The Milwaukee Bucks and Phoenix Suns meet in the NBA Finals on Tuesday night at 9 p.m. (EDT). It’s not quite the series the league expected when the season began last December. The Bucks had the best preseason championship odds in the Eastern Conference, second overall behind the Los Angeles Lakers, but the Suns were basically an afterthought. They had the 14th best odds in the NBA. The expectation for Phoenix was mediocrity.
As it turns out, the Suns became one of pro basketball’s biggest surprises this year. They ripped through the Western Conference behind scoring guard Devin Booker and future Hall of Fame point guard Chris Paul. For their part, the Bucks have proven themselves worthy of the hype, making their way through a difficult Eastern Conference playoff behind future Hall of Fame forward Giannis Antetokounmpo.
The result is a meeting between two teams who rarely appear on this stage. The Bucks have the only championship between the two teams (won in 1971), and the teams have just four previous Finals appearances combined—most recently by the Suns in 1993.
It should be a fun series. The Suns are the favorites, with both betting odds and FiveThirtyEight’s prediction model giving them about a two-in-three chance to win. But the Bucks could drastically change that perception if they win just one of the opening two games in Phoenix. As we head into the Finals, here are three questions that will shape the series.
How healthy is Giannis Antetokounmpo?
The Bucks’ franchise cornerstone and two-time MVP hyperextended his left knee in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Atlanta Hawks. He didn’t play the rest of the series, and though the Bucks won the last two games to advance, it will be difficult to repeat that trick with their best player out of the lineup.
Antetokounmpo has been working hard to get himself back into playing shape. But even if he does play, it’s unclear how effective he’ll be while dealing with an injury that usually demands 10 to 14 days of recovery. Game 1 of the Finals is just seven days out from when Antetokounmpo initially got hurt. His powerful, slashing style requires a lot of explosive bursts, which makes this injury particularly problematic.
Which team will dictate the playing style?
In many ways, the Suns and Bucks play similar brands of basketball. Both teams are a little more effective, relative to the rest of the NBA, on offense than defense. Both rely on one star scorer to lead the way (Antetokounmpo for Milwaukee, Booker for Phoenix) and have made it to the NBA Finals by finding enough secondary contributors to beat their conference peers. They put up three-point shots at similar rates (both are near the middle of the league in how often they shoot threes compared to twos). On the other end of the court, both teams put a premium on defensive rebounding and do it well.
The one big difference between their styles is pacing. The Bucks play at breakneck speed, while the Suns prefer to take their time when they have the ball. The gap might seem small—it amounts to just a few possessions per game—but the Bucks averaged 102 offensive possessions per 48 minutes this season, the third-fastest pace in the NBA. The Suns averaged 97, making them the fifth-slowest team in the league.
You can see this difference in how the teams like to score points. The Suns dribble around for a while and might have Booker or Paul create a jump shot, or maybe work the ball inside to center DeAndre Ayton:
On the other hand, the Bucks love to score in transition. In fact, the Bucks take more of their shots (over 17 percent of them in the playoffs) while on the break than any other team. When you have a player like Antetokounmpo, the game starts to look like a track meet:
If the Bucks can create a lot of scoring opportunities on the run, an upset gets likelier. A more deliberate offensive pace would favor the Suns.
Will the Bucks finally make some jump shots?
Milwaukee is shooting 31 percent on three-pointers during the playoffs. It’s the third-worst percentage among playoff teams overall, and the worst among teams that advanced past the first round. The biggest individual culprits have been Antetokounmpo (18 percent), point guard Jrue Holiday (30 percent), and wing P.J. Tucker (29 percent).
Even the best shooter of the bunch, shooting guard Khris Middleton, has made just 34 percent of his three-point attempts compared to a regular season mark of 41 percent. Plus, Antetokounmpo has been brutal at the foul line, making 65 of 121 free throws for a lackluster 54 percent success rate.
So far, the Bucks have gotten away with lousy three-point shooting and Antetokounmpo’s free-throw woes by scoring efficiently near the basket. But the Suns’ interior defense is strong: Ayton anchors a unit that has kept opponents to a nearly league-worst 50 percent on twos during the playoffs. At some point, the Bucks are going to have to knock down jumpers; otherwise it’s hard to see where they’ll find enough points to pull off the upset.
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