The 2021 NBA playoffs have been a wild ride, and not many fans predicted a showdown between the Milwaukee Bucks and Phoenix Suns in the NBA Finals. Neither team was a true underdog: the Bucks are always a threat with Giannis Antetokounmpo, and the Suns finished 51-21, just a game behind the Utah Jazz for the best record in the entire league.

But the Brooklyn Nets, Philadelphia 76ers, Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers typically filled out the average fan’s Finals prediction. Kevin Durant, James Harden, Kyrie Irving and the Nets were a strong favorite to come out of the Eastern Conference: how could they not with all that talent? Brooklyn ended up on a crash course with Milwaukee, but not all three stars made it to Game 7 healthily. Regardless, the Nets had a chance to beat the Bucks in Brooklyn, but Milwaukee emerged victorious in overtime, eliminating their biggest threat so far.

LeBron James and the Lakers entered the postseason with the seventh seed in the Western Conference after defeating the Golden State Warriors in a play-in game. But with James and Anthony Davis both missing significant time during the regular season, the Lakers fell drastically in the standings over the season’s final months, and were more realistically as talented as a top-four seed. Even with the second-best record in the league, the Suns didn’t feel like favorites against James and his nine straight Finals appearances in postseasons that he’s participated in.

Devin Booker, Chris Paul, and the Suns downed the Lakers in six games after initially going down 2-1 in the series. The Suns knocked out LeBron James, and the Bucks eliminated Kevin Durant.

It’s only fitting these two teams meet in the NBA Finals.

Preview

Depleted Phoenix Suns can't keep up with Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks
(AP Photo/Jeffrey Phelps)

The elephant in the room is obviously the health status of Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo. Milwaukee was able to close out the last two games of the Eastern Conference Finals without Antetokounmpo, but the two-time NBA Most Valuable Player’s services will be needed in the Finals against the Suns.

Giannis is doubtful to go in Game 1 due to his knee injury. While he could be a surprise active, a more realistic return would be in Game 2 or 3. Even then, the Bucks forward probably won’t be playing at 100%.

But that still doesn’t mean the Bucks can be counted out.

With Antetokounmpo out, the Bucks would likely send a starting five of Jrue Holiday, Khris Middleton, P.J. Tucker, Pat Connaughton, and Brook Lopez to the floor. There’s still a ton of talent in that group, and they can score in bunches, as Milwaukee was the top-scoring team in the league during the regular season.

Milwaukee has the talent to compete even without Giannis, but there is little margin for error. The Suns are a very good, well-rounded basketball team.

The Suns franchise was already looking up with budding superstar Devin Booker leading the offense. But the offseason acquisition of future Hall of Fame point guard Chris Paul but Phoenix over the top: literally. From a narrow postseason miss in last season’s bubble, to Western Conference Finals representatives, the Suns ascended quickly and are just one series away from being league champions.

Supporting Booker and Paul, 22-year old center Deandre Ayton makes a huge impact around the rim. Mikal Bridges and Jae Crowder round out a fundamentally sound lineup with a mix of youth and veteran leadership.

36-year old Chris Paul is an 11-time All-Star with 16 seasons under his belt, but this will be his first NBA Finals appearance. Already a lock for the Basketball Hall of Fame, Paul is looking to add a ring to his star-studded career, and get his name out of the “best players to never win a title” conversation.

Prediction

Chris Paul leads Suns past Clippers 130-103, into NBA Finals
(AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

While neither LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard nor Steph Curry are in the Finals for the first time in a decade, the 2021 NBA Finals should be fun, exciting, and highly competitive.

While I raved about the Bucks potential to win a game without or with a less than 100% Giannis Antetokounmpo, I would still probably pick the Suns in such a scenario. With the superior regular season record, Phoenix hosts Game 1 and 2. Between homecourt advantage and Anteokounmpo’s injury status, I could see the Suns quickly building a 2-0 lead in the series.

As the series shifts to Milwaukee on Sunday night, so will the momentum of the series. Assuming Antetokounmpo’s knee is slightly better by Game 3, the Bucks should be able to hold down their home court. Milwaukee finished with 26-10 home record during the regular season, tied for the fifth-best mark in the league and just one game behind the Suns. After Phoenix takes two games on their home floor, the Bucks respond with back-to-back wins of their own in classic NBA playoff style (as they always say, it’s not a series until someone wins a road game.

The Suns will bounce back in Game 5, but not without sweating it out until the final buzzer. Antetokounmpo goes off on a scoring frenzy in this game, but the Suns prevail with a game-winning shot in the final 24 seconds. The Bucks miss on an attempt to send the game to overtime, squandering the chance to take a 3-2 lead back to Milwaukee.

This sets up an all-important Game 6, where the Suns can claim the NBA title with a victory. This game is back-and-forth, and low-scoring, with both teams tightening up their defense with the season on the line. Ultimately, in the waning minutes of the fourth quarter the Suns start to pull away, and up ten points with a minute left to play, Phoenix players visibly can not contain their excitement.

The Suns defeat the Bucks in six games, claiming their first-ever NBA title and giving Chris Paul his first championship ring. Booker will have a strong resume for Finals MVP: averaging 29.7 points, 4.3 assists, and 5.0 rebounds per game. Antetokounmpo would be a shoo-in if the Bucks won the series, averaging 30.4 points, 6.9 assists, and 9.7 rebounds per game. But the award is given to the player that’s grinded the longest to get to this position: Chris Paul, with a solid 22.4 points per game and an eye-popping 11.0 assists per game.

Phoenix Suns defeat Milwaukee Bucks in six games, Chris Paul wins Finals MVP

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