One of the biggest talking points going into this year’s season was parity. The NBA is often a top-heavy league led by super teams and big markets, but this year the underdogs have stepped into the spotlight.
There have been numerous different examples of parity over the course of the past 7 months, but the biggest one is about to unfold right in front of our eyes: Suns vs Bucks.
The Phoenix Suns have never won an NBA championship in their history, and really were not thought of as a threatening team until last year’s bubble. Since then though through acquisitions and in-house improvements, the Suns have taken it to an entirely new level, finishing with a 51-21 record and claiming the second seed in the Western Conference. Admittedly, they’ve gotten some help with injuries in every series they’ve played in, but that doesn’t make them any less of a juggernaut. They have a superstar in Devin Booker, a veteran leader in Chris Paul, and a supporting cast of balanced players that have clearly bought into the plan that head coach Monty Williams put into place.
The Milwaukee Bucks have had a similarly quiet history, only winning one championship in franchise history way back in 1971. Unlike Phoenix though, the Bucks have been a contender in the East for years now through MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and supporting pieces like Khris Middleton; they just haven’t been able to get over the hump. In many ways the stars aligned for the Bucks in 2021, entering the playoffs with less pressure than the previous few seasons, and playing a few favourable teams during their run. The Bucks took full advantage of a watered-down Heat team in the first round, and looked comfortable against an in-over-their-head Hawks team in the Conference Finals, but that doesn’t tell the entire story. The Bucks pulled off an improbable 7-game upset over the title-favourite Brooklyn Nets in the second round, and from that point on it almost seemed as if they were destined to make it this far. This year more than any in the past, the Bucks have created an offence that can actually translate to the postseason, and have gotten incredible production from the players around Giannis, who in the past have struggled to take over when the Greek Freak got swarmed by multiple defenders.
The Importance of Game 1
It may sound ridiculous, but Game 1 might be a near must-win for the Suns. Just a few hours before tip, Antetokounmpo has been officially listed as questionable, with many believing he won’t play. It’s the finals, and so he may elect to play hobbled if that’s what it takes, but the fact of the matter is that the Bucks will be getting a far-from-100% Antetokounmpo tonight, and that’s the best-case scenario. Whether he plays or not, the Suns have to take advantage on their home floor and attack early, as without a healthy Greek Freak they are easily the superior team on paper, and will have the best player on the court in Booker.
A stat that always comes around this time of year is that when the home team wins Game 1 of a series, they go on to win that series 85% of the time. That number almost seems too high to be true, but the reality is that Game 1 is where the entire tone is set, and if Milwaukee somehow went on the road and stole the first game with a compromised Giannis, it could put the Suns in trouble before the series even really gets going.
The Importance of Giannis
Milwaukee’s win percentage this season jumps by over 10 points when Giannis plays compared to when he’s sitting, proving his value to anyone who somehow still had doubts. The NBA is a super star league, and a lot of the time the team with the best player on the court wins, as the final few minutes narrow down to clutch contests where the biggest names earn their keep.
If Giannis plays, then the Bucks easily have the best player on the court, and the Suns have to change their entire defensive game plan. If he doesn’t, Devin Booker becomes the best player, and the Suns defence can focus on Milwaukee’s perimeter shooters due to their lack of dynamic inside scoring.
The Supporting Cast
As much as it is about the stars, you need a strong supporting cast to win, and in this year’s finals, the two seem very even.
For the Bucks, Middleton has provided the playoff performance fans have been waiting for as the #2 option, and Jrue Holiday has stepped up in a massive way with his new team. Pat Connaughton is always a threat from deep, Brook Lopez has been as good as ever, and PJ Tucker has been a nice addition to a squad that could always use some grit on the defensive side of the ball. This is the best cast the Bucks have assembled in this era, and that’s why there’s so much pressure on them to win even with an ailing superstar.
The Suns have assembled a very strong team as well, with many contributors other than Booker and Paul. Former #1 pick Deandre Ayton has started to figure things out at the NBA level with the help of his mentor CP3, and Mikal Bridges has given them solid production almost every single night of the postseason. Beyond them, Jae Crowder and Cameron Payne have been crucial pieces, and Dario Saric is able to catch fire at any moment if the defence falls asleep at the wheel.
The most exciting thing about these Finals may be the fact that both the Suns and the Bucks know this could be the best opportunity they get. In a league like the NBA where teams are constantly retooling and superstars keep moving, there’s no doubt that both conferences will be even more competitive next season. It’s hard to win three rounds, and both finalists have done so without a traditional super team, proving that team basketball can still lead to success in today’s game. Chris Paul is a reminder of how hard it is to get to this stage, and to never take moments like these for granted, because no amount of skill can get you to the promised land alone, you will always need a little bit of luck on your side. No matter who wins, the 2021 NBA Champion will be deserving, and will be a group comprised of players that put the team before themselves; completely buying into the team’s philosophy despite injuries and numerous other distractions.
The quest to crown this year’s champs gets underway with Game 1 on Tuesday night in Phoenix, Arizona.