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Who Has the Most at Stake in NBA Finals Game 6?

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistJuly 20, 2021

MILWAUKEE, WI - JULY 11: Chris Paul #3 of the Phoenix Suns and Giannis Antetokounmpo #34 of the Milwaukee Bucks look on during Game Three of the 2021 NBA Finals on July 11, 2021 at the Fiserv Forum Center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2021 NBAE (Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images).
Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

The new-blood NBA Finals featuring the Phoenix Suns, Milwaukee Bucks and no previous champions has provided plenty of highlights from both sides.

Those from the Bucks are probably fresher in mind, as they've won three straight to take a 3-2 lead heading into Game 6 in Milwaukee. Now, much of the pressure is on the Suns, especially 16-year veteran Chris Paul.

According to ESPN Stats & Info, he's closing in on some unfortunate history:

ESPN Stats & Info @ESPNStatsInfo

Chris Paul is on the verge of becoming the first player to lose four best-of-7 series in which his team led 2-0. The only other player with three best-of-7 series losses in which his team led 2-0 is former teammate Blake Griffin. https://t.co/XyieZkCSvQ

FiveThirtyEight's projection system gives the Bucks a 60 percent chance to win Game 6 (and a 75 percent chance to win the series). And if those numbers prove prophetic, expect plenty of scapegoating of CP3.

He seems like the most obvious answer to the question in the headline, but there are arguments for others.

             

6. Devin Booker

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Fair or not, a hefty mantle has been placed on the shoulders of Devin Booker over the course of this postseason. His raw production, including 27.7 points, 4.5 assists and 2.1 threes in his first playoff run, has even led to some Kobe Bryant comparisons.

When asked about it by ESPN's Richard Jefferson, Booker deflected.

"I didn't make that comparison myself," Booker said. "...I just leave it at what he's done for me as a mentor, and the advice that he's left me with. So, I try to take bits and pieces of his mentality and his approach, but I should never be compared to Kobe Bryant."

After back-to-back 40-point performances in Games 4 and 5, it's not hard to see why the comparison has surfaced. And two more massive performances would make it even tougher for Booker to avoid.

But if the Bucks win the series and Booker is less than spectacular, people shouldn't be eager to load up that mantle with anything else.

He's 24 years old and playing in his first postseason. If you could go back in time to tell even the biggest Booker critics that he'd make it to the Finals and average nearly 30 points, he or she would almost certainly be impressed.

Booker has already exceeded expectations. And while it's never easy to get back to the Finals, he'll make more playoff appearances. This Game 6 is still part of the first chapter.

        

5. Mike Budenholzer

Very few coaches' seats have moved from hot to cold (and vice versa) as many times as Mike Budenholzer's over the past couple years. 

He brought instant credibility to the Bucks in 2018-19, adding 16 wins and securing his second Coach of the Year award. But much of the blame for early flameouts in the 2019 and 2020 postseasons understandably fell at his feet.

An unwillingness to deviate from defensive schemes or up the minutes for stars like Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton were his biggest offenses, but both seem behind him now.

After averaging 33.0 minutes in his past two playoff runs, Giannis is at 37.9 in 2021. And Budenholzer is using him as a screener more often than he has in the past.

Of course, two terrible performances in Games 6 and 7 could turn the heat up on that seat again, but getting this close will probably keep Bud safe for a bit.

         

4. Jrue Holiday

For most of this postseason, Jrue Holiday's offensive production has been a roller coaster. But his defense has been steady throughout, and some of those highs have won Milwaukee games.

The most striking example may well have just come in Game 5, when Holiday had 27 points and 13 assists, was plus-14 in a four-point win and came up with the steal and assist that led to Antetokounmpo's win-sealing dunk.

NBA @NBA

Jrue’s steal. Jrue’s eyes. Giannis’ slam. Giannis’ reaction. #PhantomCam #ThatsGame https://t.co/AwqeiomJNf

"He trusted me," Giannis later said of the play. "He knew that I'm going to finish the play, and that says a lot to me."

The synergy between those two has been visible throughout the playoffs. The development of that synergy—and how they've helped the Bucks reach the Finals—probably makes the trade that landed Holiday worth it, though some may be tempted to relitigate that if Phoenix wins the series.

A title, whether in Game 6 or 7, instantly makes the deal a win for the Bucks, regardless of what else happens over the course of Holiday's time in Milwaukee. Three first-round picks and two pick swaps are a lot, but every team in the league would give up that much if they knew it would lead to a championship.

           

3. Khris Middleton

Like Holiday and Booker, Middleton may have already ended a narrative by getting to this point. He's averaging 23.9 points and 5.1 assists this postseason. He's also tied for the playoff lead in total points scored in the clutch (defined as the last five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime when the game is within five points).

The push to get him into the Finals MVP conversation is probably a little contrived (Giannis is averaging 32.2 points, 13.0 rebounds, 5.6 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.2 blocks in the series, for crying out loud), but Middleton has mostly vanquished the "he's not good enough to be a No. 2 on a title team" takes.

If not, a win in Game 6, especially if Middleton has another big night, will finish it off.

In the middle of his prime, Middleton also will have established himself as one of the game's best wings. Stephen Curry is the only player in NBA history who matches or exceeds all of Middleton's career marks for points per game, assists per game and three-point percentage, but Middleton is rarely mentioned with the likes of Klay Thompson or even Booker.

A championship could change that.

            

2. Giannis Antetokounmpo

Like Booker, Giannis will get plenty more cracks at the postseason. His Hall of Fame resume is far from complete (even if Basketball Reference's Hall of Fame Probability model gives him a 48.5 percent chance to get in if he retired after Game 5). But a win in Game 6, a Finals MVP and his absurd production in this series will skyrocket Giannis up the all-time leaderboard for power forwards.

Over the past five years, Giannis has an 8.6 box plus/minus (BPM is "...a basketball box score-based metric that estimates a basketball player’s contribution to the team when that player is on the court," according to Basketball Reference). Compare that to the five-year peak BPMs of the following legends:

Adding a championship to Giannis' peak will set his apart from most (if not all) of the above. And if he has another double-digit BPM season in 2021-22 (he's had two in the past three years), his number will go up.

Of course, numbers are only part of the discussion. And the game that produces those numbers deserves a shoutout, too. In an era heavily dominated by outside shooting, Giannis is something of a throwback (while also more than earning the latter part of his Greek Freak nickname).

He physically dominates his opponents to a degree we haven't really seen since Shaquille O'Neal. And yet, his dominance is more about explosiveness and length than Shaq's brute-force fueled exploits.

He isn't likely to slow down the three-point revolution (almost no one can emulate what he does), but another championship for a team led by a big man should be a welcome change of pace.

             

1. Chris Paul

The suspense on this may have been killed by the intro, but there's really no other choice but CP3. He absolutely has the most at stake in Game 6.

He's been in the league for over a decade and a half. Not only is this his first Finals appearance, but this postseason also gave him just his second conference finals appearance. In all likelihood, this is CP3's last chance to be the undisputed leader of a championship team.

Given some of his and his teams' postseason meltdowns, a title for him might be even more sweet than one for other 16-year vets, too. All the aforementioned series he lost after going up 2-0 become footnotes with a couple more wins. If he has another high-turnover performance in Game 6 (he averaged 5.0 in Games 2, 3 and 4), it could be the headliner.

Whether he wins a title or not, Paul is undoubtedly a first-ballot Hall of Famer, but "Ringz Culture" will have its say when people are analyzing his career 20 years from now.

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