“Wait? Who is in the NBA finals this year?”
Don’t worry, Broad + Liberty has been watching for you. If you are looking for our analysis of why we think this could be a particularly exciting NBA finals, or if you just want to grab some of the top story lines to bring up around the water cooler and pretend you are watching, check out our run down below:
How they got here:
It was a charmed season for the Phoenix Suns. Coming off a 34-39 record in the 2020 regular season, they waltzed their way into 51-21 2021—good for the second best record in the league. This leap in win percentage came with a leap in performance from Phoenix’s young stars—Deandre Ayton and Devin Booker—and with the acquisition of veteran point guard Chris Paul last off season.
The Suns first round matchup was against the defending champions, the LeBron James led Los Angles Lakers. Even though the often-touted Lakers sat atop Vegas’ title odds for much of the season, the Suns were able to beat them in six games before moving on to sweep this year’s league MVP, Nikola Jokic, and his Denver Nuggets in the second round. Finally, the Suns eliminated Paul George and the Clippers in a hard fought six game series, and now find themselves in the NBA finals for the first time in 28 years.
While it is true that the Suns were incredibly lucky this postseason, as every one of their playoff opponents was playing without one of its top two players, the Suns were the second highest seeded team for a reason. That reason is an electric offense that averaged 115.3 points per game this season. In a year marred by injuries for so many, the Suns enter the finals relatively healthy, and having only had to play 16 post-season games.
The star to watch:
At 35, Chris Paul is the 9th oldest active player in the NBA. In his 16 seasons, Paul has been an All Star 11 times, garnered five all NBA first team awards, and has led the league in assists four times and steals six times. The only thing missing from this hall of fame resume? An NBA finals appearance.
With an NBA finals victory, Paul will cement his legacy in the minds of many as one of the five greatest point guards of all time, and he will look to do it Chris Paul style. Look out for heady, veteran plays, brilliant assists, relentless scoring, and high-energy defense. In a recent State Farm commercial, Paul turned into a literal basketball, so he may try that move as well.
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Paul’s greatest value add might not even be his basketball skills: it was undeniably Paul’s leadership that transformed the Suns team from good to great. That is evident every moment he is on the court or the sidelines. Just a couple years ago, Paul was considered by many to be old and washed up with an albatross of a contract. However, every time he has changed teams he has brought a winning culture with him. Now, with the whole world watching, he can prove his doubters wrong.
The match up you should have your eye on:
Mikal Bridges vs. Kris Middleton. All eyes will be on who can stop the Buck’s superstar Giannas Atetokounmpo, but quite frankly no Suns player will. The real question is can the Suns take away the Bucks second option. When Kris Middleton is hot he is a rangy small forward who can knock down shots from anywhere on the court. The Bucks need him the most at the end of games because their first option, Giannas, is unreliable at the foul line. But when Middleton is cold, it drags down the whole offense. He will likely be guarded by Suns forward Mikal Bridges for much of the game. The third year man out of Villanova has taken a huge leap forward this year, but whether he can effectively guard an All Star like Middleton remains to be seen.
Why you should care:
With all eyes on Chris Paul, Phoenix’s other stars have much to gain for a victory as well. Third year big man Deandre Ayton was the first overall pick in a draft that featured the Hawk’s Trea Young and Dallas Mavericks sensation Luka Doncic. Ayton has already established himself as a dominant force in the paint and an ultra efficient scorer, but now he can establish himself as the winner he was drafted to be.
For his part, the 24-year-old Devin Booker has played on six Phoenix Suns teams, and this is the first year he is making it to the playoffs. Representing so many bad teams has given Booker a reputation of being a stat padding type that can’t actually lead a team to victory. Booker scored 70 (!) points at 20 years old, and many still shrugged him off because his team wasn’t winning. Booker’s offense is unparalleled—he can score anyway he wants, seemingly whenever he wants. Watch this series just to watch him pour shots in.
Suns fans have been holding on hope for this championship for quite some time. Phoenix has been bad in recent years. Really bad.. Phoenix had the worst record in the western conference three years in a row from the 2017 season to the 2019 season. 2016 wasn’t much better as they finished second to last in the conference with only 23 wins. This is the first time Phoenix has even made the playoffs in ten years. So they turned everything around and they did it fast. The Suns fans that were the laughing stock of the NBA just two short years ago finally get to watch their beloved team in the finals. But the Chris-Paul-retirement window and the pay-Deandre-Ayton window both seem to be closing fast, and this might be the Sun’s best shot for a long time.
How they got here:
After having finished the past two regular seasons with the best record in the Eastern Conference, the Bucks seemingly slipped this year, finishing the season at 46-26, good for the third best in the East. Perhaps that is the difference between being focused on winning the regular season and winning the post season. In the first round of the playoffs, the Bucks trounced the reigning Eastern Conference champion Miami Heat 4-0, before moving on the play the “superteam” Nets. But Milwaukee turned out to be the Nets’ kryptonite, although they were certainly helped by some crucial injuries. In the hard fought seven game series, the Nets never played a game with all three of their superstar players healthy. Finally, the Bucks survived an injury scare of their own to defeat the Atlanta Hawks in six games, with Milwaukee star Giannis Antetokounmpo missing the final two games. Going into the finals, Giannis’s health is the number one concern for the Bucks.
Unlike their finals opponent, who have several players that could be the star of any given night, this Bucks team has been built around one man, and that’s Giannis. For years, team management has looked to pick up players that compliment his fast, hyper-athletic skill set. This year’s Bucks team is known for fierce defenders, especially from Giannis, P.J. Tucker, Jdrue Holiday, and Brook Lopez. Look at them to use their size and strength to try to dominate on defense, and survive the onslaught of shots from Phoenix’s trigger-happy guards.
The star to watch:
Giannis Atetokounmpo won the league Most Valuable Player award the past two years, and last year he also won the NBA Defensive Player of the Year award to go with it. Both years his team left the playoffs early. At 6’11, the “Greek Freak” can move like a point guard and crash the boards like a center. On offense he is too big to be guarded by guards and too fast to be guarded by bigs. On defense he seems to be everywhere at once. If he is healthy this series, Phoenix will focus their game plan on him.
Giannis has led his team to regular season success, but the 5 time NBA All Star knows he needs a ring in order to secure his legacy and establish himself as the greatest player in the game. If he can’t win in Milwaukee, some will question the Buck’s front office and their inability to give him good enough stars to play alongside. Others will say he doesn’t have what it takes to win.
Giannis left game four of the Eastern Conference Finals with what looked like a painful knee hyperextension. His team lost that game, but was able to rally and win games five and six without him. The NBA finals start on July 8th, and whether he plays, and if he is playing at 100%, will be the top questions on everyone’s minds.
A matchup you should have your eye on
Milwaukee’s bench vs. Phoenix’s bench. The Suns had the second highest rated bench in the league this regular season. The Bucks bench has been effective as well, but when their top defenders like Atetokounmpo and Djrue Holiday leave the court, the tone shifts. The Suns had the second highest field goal percentage in the league this season, and if the Bucks slow the onslaught of shots down when their starters are not on the court, Phoenix will go on runs that Milwake won’t be able to come back from. Look for players like Bobby Portis and Pat Connaughton to step up and provide the momentum needed while the starters rest.
Why you should care
The Milwaukee Bucks have done everything right for years. Every year they have seemingly done a better job finding the right players to pair with their superstar, and now have what appears to be their best team in 50 years. But with the Philadelphia 76ers surging, and with the Brooklyn Nets grabbing all the headlines, many wrote off this year’s Bucks as being just another good team that can’t win it all.
While you watch Giannis play for his legacy, keep an eye out for the Bucks three other former All Stars. The 33 year old Brook Lopez is still the Nets’ all time leading scorer, and he played the hero in game five by pouring in 33 points. The 7’0 tall center is looking to show the world that he has still got it. Jdrue Holiday is a defense minded point guard and one of the Buck’s key off-season acquisitions. His defense set the tone all year, and may be what finally pushed this very good team over the edge. Finally, there is Kris Middleton, who so many have questioned as an unworthy second option for one of the best players in the league. He is averaging 23 points per game this playoffs, and if they win it all he should silence the doubters.
Milwaukee’s is a story of a homegrown star, and a small market team. In a league where players so often run to big cities like LA or NY to be under a spotlight, or band together to form unbeatable superteams, Milwaukee has just simply done everything right. They know that many NBA free agents won’t prefer them as a destination, so they built around a star hoping he would grow into the type of player who could carry them to the finals. And he delivered. If you are sick of superteams, trade demands, and splashy free agency signing, root for the Bucks.
Thomas Pack is the Operations Manager at Broad and Liberty. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.