The Suns, who defeated the Los Angeles Clippers in the Western Conference Finals, are playing in their first NBA Finals since 1992-93, when they lost to the Chicago Bulls in six games. Phoenix is in the championship round for the third time in its history and is looking to capture its first-ever title.
To do that, the Suns will have to take down the Eastern Conference champion Milwaukee Bucks, who beat the Atlanta Hawks in six games to advance to their first NBA Finals since 1974. Milwaukee is making its third Finals appearance and is seeking its second title (1971).
In Game 1, Milwaukee could be without superstar forward Giannis Antetokounmpo, who suffered a left knee hyperextension in Game 4 against the Hawks and has not played since. Antetokounmpo is listed as QUESTIONABLE on the Bucks’ injury report as of Tuesday morning and is actively seeking an early return to the Finals, according to NBA TV’s Jared Greenberg. Giannis’ availability will be a game time decision.
The Suns and Bucks faced off twice during the regular season, with Phoenix winning each contest by a single point. On Feb. 10, the Suns overcame a 16-point first-half deficit to defeat Milwaukee at home, aided by 58 combined points from All-Star guards Chris Paul and Devin Booker.
On April 19, the Suns defeated Milwaukee on the road, 128-127, as four of their starters eclipsed 20 points. Booker, who had 24 points on 9-of-24 shooting with seven rebounds and seven assists, was fouled with three-tenths of a second remaining and hit a go-ahead free-throw to give the Suns a one-point win.
Ahead of Game 1, we caught up with Brew Hoop beat reporter Kyle Carr, who offered his thoughts on the Bucks’ road to the Finals, status of Antetokounmpo and prediction for the series. Here’s what he had to say.
1. I wanted to get your takeaways from the Bucks-Hawks Eastern Conference Finals. It was a competitive series, both teams had their star players go down and then Milwaukee closed it out in six. What did you learn about the Bucks in that time?
The series against the Hawks was competitive, as the Hawks caught Milwaukee off guard in Game 1. What I did learn is this team can get over the hump and get to the Finals. In years past, Milwaukee would have likely collapsed after Giannis’ injury, or not have won Game 3 against Atlanta. Too many times, this team didn’t make necessary adjustments and faltered, so to see this team stare at difficult situations like losing Game 1, Giannis and blowing a 17-point lead in Game 5 against the Brooklyn Nets in the semifinal round and walking away with a conference title shows a new mentality.
2. What is your take on Giannis Antetokounmpo’s health entering this series? How many games do you expect him to play in, and what percent will he be of his normal self?
The fact that Giannis ONLY has a hyperextended knee and no structural damage was a miracle. I think he will sit out the first game, return for Game 2 and be 60-70 percent his normal self. I’d expect he would be close to 80 percent by Game 3 and would play the rest of the series. The Bucks’ training staff does not play around with players and their injuries, so even if Giannis wants to play, they will determine if the risk makes sense.
3. Before the playoffs, the Bucks were viewed nationally as very talented (Giannis Antetokounmpo is a generational-type star) but perhaps had something missing to reach the NBA Finals. What has changed about their play this postseason?
I think what changed has a lot to do with the roster moves general manager Jon Horst made in the offseason and mid-year. Trading Eric Bledsoe for Jrue Holiday was the marquee move, but adding guys like Bobby Portis and Bryn Forbes helped the team’s offense, and the midseason addition of PJ Tucker added more bite to their defense and tougher mental strength. Coach Mike Budenholzer also made plenty of must-needed adjustments to the team, between switching on defense or not just letting players shoot 3(-pointers) if they have an inch of space. These changes, I think, were the difference between Milwaukee being here and them losing to the Nets.
4. Jrue Holiday was an all-defensive first-team pick in his first year with the team and PJ Tucker has been noted for his toughness throughout his career. How have those two additions impacted the identity of this team this season?
As I mentioned earlier, those two simply bring a mindset that Milwaukee didn’t have in the past. Both guys have had their struggles in the playoffs, but you always knew they would make the plays when the Bucks needed them the most. Their toughness allows Giannis to play more of a free-safety role and reduce All-Star forward Khris Middleton’s workload. Tucker’s defense on Kevin Durant was admirable, and Jrue being able to guard most players on the court highlighted his physical toughness as well.
5. What has been your take on Khris Middleton’s performance this postseason? He’s obviously going to be very key to the Bucks possibly winning a championship.
There has been a lot of back and forth on whether he can be the No. 2 guy on a championship team. Since Game 2 against the Nets, Khris has stepped up when the Bucks needed him most. He scored 38 points in Game 6 against Brooklyn and had two games where he had 20-plus point quarters that were vital for Milwaukee to get here. He is going to be important for the Bucks’ chances, especially with Giannis not at 100 percent. I think Khris has silenced a lot of doubters and stepped up in this postseason.
6. Which other role players or trends should Suns fans watch out for entering this series?
For some odd reason, Milwaukee is struggling with shooting the 3-ball. Bryn Forbes, who shot 45 percent from 3 in the regular season, is hovering around 32 percent in his last two series. PJ Tucker, who is reliable shooting 3-pointers in the corner, was 1-of-7 from that spot in Game 6. Milwaukee has made up for the poor shooting by consistently scoring at least 50 points in the paint, but if a guy like Forbes, (backup guard) Pat Connaughton or Middleton gets hot, Milwaukee will like its odds.
7. Who do you think wins the NBA Finals, and in how many games?
Phoenix is a very good team that doesn’t have a clear weakness that Milwaukee can exploit. Their defense has been one of the best this postseason and they have guys who can hurt you in a variety of ways. Chris Paul can manipulate the defense and Devin Booker plus Deandre Ayton are guys who are capable of taking over at any point. At this point, it comes down to which role players will step up for their respective teams, and it’s too close to call. I am going with my heart and homerism, because I can’t pick against the Bucks now that they have made the Finals. I will pick the Bucks in 7 but would be surprised if this series didn’t go six or seven games, unless Giannis is healthy.