On Jan. 13, James Harden was traded to the star-studded Brooklyn Nets and the Los Angeles Lakers were in first place in the Western Conference and favorites to be repeat champions. It seemed as if the Lakers and Nets were on a collision course to meet in the NBA Finals.
Nearly six months and a few key injuries later, the Finals will feature one of the most unexpected matchups in recent memory. For the first time since 2010, neither LeBron James nor the Golden State Warriors will appear in the Finals. In an era defined by superteams, we’re witnessing a shock to the system, which seems like an anomaly, as the Milwaukee Bucks and Phoenix Suns meet in the best-of-seven series that starts Tuesday..
The Bucks and Suns are linked by a coin flip in 1969 that landed the Bucks UCLA star Lew Alcindor, who later became /Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The Suns, who lost the coin toss, drafted a center named Neal Walk with the second pick.
While Abdul-Jabbar was the 1971 NBA Finals MVP in the Bucks’ only championship, neither team has been a paragon of success since. Now, the Suns and Bucks will meet in the NBA Finals for the first time.
The Suns had an incredible 8-0 run in the NBA bubble but missed out on the playoffs for a 10th straight season in 2019-20.
They were expected to be improved team with the additions of Chris Paul and Jae Crowder, but were still 40-1 preseason longshots to win the Finals. After an excellent regular season and shocking playoff run, CP3 is making his first Finals appearance in his 16th season and the Suns are making their first Finals appearance since 1993.
The 36-year-old is no stranger to beating the odds. His Thunder team was given an 0.2 percent chance by ESPN last season to make the playoffs last season but managed to finish fifth in the Western Conference and took the Rockets to seven games in the first round.
When he was traded to the Suns in the offseason, many didn’t know what to expect from an aging Paul and young Phoenix team. CP3 removed all doubt, making his 11th All-Star appearance this season, garnering MVP votes and helping the Suns finish second in the Western Conference.
He sent the Clippers packing with a 41-point, 8-assist, 0-turnover performance in Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals. “The Point God” is widely regarded as one of the greatest of all-time at his position. He could add to his illustrious legacy with a ring.
Meanwhile, Crowder is the only player on either team with NBA Finals experience, making it with the Heat last season. Paul and Crowder have added a crucial veteran presence to a young Suns team.
Suns guard Devin Booker is the first player since 1977 to be the leading scorer on a Finals team in his playoff debut. Booker joins elite company, with Julius Erving, Tommy Heinsohn, and Elgin Baylor also accomplishing the feat. Booker has dispelled the notion that he’s a “good stats, bad team guy” and some.
He’s the undisputed first option and has had an eye-popping playoff debut. Booker has averaged 27 points, 6.4 rebounds and 4.8 assists and is +100 in the playoffs.
Center DeAndre Ayton was the first pick in the 2018 NBA Draft. While both Trae Young and Luka Doncic have earned All-Star nods and plaudits, Ayton has quietly established himself as an irreplaceable cog in the Suns’ machine. His game-winning alley-oop in Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals, dubbed the “Valley Oop” is one of the most iconic plays in Suns history.
The Suns’ role players have also stepped up admirably.
PG Cameron Payne was the 14th pick in the 2015 NBA draft but was labeled a bust after disappointing stints with the Thunder and Bulls. He later played in China and the G-League and signed with the Suns ahead of the NBA bubble last summer.
Payne has impressed since and excelled when Paul sat out the first two games of the WCF, after being placed in COVID protocol. Payne started and helped the Suns go up 2-0and had 29 points and nine assists in the Game 2 thriller.
Swingman Mikal Bridges won two national championships at Villanova and narrowly missed out on a place on an All-Defense team.
Meanwhile, PF Cameron Johnson has shot lights out and leads the Suns in 3-point field goal percentage in the postseason, shooting 45.1%t.
F Dario Saric is the fifth Croatian to reach the NBA Finals and wing Torrey Craig is eligible to win a ring no matter who wins the series. Craig was traded midseason from the Bucks to Suns, for cash considerations, and has appeared in all 16 playoff games.
Booker and the Suns have come a long way since the dark days of three straight last-place Pacific Division finishes from 2017-2019.
Booker has been the franchise cornerstone since he was drafted and CP3 pushed the Suns over the top but Monty Williams and James Jones deserve a lot of credit.
Williams just won Coach of the Year and has led the Suns to the Finals in his second year at the helm. Jones, the Suns GM who LeBron once called his “best ever teammate”, has built a championship roster just two years after this group started a game for the Suns:
GAME THEORY PODCAST: NBA Twitter legend @sreekyshooter talks about jokes/memes. Oh, and his dear sweet Phoenix Suns, in the midst of one of the greatest turnarounds in recent sports history, and the NBA Finals.— Sam Vecenie (@Sam_Vecenie) July 5, 2021
Jones fully deserved his Executive of the Year honors and the Suns could be a force in the West for years to come. Phoenix is the favorite to win the series at -180 but the Bucks are an incredibly tough out.
Milwaukee finally reached the Finals for the first time since 1974 after a few years of disappointing playoff finishes. Coach Mike Budenholzer was long on the hot seat and a Game 7 loss in the Eastern Conference Semis to the Kyrie Irving-less Brooklyn Nets likely would have cost him his job.
Coach Bud’s Bucks showed grit and resilience and grinded out an overtime win in Brooklyn to advance to a second conference Finals in three seasons. Budenholzer won Coach of the Year in 2015 after coaching the Hawks to a 60-22 record and defeated his former team in six games in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Giannis Antetokounmpo won back-to-back MVPs in 2019 and ‘20 and added a Defensive Player of the Year Award in 2020. The Greek Freak is one of the NBA’s most dominant players and is appearing in his first NBA Finals. He loyally committed his future to Milwaukee by signing a five-year extension earlier this season.
Antetokounmpo missed Games 5 and 6 vs Atlanta with a hyperextended left knee suffered in Game 4. He is doubtful for game 1 of the Finals but is reportedly making progress. If he can’t suit up, it will be the fourth straight series in which the Suns face an opponent missing a key player.
If Giannis can’t play, it’d make matters extremely difficult for the Bucks. He’s averaged a whopping 28.9 points, 12.7 rebounds and 5.2 assists on 55.1% percent shooting in the playoffs. He has also joined elite company with nine 30-point, 10-rebound games in the playoffs. Only Wilt, Shaq, Hakeem, and Kareem have equaled the feat.
Despite Antetokounmpo’s absence, the Bucks won the final two games of the Conference Finals. Both Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday stepped up.
Middleton has enjoyed a circuitous route to stardom as a second-round draft pick who was traded after a season with Detroit. The two-time All-Star has spent eight seasons with Milwaukee and averaged over 20 points per game this season for the third time in his career.
In Game 3 vs Atlanta, Middleton became the third player, after James and Steph Curry, to total 35 points, 10 rebounds, five assists and five threes in a conference Finals game. In the closeout Game 6, Middleton led the Bucks with 32 points and seven assists.
Middleton is still underappreciated and he and Giannis have formed an especially formidable duo during the postseason.
Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton are the first pair of teammates to each record 30 points and 10 rebounds in 3 games within a single postseason h/t @EliasSports pic.twitter.com/zprZsQIMkq— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) June 28, 2021
It’s somewhat ironic that two of Eric Bledsoe’s most recent former teams are in the Finals.
I Dont wanna be here— Eric Bledsoe (@EBled2) October 22, 2017
Bledsoe’s tweet went down in NBA meme history and he was promptly traded a couple of weeks later from the Suns to the Bucks. He played three seasons for the Bucks before being traded to the Pelicans in exchange for Jrue Holiday last offseason.
Now Holiday, who made the 2021 All-Defensive First Team in his first season with the Bucks, is thriving. He flirted with a triple-double in Game 6 vs the Hawks, with 27 points, 9 rebounds and 9 assists. Holiday has been an excellent third option and has proven he can be leaned on if Giannis misses more time.
G Donte DiVincenzo suffered a torn ligament in his ankle in the first round of the playoffs but the Bucks have received surprising contributions from other role players. Bobby Portis, not previously known for his 3-point prowess, was third in 3-point percentage in the regular season and has had some recent big games.
Brook Lopez has had an interesting transformation from post threat All-Star with the Nets to stretch five with the Bucks. Lopez scored 33 huge points in the Game 5 win vs the Hawks, taking the load off of Holiday and Middleton with Giannis out.
Pat Connaughton has given the Bucks some important minutes in the playoffs and has always looked comfortable in his role. The midseason addition of PJ Tucker gave the Bucks one of the most effective agitators in the league. At 36, it’s great to see Tucker have a chance at winning a ring, but the Bucks are underdogs at +160.
While Giannis’ brother Thanasis Antetokounmpo may not get much time in the NBA Finals, it’s worth noting that Giannis and Thanasis are the first pair of brothers to make an NBA Finals together since Al and Dick McGuire with the Knicks in 1953.
With so little Finals experience on either side, this is an NBA Finals without superteams or juggernauts. Like the rest of the NBA playoffs and second straight COVID-impacted season, expect the unexpected.
Charles Barkley, who was on the last Suns team to make the Finals in 1993, is often playfully mocked on “Inside the NBA” for his inability to win an NBA title. Paul has an opportunity to avoid a similar fate and deliver the Suns their first NBA title.
Giannis already has a Hall of Fame resume and at 26, he could win an NBA title at an age prior to LeBron and Michael Jordan’s first titles. LeBron and Jordan were 27 and 28, respectively, when they won their first championships.
Meanwhile, Devin Booker has an opportunity to become one of the youngest Finals MVPs, at 24.
Regardless of the outcome, one team’s players will all be crowned NBA Champions for the first time. In a “small-market” Finals, the ratings might be somewhat down, but the novelty will be at a high.