NBA Finals Preview: Suns v. Bucks

The 2020-21 NBA playoffs have been a battle of attrition.  Getting a Bucks/Suns Finals would’ve been considered a reasonable prediction outcome at the start of the playoffs.  How we actually got here was not anticipated.  Milwaukee dodged a few bullets against the Nets due to some untimely injuries (but, yes, Milwaukee played well when it had to).  Phoenix has been consistently pretty good but each team they have faced so far has had to deal with major injuries to key players (Anthony Davis, Jamal Murray, and Kawhi Leonard).  Now, we have a Finals matchup where Phoenix appears relatively healthy but Milwaukee looks very likely not to have Giannis Antetokounmpo.  Naturally, the Suns are currently solid but not overwhelming favorites.   Let’s dig into the facts/numbers and see if we agree.

Team Numbers

The Suns put up a slightly better SRS than Milwaukee (5.67 to 5.57).  Of course, the spread is small and Phoenix’s star players played nearly full seasons: Devin Booker (67), Chris Paul (72), and Deandre Ayton (69).  On the Bucks’ side, Giannis (61) and Jrue Holiday (59) missed a good deal of time that more than accounts for the minor SRS split.

In terms of team stats, the Bucks were actually better on offense (6th) than they were on defense (10th).  This is in stark contrast to the last two seasons, where the Bucks were the best defensive team in the NBA each season.  This defensive decline probably can be attributed to the key injuries, as well as a conscious decision by the Bucks to leave some weapons on the table for the playoffs after peaking too early during their last two disappointing playoff flameouts.  In terms of tangible weaknesses, the Bucks gave up a lot of threes (last in the NBA in opponent makes).  This is consistent with the last two seasons in opponent attempts but now the opponents are making them at a much higher percentage.

The Suns are very similarly ranked to the Bucks (5th on offense and 9th on defense).  The difference is the Bucks were second in the NBA in pace but the Suns, thanks to CP3’s deliberate style, were quite slow paced (26th).  The Suns also were near the bottom of the NBA in free throws but made up for that by ranking high in assists and avoiding turnovers (yup, Paul has made a difference).   The Suns did not foul opponents much either.  In short, they play a deliberate style with the offense run through Paul and Booker.

Prior Head-to-Head Matchups

The Suns and Bucks have played twice this year and both games have been as close as can be:

-On February 10, 2021, Phoenix beat the Bucks 125-124 in Phoenix.  The Bucks were missing Holiday and the Suns were at full strength.  It feels like a long time ago because Giannis scored 47 points and somehow went 17-21 from the line.  Phoenix’s top players had regular good games.  For future predictive value, a  1-point loss on the road without Holiday probably constitutes a better showing for the Bucks.  The Suns did play Frank Kaminsky 34+ minutes, which is not going happen again (he has had DNPs in the last seven games).

-On April 19, 2021, the Suns beat the Bucks 128-127 in overtime in Milwaukee.  The teams were at full strength and the team rotations more closely resemble the playoff rotations (and both teams really needed the win for seeding purposes).  Milwaukee did a nice job making it hard for Booker to score but Paul and the other starters (Ayton and Mikal Bridges) did quite well.  Milwaukee’s Big Three were great but Brook Lopez struggled and the bench was mostly blah.

These two match ups indicate that a healthy showdown between these teams in the Finals would’ve been a ton of fun.  Now, Giannis’ minutes (and his 40 ppg average against Phoenix) will have to be allotted to Bobby Portis, who has had his moments (he has a respectable 1.0 BPM in the playoffs) but is usually taxed in a featured role.  For reference, the Bucks went 5-5 in games Giannis sat out this year (none of those 10 games involved teams that won a playoff series).

Match Ups to Watch

Paul/Holiday should be fascinating.  Holiday is one of the better defensive point guards in the NBA and Milwaukee has to hope he can slow down Paul .  Mike Budenholzer may also shift Holiday over to Booker and hope that Pat Connaughton or Bryn Forbes will have better luck against the older slower Paul than they would against Booker.  Whatever Budenholzer chooses, the Bucks will have a weakness that can’t be masked.

Another interesting decision to watch will be how Milwaukee deals with Ayton.  He is young and quick and the Bucks’ primary options are the slower Lopez or the faster, smaller P.J. Tucker, who can’t score at all.  Last round, Lopez matched up mostly with fellow conventional big Clint Capela and Tucker actually played a few more minutes (particularly when Atlanta went to Danilo Gallinari at center).  Tucker will likely get more minutes versus Ayton, as the Clippers did better going small against Ayton last round too.

On the Phoenix side, they have a pretty set rotation other than the funky line up when they use Dario Saric as a big man.  Defensively, Bridges will be assigned with the task of making Khris Middleton work really hard to get shots (a task that Atlanta did a good job of last round too).  The only path to victory for the Bucks will be to ride Middleton and hope he scores a ton.

Are the Suns worthy champs?

Assuming the Suns win the title (and that is the more likely scenario) are they worthy champs?  Of course they are.  They went 51-21 (.708%), which comes out to a 58-24 record in a normal season.  Yes, the road has been relatively easy but they are a legit good team.  Let’s see where they would rank in terms of SRS with other champs.  There have been a 14 champs with lower SRS ratings.  Here’s the list of champs with lower SRS ratings since 1979-80:

-1994-95 Houston Rockets, 2.32

-2005-06 Heat, 3.59

-2000-01 Lakers, 3.74

-1993-94 Houston Rockets, 4.19

-1981-82 Lakers, 4.37

-2010-11 Mavericks, 4.41

-2009-10 Lakers, 4.78

-1987-88 Lakers, 4.81

-2003-04 Pistons, 5.04

-1979-80 Lakers, 5.40

-1989-90 Pistons, 5.41

-2015-16 Cavaliers, 5.45

-2018-19 Raptors, 5.49

-2002-03 Spurs, 5.65

In the last 40 years, the Suns fall on the lower end of the spectrum of title teams but not the absolute bottom.  Most (but not all) of these teams were either considered underdogs in the Finals or had injuries or major trades change their fortunes during the season (and a few coasted a bit in the regular season like the 2000-01 Lakers and the 2015-16 Cavs).  Again, SRS is not a totally reliable way to measure a team but the SRS comps show the Suns to be respectable but on the lower end of title teams.

The bigger irony is that there have been several prior Phoenix teams that could’ve (and should’ve) won titles that score as a bit better in SRS.  The 2006-07 Steve Nash/Shawn Marion/Amare Stoudemire Suns were great but were robbed of a title shot by Robert Horry’s cheap shot on Nash.  Five of the Kevin Johnson Suns teams also rank better than this year’s team (only one of those teams also included Charles Barkley).  Yes, the 2020-21 Suns are not dominating but they deserve a title if they can get it.

Prediction: Even with Giannis this would be a tough match up for the Bucks in the back court.  Without Giannis, the task seems too much.  Suns win 4-1.

Finals MVP: Chris Paul