wrist is bothering him. Phoenix will get a game in which both of its stars play well at the same time. Its defense has, for the most part, been able to keep the non-Giannis Antetokounmpo division of the Bucks offense in check.
For now, the Suns still profile as the more complete team, even when their reserve frontcourt is small, and even when they're not getting to the basket enough by their own lower-volume standards. I'll adjust my Suns-in-six stance to Suns in seven, because Giannis is a deity and the Bucks in general are resilient. But my overarching Finals pick stands.
CP3 Comes Up Big in Game 5
The Suns will take Game 5. The trend of Giannis carrying the Bucks, but not quite enough offensive production from Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton, will become an issue yet again.
Chris Paul hasn't been sharp the last couple of games, but he's due for the bounce-back performance that will cement his legacy. The series will end in six games when the Bucks get enough from Antetokounmpo but not enough from his teammates.
Paul will drive the Suns to victory, but it will be Devin Booker who eventually wins Finals MVP.
Best Player on the Court Matters
Prior to the series, I leaned (ever so slightly) toward the Bucks pulling this off and pushing Giannis up a tier in the all-time-great debates he's sure to enter soon (if he hasn't already). After four games, the series feels even closer to a tossup.
And when opponents are this evenly matched, you sometimes just have to default to something. Determining it by home-court advantage, which the Suns have, would make sense. But instead, let's focus on who has the best player. That's Milwaukee.
This is Giannis' first chance to solidify legendary status, and with an absurd block like the one he had in Game 4 and averages of 32.3 points, 14.0 rebounds, 5.5 assists, 1.8 steals and 1.5 blocks, he's doing just that.
He'll dominate at least two of the next three games, and the Bucks will win their first title in 50 years (I think).