This sharp change of perception has been influenced by Phoenix’s steady regular season and gutsy, emphatic run through the West. For Coach Monty Williams, everything has fallen into place perfectly.
“I’m not one to make predictions or anything like that,” Williams said. “But when you have Chris [Paul] and [Devin Booker] and then you add Jae [Crowder] and the leadership and the growth of our team, and everything that [owner] Robert [Sarver] has given us, you thought, if things go our way, we could have a shot at competing.”
The Suns’ path to the Finals was aided by injuries to Lakers forward Anthony Davis, Denver Nuggets guard Jamal Murray and Los Angeles Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard, among others.
Meanwhile, the Bucks claimed the East by sweeping the Miami Heat; surviving the Brooklyn Nets, who lost Kyrie Irving and James Harden at points; and outlasting the Atlanta Hawks, who were down De’Andre Hunter and, for two games, Trae Young. But Milwaukee hasn’t exactly been fortunate, losing starting guard Donte DiVincenzo in the first round and two-time league MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo midway through the Eastern Conference finals.
Phoenix’s case as Finals favorites begins with its balanced offense and team defense, as well as health, workload, rest and home-court advantages. Antetokounmpo hasn’t played since Game 4 of the East finals, when he suffered a nasty hyperextension of his left knee. Although the Bucks ruled out ligament damage for their franchise player, it’s unclear whether he will get the chance to play in the first Finals of his career.
“You have to listen to the player and then you have to listen to the sports performance group,” Bucks Coach Mike Budenholzer said when asked about Antetokounmpo’s status. “At some point [General Manager] Jon Horst and myself are part of the conversations, but it’s just a day-to-day thing.”
By comparison, the Suns enter the Finals in good shape. Paul has played through a shoulder injury, missed time because of coronavirus protocols and suffered a wrist injury that required an MRI exam, but he held up well enough to finish with 41 points and eight assists in the closeout Game 6 win over the Clippers. Booker is ready to go after suffering a broken nose that required him to wear a protective mask during the West finals.
When it comes to burden, Bucks forward Khris Middleton and guard Jrue Holiday have logged more postseason minutes than any Suns player. In part because of his protocol absence, Paul will enter the Finals having played 200-plus fewer minutes than Middleton or Holiday.
Williams hasn’t been afraid to ride his best players for big minutes, but the Suns raced through the West with a 12-4 record and concluded the conference finals Wednesday. The Bucks, who went 12-5 in the East and needed seven games to finish off the Nets, didn’t eliminate the Hawks until Saturday.
Phoenix will therefore enter Game 1 with five days of rest and having played 10 games since June 7. Milwaukee will have just two days of rest, having played 12 games since June 7. Of course, the Suns will also host the first two games of the Finals because they had a better regular season record (51-21) than the Bucks (46-26). Phoenix is 6-2 at home during the playoffs, while Milwaukee is 5-4 on the road with notable duds in Game 2 against Brooklyn and Game 4 against Atlanta.
“We’ve had long, extended pauses in between each round,” Budenholzer said. “I’m kind of excited to try it without one. Maybe we can be the team that’s in a rhythm and all that.”
Putting aside the logistical factors, Antetokounmpo’s status still looms as the Finals’ largest X-factor. Phoenix narrowly won both of its regular season games against Milwaukee, with Antetokounmpo putting up massive numbers in each game. On Feb. 10, the Suns rallied to win, 125-124, in Phoenix despite 47 points, 11 rebounds and five assists from Antetokounmpo. On April 19, the Suns scored a 128-127 overtime road win with Antetokounmpo posting a game-high 33 points and eight rebounds.
It’s no surprise that Antetokounmpo went to work against a Suns front line that lacks an ideal Giannis-stopper. Crowder is a physical and versatile defender, but he gives up a lot of size, strength and length to Antetokounmpo. Deandre Ayton has shown vast improvement as a defender, but he will need to spend a good chunk of his time on Bucks center Brook Lopez. Phoenix’s reserve big men are scoring-oriented options and unlikely to have much defensive success against Antetokounmpo.
Even so, that major positional advantage for Milwaukee becomes moot if Antetokounmpo is limited or sidelined. Crowder and Mikal Bridges are well suited to defending Middleton, while Paul vs. Holiday will make for an intriguing and competitive backcourt showdown. Phoenix simply matches up more cleanly with Milwaukee than vice versa if Antetokounmpo isn’t fully healthy. And if he can’t play at all, the Bucks would arguably represent the weakest collection of talent to reach the Finals in the post-Michael Jordan era.
Despite Phoenix’s many edges, rushing to judgment this season — of all seasons — would be foolish. The Bucks would get a big emotional boost from an Antetokounmpo return, and their veterans pulled together in a Finals-like environment against the Nets and in the aftermath of Antetokounmpo’s injury against the Hawks. Importantly, many series turned this postseason because of an unexpected injury. For Paul to claim the first title of his 16-year career, Phoenix’s relatively good health luck will need to hold for two more weeks.
“This is like a storybook for this part, getting to somewhere that I’ve never been before,” Paul said after eliminating the Clippers. “We still got a way to go. We still got four wins.”