Bucks vs Suns Finals Preview: The Lost Art of the Mid-Range
Updated: Jul 7, 2021
The NBA Finals are finally here! While many brushed aside the Phoenix Suns and Milwaukee Bucks as legitimate championship contenders, both teams have battled their way to the Finals. The Suns last made the Finals in 1993, where they fell short against Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls. The Bucks last made the Finals in 1974, where they lost to the Boston Celtics in seven games. The Bucks have only won one NBA Championship in franchise history, back in 1971 against the Washington Bullets. The Suns are still seeking their first NBA Championship. Chris Paul is looking for his first NBA Championship to complete his Hall of Fame career, while Giannis Antetokounmpo is looking for his first NBA Championship to silence his doubters. Needless to say, this series will certainly be competitive and enjoyable to watch.
A huge question mark for the Bucks will be the health of their two-time MVP, Giannis Antetokounmpo. Giannis suffered a knee injury in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals, and many believed the Bucks had slim chances make the Finals without Giannis. However, Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton stepped up with big performances in Games 5 and 6, and they were able to power the Bucks past the Hawks. During Inside the NBA, Charles Barkley made an interesting comment regarding Giannis' injury. Barkley said, "I think the best thing that happened to the Bucks was Giannis getting hurt, because they have unleashed the aggressive Jrue Holiday. I think he is going to be fantastic against Chris Paul." Jrue Holiday was brilliant in Games 5 and 6 against the Hawks, and the Bucks will absolutely need an aggressive Jrue Holiday to beat the Suns. While it does look like Giannis will play in the Finals, it is hard to see him being at 100%. With a player like Giannis who relies on his freakish athleticism so much, it will be interesting to see how if he is restricted by his knee injury.
If the Bucks hope to win the Finals, they will need to continue hitting their threes. So far in the playoffs, the Bucks are only shooting 31.1% on threes, down significantly from their 38.9% clip during the regular season. In Game 6 against the Hawks, the Bucks shot 17/45 (37.8%) from three which ultimately helped them knock off the Hawks, even without the services of Giannis Antetokounmpo. Phoenix's defense will present multiple challenges for Milwaukee's offense. According to NBA Advanced Stats, the Suns have only allowed 32.6% shooting on threes during the playoffs. The Bucks three-point shooting will likely struggle much more against the Suns than they did against the Hawks. Additionally, the Bucks were able to pound the Hawks in the paint. In Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals, Brook Lopez had 33 points on 14/18 shooting and Jrue Holiday had 25 points to go along with 13 assists. Both players were able to dominate the paint at will. However, the Suns have Deandre Ayton, a stout rim protector who has already defended Anthony Davis and Nikola Jokic in these playoffs. The Bucks won't have an easy time as long as Ayton is in the paint. A key for the Bucks will be the three-point shooting of Brook Lopez. Lopez shot 33.8% on threes during the regular season, and if he can knock down his threes consistently, Ayton will be forced out of the paint on defense. This would open up the paint much more for the Bucks to attack.
To knock off the Suns, the Bucks will also need to get elite-scoring from Khris Middleton. Middleton had an incredible 23-point third quarter in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals to close the series. To slow Middleton down, the Suns will likely have Mikal Bridges defend Khris Middleton. Bridges has emerged as a key player for the Phoenix Suns on both sides of the ball. Bridges just missed making the All-Defense teams, receiving the 11th most votes in a 10-man field. Bridges will have a lot on his plate guarding Middleton, but he is certainly capable of making Middleton's job a lot more difficult.
While Devin Booker may be the most talented player on the Suns, Chris Paul is certainly the reason why the Suns are four wins away from an NBA Championship. Chris Paul should be able to pick apart the Bucks drop-scheme defense with the pick-and-roll. The Bucks drop-scheme defense tends to open up the mid-range area, and with the emergence of the three-point shot, the mid-range jump shot is becoming increasingly rare. However, Chris Paul and Devin Booker thrive in the mid-range, and they are almost automatic when they get an open mid-range look.
In the above clip, Chris Paul pulls up for an easy mid range jump-shot off the pick-and-roll.
In this clip, Brook Lopez commits more to taking away Chris Paul's mid-range shot, but this allows Paul to find Ayton for an easy layup.
It will certainly be interesting to see how the Bucks defend Chris Paul and the pick-and-roll. After Trae Young torched the Bucks for 48-points in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals, the Bucks defense slowed him down considerably the rest of the series (before he got injured). Jrue Holiday's defense will be crucial in this series, and he will need to disrupt Paul and Booker similarly to how he was able to make Trae Young uncomfortable.
A key for the Suns will be playing the game at their own pace. The Bucks thrive in transition, consistently converting turnovers and missed shots into points on the other end. Giannis Antetokounmpo is almost unstoppable in fast-break opportunities. According to Team Rankings, the Bucks averaged 14.3 fast-break points per game during the regular season, good for fifth-best in the NBA. The bad news for the Bucks is that the Suns have 36-year-old Chris Paul, a future Hall of Fame point guard who is capable of slowing games down and grinding them out. If the Suns can control the pace of the game, they will limit the transition opportunities for Milwaukee.
Another thing to note is that the Suns will have had five days of rest before Game 1 of the Finals, compared to the Bucks only having two days of rest. The Suns also had significant rest advantages entering their match-ups with the Lakers and Clippers, and they set the tone in both series' with a Game 1 win. With the efficiency of the Suns offense and their ability to not turn the ball over, the Bucks may look a step slow, especially early in the series.
If Giannis Antetokounmpo was at 100%, I would probably be picking the Bucks. But his health remains a huge question mark, and I think it's highly doubtful we see Giannis at full strength, which is a bummer. The bottom line is that Phoenix is the deeper and more talented team, and Monty Williams has already proven himself to be one of the great young coaches in the NBA. The Suns stout defense should give the Bucks offense a hard time, while Chris Paul and the Suns offense should be able to find a rhythm against the Bucks defense. Give me the Suns in 6 to win their first championship in franchise history.