It was as incomplete an NBA season as the Association has experienced in more than two decades, or since the owners locked out the players in 1998, shortened the season to 50 games and flat-out canceled the All-Star Game.
Yet here we are, finally, with Phoenix and Milwaukee the last two teams standing and ready to begin play and vie for the honor of being the league Covid champion. With so many teams, including the favored and defending champion Lakers, forced to look on helplessly from the sidelines at least partially due to injuries to key players, the spotlight now shines on the Suns and Bucks.
Phoenix has opened as a slight -170 betting favorite, due in no small part to the fact that all three of the Suns’ key players – Chris Paul, Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton – are running up and down the court and not watching the game on a TV in the trainer’s room. Milwaukee’s all-everything Giannis Antetokounmpo wasn’t missed that much in the Bucks’ Eastern Conference finals win over the Hawks, but that will change in a hurry when the Finals begin on Tuesday. If Antetokounmpo is anywhere near close to returning, the Bucks (+150 to win the title) aren’t saying. So we all assume that he’s out until he’s not.
Phoenix heads into Tuesday night’s opener at home with several distinct advantages:
THE SUNS ARE HEALTHY – The starting five of Booker, Paul, Ayton, Jae Crowder and Mikal Bridges – is dealing with the usual minor aches and pains, but it will be in tact at least at the start of the series. This could force Milwaukee’s remaining go-to players – Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday – to play extended minutes against a Phoenix team that loves to push the pace. The Bucks will have to figure out a way to not fall off the edge of the Earth when they go to their bench.
THE SUNS ARE RESTED – Finishing off the Clippers on June 30 in the Western Conference finals has given the Suns a full week of rest before the opening game (at home, no less), while the Bucks will have just two days off (plus a long plane ride) to get ready. Paul, Ayton and Booker played a combined 117 minutes in the WC Game 6 clincher, and their legs needed some time off.
THE SUNS HAVE CHRIS PAUL – Paul’s playoff failings are well-documented, but this is a chance for the 35-year-old veteran to put them all in the rearview mirror and finally get the chip needed to fill out his post-career bio. Paul put the hammer down on LA in the final game of that series, putting together one of the finest games in his career – 41 points, 8 assists, 4 rebounds and – amazingly – zero turnovers.
THE SUNS HAVE MOMENTUM – Seems like just yesterday that the Suns piggy-backed their way into the Bubble only because the NBA wanted to showcase Zion Williamson, then won eight straight games. That should have been a clue that things were different in the desert after a long playoff drought. And when Paul got traded to the Suns by Oklahoma City in the off-season, it provided yet another jolt of energy to the franchise. Phoenix surprised everyone, going 51-21 in the regular season and 42-28-2 ATS (second-best, only to the Knicks).
THE SUNS HAVE AYTON – And Ayton is developing into one of the top bigs in the league. Through the first three rounds of the playoffs the Bucks have been able to utilize Brook Lopez’s size to their advantage against smaller centers. That dynamic has been flipped on its head, and now it’s Lopez who will have his hands full against the powerful Ayton.
Antetokounmpo or no Antetokounmpo, the Suns appear to have the edge as one of the more interesting NBA Finals in a long time gets under way. Phoenix is a 5.5-point favorite in Game 1. The money line is Phoenix -220, Bucks +190, and the O/U is 217.