Previewing the 2021 NBA Finals between the Milwaukee Bucks and the Phoenix Suns

Not many people saw this coming. Although the Bucks were the favorites to come out of the East at the beginning of the season, that quickly changed with the arrival of James Harden in Brooklyn. On the other hand, many had one of the Los Angeles teams making it out of the West, with the Kawhi Leonard-less Los Angeles Clippers fighting valiantly before falling to the Suns in the conference finals. Now that the dust has settled, the Milwaukee Bucks and the Phoenix Suns will meet in the 2021 NBA Finals kicking off a highly intriguing matchup if their two regular-season encounters are any indication. Phoenix won both contests by a total of two points, highlighted by an overtime nail-biter back in April. However, Milwaukee’s two-time MVP and last year’s Defensive Player of the Year Giannis Antetokounmpo is currently sidelined with a hyperextended knee, giving the Suns a considerable advantage. However, some reports claimed that the superstar forward may have been available for a Game 7 if the series against the Atlanta Hawks went the distance, according to Yahoo Sports’ Chris Haynes.  

How will the penultimate series play out and who will be crowned the 2021 NBA Champions?  

Image credited to Michael Tipton, distributed under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license

Breaking down the matchup

This series may not be a high-scoring affair, given Phoenix leads all playoff teams in defensive rating with Milwaukee right on their heels in second place. Giannis scored a combined 80 points against the Suns during their two regular-season contests, dismantling the formidable Phoenix defense. However, the Bucks lost the matchup despite Giannis’ game-high 47 points. Holiday was available in the next matchup after missing the first due to injury, scoring 25 points, but Milwaukee was once again unable to come out on top in the overtime thriller.

I think he was the best thing to happen to my career. I can say that every day.

deandre ayton on chris paul

If Milwaukee wants to win this series, they must find a way to stop Chris Paul. The engine of the Phoenix offense, Paul has been nothing short of magnificent this postseason. The future Hall of Famer has revitalized this Suns team, leading them to the Finals after missing the playoffs for the past ten years. Speaking in a postgame news conference during the Western Conference Finals, Phoenix center DeAndre Ayton confirms as much, stating, “I think he was the best thing to happen to my career. I can say that every day.” Luckily, the Bucks have their own star guard in Holiday, who will be saddled with the unenviable task of slowing down Paul. Holiday happens to be one of the best defensive guards in the league and is certainly up to the job. However, he has had a tough time shooting the ball this postseason, with an overall field goal percentage of only 42.3% compared to 50.3% during the regular season. 

He will also have to spend time guarding Paul’s backcourt mate Devin Booker, who has been excellent in his first playoff appearance. Booker has taken his game to another level this postseason, averaging 27 points per game and will do everything he can to lead the Suns to their first-ever NBA title. PJ Tucker, defensive stalwart and a former teammate of Booker, may prove invaluable to Milwaukee’s game plan to slow down the star guard. Though Tucker will spend some time checking Booker, Holiday and Khris Middleton might share most of the responsibility as the Suns like to use him off the ball quite a bit. An older Tucker may have trouble chasing him around screens, limiting the Bucks’ ability to slow down the Phoenix star. 

Middleton will also pose a challenge to the Suns due to his shot-making ability. Mikal Bridges, arguably the Suns’ best perimeter defender and a rising two-way stud, should be able to slow down Middleton while making him work hard on defense. Crowder has also proved his defensive prowess over the years, guarding multiple positions with ease. Both Bridges and Crowder can gamble when needed on defense, knowing DeAndre Ayton is behind them using his 7’6” wingspan to deter opponents from driving the lane. He has also improved his perimeter defense, which will allow him to defend Milwaukee’s Brook Lopez and Bobby Portis, who can punish the Suns with their three-point shooting if left open. 

If Giannis returns sometime during the series as expected, Ayton will most likely draw the assignment of guarding the Greek Freak with Crowder backing him up. The former MVP is tough to stop one-on-one and the Suns will need a team effort to slow him down. During their two regular-season matchups, Ayton spent the most time guarding Antetokounmpo and was surprisingly effective. According to official data, Ayton managed to hold the Greek Freak to 41% shooting on 24 total attempts. Ayton has the strength and the smarts to match up well with the Bucks star forward and may be even more effective this time around, considering Giannis may not be at full strength.

There is a lot at stake here since the Suns have not been in the Finals since 1993 and the Bucks last clinched a Finals berth in 1974. Even more interesting is that not a single player from either team has ever won a championship before, ensuring history will be made, regardless of the outcome.

Prediction: The Phoenix Suns defeat the Milwaukee Bucks in 7 games


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