In a somewhat more normal timeframe (this summer), this season’s NBA Finals will be played in a summer month, albeit in a summer month that usually features the NBA free agency period. But hey, better that than that glorified scrimmage setting with the piped in crowd noise in Orlando, Florida. Fuck the pandemic!
Anyways in more of a normalcy setting for the 2020-21 NBA season, every NBA postseason matchup was played in the 15 home arenas (the Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers share the Staples Center) of the 16 teams that qualified for that field. And not only did all 16 teams get to play in their respective arenas because in addition, they all got to play with actual fans in the stands.
The First Round, Conference Semifinals Round and Conference Finals Round all lasted a combined 36 days (May 22 through July 3), with the Milwaukee Bucks defeating the Atlanta Hawks in Game 6 on the latter of those two dates to clinch their first NBA Finals berth since the 1973-74 season. They will meet the Phoenix Suns, whom also won their series in six games three days prior via a 130-103 shellacking of the aforementioned Clippers to clinch their first NBA Finals berth since the 1992-93 season. The series begins tonight.
Over the past two completed NBA seasons, the Bucks have been the trendy pick to win the NBA championship, due to having the league’s best record in each of those two seasons, as well as the two-time MVP award winner in Giannis Antetokounmpo. However, those two seasons ended in four straight losses against the Toronto Raptors and a 3-0 series deficit (they lost in five games) against the Miami Heat, respectively. And while they upgraded the point guard position via trading Eric Bledsoe for Jrue Holliday this past off-season, the Philadelphia 76ers and Brooklyn Nets both overtook them as chic picks to win the Eastern Conference championship (and possibly the NBA championship) this season, due to the former fielding one of the more talented teams on paper and the latter having three superstar players. Plus, both of those teams were respectively the first and second seeds in this season’s Eastern Conference playoff bracket.
But of course, the top two seeds each bowed out of the Conference Semifinals for reasons via the two charts below:
|Team||Result||Reasons why they lost|
|Philadelphia 76ers.||Lost in seven games against the Atlanta Hawks in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.||Joel Embiid was hampered by a small meniscus tear, Ben Simmons was offensively reluctant, lost a Game 5 in which they up by more than 20 points on multiple occasions and Doc Rivers’ reputation as a big-game head coach is questionable at best.|
|Team||Result||Reasons they lost|
|Brooklyn Nets||Lost in seven games against the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.||Lack of quality bench players, rookie head coach in Steve Nash, James Harden and Kyrie Irving each missed three full games against the Bucks, Harden was mostly ineffective in Games 5 through 7 against the Bucks and Kevin Durant’s three-pointer was instead a two-pointer in regulation of Game 7 against the Bucks.|
As you saw in the second of those charts, the Bucks themselves eliminated the Nets before they eliminated a Hawks team that was minus Trae Young (bone bruise in his right foot) in Games 4 & 5 (Bucks win) before closing out the Southeast Division champions in Game 6, the last of which featured Young’s return to action, only to be severely hampered by his injury. And of course before those two rounds, the Bucks became the first team to punch a ticket into the Conference Semifinals via revenge against the aforementioned Heat in a four-game sweep.
Three seasons of championship expectations hasn’t been anywhere near the Suns since the days of the aforementioned Steve Nash forming one of the best point guard-big man tandems with Amar’e Stoudemire, as they endured a 10-year playoff drought. And of course, that drought started with Stoudemire bolting the Valley of the Sun for the Big Apple (he signed with the New York Knicks) during the 2010 NBA off-season. And while they had a shot at the Western Conference’s eighth seed a couple of times during that span, late-season struggles sealed their fate. Plus, they endured upheaval within their head coaching position, as they had seven different head coaches during that span.
However, one of those coaches is their current head coach, Monty Williams, a man that was perfect for the young talent (Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges, Cameron Johnson) that they had amassed via the 2015 through 2019 NBA Drafts, as a bright and strong coach was needed to maximize that young core. And while Williams’ first season (2019-20) was the growing pains of a head coach in his first season with a different (and young) team, they were invited to the NBA bubble, where they went 8-0. And although they lost out (conference tiebreaker) to the Memphis Grizzlies as one of the teams that got to play (against the Portland Trail Blazers) in the Western Conference’s play-in game for the right to face the top-seeded Lakers in the First Round, the Suns finished the season strong and were considered as a potential playoff team during the 2020-21 season.
Potential then led to expectations on November 16, 2020, as the Suns acquired Chris Paul, the perfect veteran leader for this young-and-talented Suns team. And as to why he was the perfect veteran leader for this Suns team, well teams in their first year with Chris Paul always improve, so a playoff appearance was pretty much a guarantee.
And a guarantee it was, as the Suns finished with the league’s second-best record this season. And while the 2021 NBA Playoffs were a first for the young-and-talented Suns core, they dethroned the Lakers in six games, swept a Denver Nuggets team that was led by league MVP Nikola Jokic and got past a resilient Clippers team in six games to clinch the Western Conference championship. And they did so with Williams and Paul reunited 10 years after their lone season together with the then-New Orleans Hornets, as the second go-round of that partnership guided the Suns along this path. But of course, more work has to be done in this storybook season.
Okay, so now that I’ve recapped the backstories of how both the Bucks and Suns made it to the NBA Finals, which team will be hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy at season’s end?
Well given that the Bucks should have won Game 5 against the Hawks by more than 11 points even without Giannis (knee injury), along with allowing the Hawks to cut their Game 6 fourth quarter lead down to six points during one stretch, I don’t trust the Bucks to hold onto big leads with or without Giannis. Especially since they blew big leads in Game 5 against the Nets and Game 1 against the Hawks, respectively. Plus, the Bucks have had stretches of going ice cold from the field, with such futility showing up at times in that Game 6 against the Hawks.
I like the Suns in this series for a lot of reasons, with the first being that they have the best on-floor leader in Chris Paul, whose will and return to form will both wreak havoc against the Bucks throughout. Second, the Suns are both the healthier and much deeper team, and that will be too much for a Bucks team with a hampered Giannis and sidelined Donte DiVincenzo (out for the remainder of the postseason with a tendon injury in his left foot) to overcome. Third, the Suns have a slew of wing defenders to throw at Khris Middleton, so those 20-plus point quarters for the Bucks’ best wing player might not happen at all. Fourth, Monty Williams is better at making adjustments than Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer and is also the better of the two head coaches, period. And fifth, Jrue Holliday can chirp all he wants about his team winning in Phoenix because guess what, the Suns were best road team during the regular season and are 6-2 on the road during the postseason. So given the Suns’ ability to win on the road, there’s no guarantee that the Bucks will have a sweep or a commanding 3-1 lead after four games.
The Suns are going to take this series in five games and I see Chris Paul capping off his most successful season with the NBA Finals MVP.