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The NBA Finals start Tuesday night in Phoenix as the Suns host the Bucks.
Despite countless injuries this record season, the Bucks and Suns have undoubtedly been two of the elite teams in the league this season, and the winner will be a worthy and long-awaited champion in Phoenix or Milwaukee.
The Suns have struggled through injuries / illness to rotating players like Chris Paul, Devin Booker, Cameron Payne, Cameron Johnson and Abdel Nader. The Bucks remain without Donte DiVincenzo as he remains out of season, while Giannis Antetokounmpo’s left knee injury leaves him in doubt about playing in Game 1.
Antetokounmpo’s injury status is worth following as this will have ripple effects on both teams and players.
With Antetokounmpo’s status in doubt, here’s how to play game 1.
Will Middleton and Holiday continue to raise their stakes?
If the Bucks win and cover like underdogs on the road, they need Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday to continue playing at a high level, whether Antetokounmpo plays or not.
After Antetkounnmpo went out to the last two games of the Eastern Conference Finals, Holiday turned his game up a notch as he was much more aggressive offensively, averaging 26 points and 11 assists. Holiday used his wide frame to overpower smaller defenders and get to the basket while utilizing the space that Antetokounmpo would normally command. He needs to be aggressive and make a pair of threes fall as he has only shot 29.9% on threes in the post season.
Middleton plays the most important role for the Bucks if Antetokounmpo stays out as he is the only true three-level scorer on the team. He needs to score effectively for the Bucks to win or cover, and if this is a close game down the stretch, he will act as their closer, whether Antetokounmpo is healthy or not.
A healthy Antetokounmpo will go a long way toward helping the Bucks win in this series. But after missing both games 5 and 6 in the Eastern Conference Finals due to his hyper-extended knee, I’m skeptical that he will play and be close enough 100% to be effective with his addictive style of play. of his freakish combination of speed, jumping and strength. He will not be able to score with finesse against the Suns as his perimeter shooting is the big hole in his game. It is imperative that he is healthy enough to take advantage of his athletics when he returns.
Brook Lopez and perimeter shooters like PJ Tucker, Bryn Forbes and Pat Connaughton will also step up. Lopez will play a key role anchoring the Bucks’ drop defense, and he must do his best to keep Paul and Booker from both getting to the edge and their go-to-elbow jump shots. He also needs to win on the glass and help compensate for Antetokounmpo’s scoring – as he did in Game 5 against the Hawks when he dropped a playoff career high of 33 points. The Suns are one of the elite shooting teams in the NBA, and the Bucks’ three-point shooters must intensify their play and be effective, otherwise they could be blown out on the road in Game 1.
Can Booker and Paul lead the Sun in Game 1?
If the Suns win and cover as favorites at home, they need Paul and Booker at their best.
With Antetokounmpo probably not at 100%, this significantly lowers the caliber of auxiliary defenders to the Bucks’ defense. Whether the Bucks choose to play a drop or switch more often, as they did at the end of the Eastern Conference Finals, Paul should have opportunities to take advantage of this as he maneuvers into his patented mid-range jumpers (even though Holiday matches against him defensively).
The Bucks allowed the longest long-range shots in the NBA this season, and the Suns took the fourth most of those shots. Overall, in the midfield, the Bucks allowed the fourth most shot attempts, while the Suns took the sixth most middle shots (per Cleaning the Glass).
The Bucks allowed the 11th highest shooting percentage in both the long intermediate range and the overall intermediate range, while the Suns shot the highest percentage in both the long intermediate range (46.6%) and all intermediate rounds (49.1% – via Cleaning The Glass).
The Bucks must pick their poison between helping either Ayton at the edge or the shooters on the wings to help Paul and Booker in the midfield, and despite their middle-class skill, the Bucks must choose this as their poison. Limiting the number of corner-3s for the Suns (who shot those with the third highest frequency in the league this season per clearing the glass) should be a priority for the Bucks, and we already know that their fall defense with Brook Lopez is designed to limit shots in the paint (they allowed the second most shots on the edge – 27.8% of attempts per Cleaning the glass).
I lean towards expecting them to predominantly remain in drop coverage in Game 1 (at least when Brook Lopez is on the field) before adjusting as needed later in the series. The Bucks have shown that they can switch as their base defense, as they did in the last two games against the Hawks, and this could help limit the space that the Suns see when catching the ball and limiting their open three. The Bucks should try to keep the Suns out of balance by shifting their defensive coverage and casting different glances at Paul and Booker to prevent them from getting to their spots on the field.
Getting Paul and Booker started opens up the rest of the offense to the Suns. If they can make open trees and get downhill, this opens up space for Ayton inside to crash the offensive boards, get light knocks and punish switches. Paul’s efficiency in limiting revenue (as he has done all season) will be the key to limiting the Bucks’ chances in transition, especially if Antetokounmpo is active. Paul’s passing will be important in getting Suns’ senior shooters like Mikal Bridges, Jae Crowder and Cameron Johnson.
If the Suns can get their shooters to see the ball go through the hoop early, it will go a long way toward helping this relatively inexperienced list build confidence in the Bucks’ drop defense, which has historically allowed a large volume of threes . About Cleaning the glass, the Bucks allowed the fifth most three-point attempts, including the most over the break trees. It’s a challenge to get a corner with a three-point gaze against this defense, but if they can do that, the Suns need to win and cover in Game 1.
- The Suns are 4-0 ATS in their last 4 games played on 3 or more days of rest.
- The Suns have collected 10-3 ATS in their last 13 games.
- The Suns are 25-8-1 ATS in their last 34 games against a team with a winning% over .600.
- The Sun is 15-5 ATS in their last 20 home games against a team with a winning weather record.
- The Suns are 11-4 ATS in their last 15 playoff games as favorites.
- Bucks are 1-6 ATS in the last 7 meetings.
- The Bucks are 13-27-1 ATS in their last 41 playoff games as an underdog.
- The Bucks are 2-5 ATS in their last 7 Tuesday games.
- The Bucks are 3-9 ATS in their last 12 games as an underdog.
- The Bucks are 2-6 ATS in their last 8 games as a road underdog.