I’m totally excited by the NBA Playoffs Final starting on Tuesday night between the Phoenix Suns and Milwaukee Bucks though some NBA fans seem disinterested, perhaps because these two teams are not traditional NBA royalty.

The Milwaukee Bucks have won it once, when they were led by Kareem Abdul Jabbar (then called Lew Alcindor) to the title, and the Phoenix Suns have never won it.

This is the most excited I have been since the 2014 final, which was a repeat between my San Antonio Spurs and the Miami Heat. This year’s finalists are well matched and there are so many compelling subplots.

Background

Phoenix Suns has regularly ranked among the bottom teams in the Western Conference. This year is their first in the playoffs since 2010. Whatever happens, it’s been a great year for the Arizona franchise.

Their fortunes changed when they signed Chris Paul ahead of this season, along with Jae Crowder, to join a talented core of young players. It’s a great surprise that the Suns have gone from not qualifying for the playoffs to winning the tough Western Conference in one season and their performance confirms Paul’s greatness.

However, 36-year old Paul’s legacy is on the line. This is the first time that he is playing in the championship series in his Hall of Fame career as a point guard. He must win to be elevated to the conversation of all-time great point guards alongside with Magic Johnson, Isiah Thomas and Stephen Curry, who are all multiple championship winners. The West is so competitive that they are not guaranteed a return to the Finals in the future.

Regarding the Milwaukee Bucks, Giannis Antetokounmpo has achieved all that an individual could achieve in the NBA. He is two-time Most Valuable Player, voted as such in 2019 and 2020. He is one of only 3 players to win MVP and DPOY in the same year (along with Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon) and probably the best power forward in the game today.

The East Conference was always regarded as the weaker conference but it has become increasingly competitive in the past three years. Brooklyn Nets, Atlanta Hawks, Philadelphia 76ers and last year’s finalist, Miami Heat (depending on offseason moves), will all be serious and perennial contenders going forward. Giannis has a rapidly narrowing window to win and exit that list of great players with asterisks against their greatness because they couldn’t get over the hump.

One reason for the increasing competitiveness of the NBA generally is that it has benefited from globalization in both revenue and talent. The NBA’s international revenue has been growing steadily, it now earns over $500 million from China alone.

The international revenue has grown in tandem with the number of international (non-American) players. Currently, approximately 25% of the NBA’s 450 players are international, up from about 5% in 1996. International players have been voted MVP for three straight years and they won 4 out of 5 individual awards last year.

The share of African talent is growing very quickly, and that is something that I am very happy about! Some of the ‘African’ talent are first-generation Americans (sons of African immigrants) who are excluded from the international count. But I’m particularly happy for those who made the jump straight from Africa, like Joel Embiid and Pascal Siakam of Cameroon.

Their dominance and superstardom have made proud the legacy of their African pioneers like Hakeem, Manute Bol, Dikembe Mutombo and continued by the likes of Luc Mbah a Moute. The NBA Africa league which started this year should lead to the discovery of more African talent.

How The Teams Match Up

In Monty Williams (Phoenix) and Mike Budenholzer (Milwaukee), both teams are very well led by calm, steady and tactically exceptional coaches.

Phoenix utilises more the NBA’s most popular strategy of ‘pick & roll’, where a forward frees up his point guard (primary ball handler) by legally obstructing the point guard’s marker (sets a pick). The forward’s own guard (opposing forward) has to choose between marking the point guard to stop him from having a free run towards the basket or stay with his mark.

The forward then turns and runs (or rolls) towards the basket; if the opposing forward goes with the roll, the point guard has an uncontested shot. If the opposing forward stays with the point guard, the forward can catch a lob over the top and finish.

It helps that Chris Paul, who plays point guard for Phoenix, is one of the greatest exponents of the pick & roll in the history of the NBA.

Milwaukee depends more on moving the ball quickly (loosely equivalent to a counter attacking strategy in football). Very few basketball players can guard Giannis one-on-one so he goes quickly (called a fast break) as soon as Milwaukee gets a defensive rebound before the opposing defense is set.

However, if a fast break is not possible and the defense is set, Milwaukee will pass the ball quickly as the players switch positions along the 3-point line (the ‘perimeter’) and hope to create an opening for a shot as the defense scrambles to cover the moving attackers. So Milwaukee’s basic strategy is to have 4 sharpshooters along the perimeter and Giannis close to the basket.

Phoenix and Milwaukee have elite defenses, adept at defending both the pick & roll and the perimeter. The Finals may not be very high scoring affairs but each game in the best of 7 series will be a delight to watch.

Phoenix’s starting line-up will be Chris Paul (point guard also called the 1 position), Devin Booker (shooting guard or 2), Mikal Bridges (small forward, 3), Jae Crowder (power forward, 4) and DeAndre Ayton (center, 5). Cameron Payne, Dario Saric and Torrey Craig will be their key players off the bench. Each team has 5 starters and 10 on the bench.

Milwaukee will start with Jrue Holiday (PG, 1), Khris Middleton (SG, 2), PJ Tucker (SF, 3), Giannis Antetokounmpo (PF, 4) and Brook Lopez (Center, 5). Bobby Portis, Pat Connaughton, Bryn Forbes, Jeff Teague and Thanasis Antetokounmpo (older brother of Giannis) are all likely to play key support roles.

One of the important battles will be between Paul and Holiday, who is the closest point guard in the league to Paul in his combination of defensive ability, decision making and scoring ability. But Holiday is bigger, standing 6’3” and over 90 kgs while Paul stands an even 6 feet.

Paul is a superstar but Holiday is good enough to guard him without needing help, and will force Chris Paul to guard him too when he attacks.

Khris Middleton (6’7”, 100 kgs) is a good defender and he will likely guard the Suns’ superstar at the 2 position, Devin Booker (6’5” 93kgs). But Booker is not a good enough defender to guard Middleton, a superstar in his own right, when Milwaukee have the ball so Mikal Bridges (6’6” 95kgs), the small forward for the Suns, will likely draw that assignment.

The two shooting guards remind me of Vinny Johnson who played for the Detroit Pistons in the late 1980s and early 1990s and was nicknamed ‘The Microwave’ because of his ability to suddenly score a lot of points, in bunches (or grow hot in basketball parlance). Middleton and Booker can have a slow game for most of the night and suddenly score 20 points or more in a blink!

The match-up between Brook Lopez (7 feet, 128kgs) and DeAndre Ayton (6’11”, 113kgs) at center will be intriguing. 33-year old Lopez is a veteran who can play close to the basket (in the paint, as they say) but is also a deadly shooter from the perimeter. He blocks shots and when defending the pick & roll, has shown a surprising ability to keep up with opposing point guards. Bahamas-born 22-year old Ayton was the number 1 pick in the NBA draft three years ago. He has developed immensely this year. He defends well in the paint, he’s a great rebounder and a very good finisher close to the basket.

PJ Tucker (6’5”, 111kgs) joined Milwaukee this year. He is noted for 3 things: he has the most extensive sneaker collection in the NBA, he brings tough defense to the court every single night and he is a deadly 3-point shooter from the corners. Jae Crowder (6’5”, 107kgs) is almost a mirror image of Tucker and he will be the primary defender on Giannis for the Suns.

Giannis (6’11”, 110kgs) is nicknamed the Greek Freak. He is the Greek son of Nigerian immigrants. He is wiry, fast, strong and when he shines, Milwaukee wins. At age 26, he is at his peak and the biggest star in these Finals since Chris Paul is in his twilight years. Giannis’ only weakness is that he is not a good shooter but he is so fast and powerful that it takes a whole team to prevent him from getting to and finishing at the basket.

Keys to Victory

  1. The leaders of both teams, Paul and Giannis, are not 100% healthy. They are coming off recent injuries and they have missed games in these playoffs. Indeed, it’s not certain if Giannis will play in Game 1 of the series after missing the last two games of the Eastern Conference final. How well these leaders play will be huge factors in how their teams perform.
  2. Both teams won crucial games in the conference finals without their leaders, when other players stepped up and filled the gaps. Cam Payne was exceptional, filling in for Chris Paul in the Western Conference final, as was Bobby Portis who stood in for Giannis. Torrey Craig is a very good defender for the Suns. Dario Saric is a capable back-up for Ayton but he could be a starting center or forward for other teams. Pat Connaughton is a guard/small forward whose jumping ability helps Milwaukee to up their rebounding whenever he is in the game. The team whose role players rise to the occasion will have an edge.
  3. When Milwaukee’s 3-point shots fall, the other team has to defend them on the perimeter which gives Giannis the space to work on the inside. When they miss, the other team can crowd the middle and deny space. If the shots don’t fall, Milwaukee will struggle.
  4. Can Milwaukee defend the Suns’ pick & roll? It will take elite team defending to do so else Chris Paul may feast to his contentment in this series because Jrue Holiday is about to see a steady diet of picks by Ayton, to free Chris Paul on every single offensive possession. Milwaukee Bucks will have to bring their A-game on pick & roll defense.

Whatever happens, this will be a fascinating series. The games will be shown on ESPN live at 1am every other day starting Tuesday, 6 July 2021 and repeated at a more decent hour the next day. I prefer to watch live so that’s my beauty sleep all gone. The first team to win 4 games will be crowned champion.

I’m in a great position of being happy regardless of who wins because I like both Giannis and Chris Paul.

Suns probably have a slight edge but my heart is with my African brother. Go Bucks! Go Giannis!