We finally made it. After an NBA postseason rife with attrition via injuries to star players, we have our final two teams. Some will argue they are not the best, but that conversation is for the low-hanging fruit pickers on Twitter. Here, we only care about the series -- and we have a good one on our hands.
When these two teams met in the regular season, they played two highly competitive and fun contests, both of which resulted in victories for the Phoenix Suns. Things have changed since those games, but the schemes and matchups remain the same, so let’s dive in and find out who will be our 2020-2021 NBA Champion.
Phoenix Suns (-200) vs. Milwaukee Bucks (+ 165)
Milwaukee’s Offense / Phoenix’s Defense
In the regular season, the Bucks operated much differently when Antetokounmpo was off the floor, but in the final two games of the Eastern Conference Finals they looked very similar to the version that had the two-time MVP in action. Milwaukee would become a jump-shooting team in the minutes without Antetokounmpo, taking just 29% of its attempt within four feet of the basket while shooting 59.5% from that area of the floor. However, in Games 5 and 6 they dominated the painted area against Atlanta, taking 49 attempts within four feet and shooting 77.5% on those shots. The frequency of attempts did not get much better, in fact it dropped to 26.8% in those contests, but the difference was the shooting percentage, which was just 59.5% in the regular season without Giannis. If the Bucks can keep up that rate of shooting at the rim and in the restricted area this offense, which averaged 1.23 points per possession over the final two games of the series against the Hawks, will be able to have success against Phoenix inside.
The Suns might have the second-best rim defense in the postseason (60.7%), but that was hardly the case in the regular season. Phoenix finished 24th in opponent shooting inside four feet, allowing 65.5% on attempts at the rim. In the two games against Milwaukee they were demolished inside to the tune of 106 paint points and 74.6% shooting on 63 attempts at the rim. Much of that damage was done by Antetokounmpo, so there is the possibility the Bucks do not find the same success in that area of the floor if The Greek Freak is not healthy for this series, something the Suns, and DeAndre Ayton, should pray is not the case. Antetokounmpo single-handedly ravaged Phoenix’s interior defense in the regular season, scoring 80 points in two games on 60.0% shooting from the floor. Ayton, who has improved greatly throughout the season, had no answer for Antetokounmpo’s explosive ability at the cup and that is likely to be the case yet again if he is able to play near his usual level in this series.
If Antetokounmpo is not able to play the onus of creating offense off the bounce falls onto the shoulders of Jrue Holiday. In the regular season Holiday was perfectly capable of doing so, as he took 35.6% of his attempts at the rim and shot 65.9%. He showed that ability in the final two games of the Eastern Conference Finals as well by taking 11 attempts inside four feet and hitting seven of them. Phoenix allowed Los Angeles to take 20 or more attempts at the rim four times in the Western Conference Finals and finished with the worst defensive rim frequency of all the playoff teams (34.2%). The opportunities will be there for either Holiday or Antetokounmpo in the restricted area, but Milwaukee will have to be dedicated to putting pressure on the likes of Ayton to have success and that could be a problem due to limited status of this roster. Of the eight players who registered 10 or more minutes for the Bucks in the final two games of the Eastern Conference Finals, only two take over 35% of their attempts at the rim: Holiday and Jeff Teague.
Dribble penetration is important because it opens the floors for shooters, something that has not gone well for the Bucks this postseason. Milwaukee comes into the Finals shooting just 32.4% from beyond the arc, and they are about to face the team that leads the postseason in perimeter defense at 32.9% allowed to opposing shooters. However, this is a test for the Suns as well, which have been getting away with some Knicks-like luck from deep. According to the NBA tracking data Phoenix has allowed wide-open 3-pointers on 18.0% of opponent attempts, but those looks are going down at 35.4% rate. On open 3-pointers opponents have shot just 32.2% this postseason. Despite the poor shooting numbers throughout the three series they have played to this point, the Bucks are a capable shooting team. They finished sixth in shooting percentage (38.8%) and 12th in frequency (37.6%). If the Suns are going to continue to allow open and wide-open attempts from the perimeter this is the team that can make them pay.
Phoenix’s Offense / Milwaukee’s Defense
The Suns offense begins and ends with the bane of every analytics nerd’s existence: the mid-range shot. (That really is not true. Elite stars should have elite mid-range games, but I digress). Phoenix took the fourth-most mid-range attempts of any team in the regular season and led the league in shooting from that area of the floor at 46.6%. That really should not be surprising to hear, as their offense is built on the backs of two elite mid-range scorers in Chris Paul and Devin Booker. This is an issue for Milwaukee, which plays drop coverage on pick-and-rolls to prioritize rim defense over all else. That approach has led the Bucks to rank poorly in perimeter defense and mid-range defense as well. Milwaukee allowed the fourth-most mid-range attempts of any team in the league in the regular season and opponents shot 42.9% on those shots. That weakness has carried over to the postseason, where they have allowed opponents to shoot 45.4% on mid-range shots. Phoenix exploited this in the regular season series, going 43-of-85 (50.6%) on mid-range attempts in the two games. Mid-range shooting is already the lifeblood of this team, so we can expect plenty of those attempts in this series.
That will not be the only problem for the Bucks in this series, though. When you’re constantly playing drop coverage and having the defender at the point of attack consistently going over screens it allows the screener to flair out for open shots. This type of defense is why Milwaukee allowed the fifth-most 3-point attempts in the regular season, finished 29th in opponent 3-point shooting (39.3%) and gave up the third-most wide-open looks from deep. Phoenix picked apart that defense in the regular season, averaging 120.5 points every 100 possessions and going 32-of-71 (45.1%) on 3-point attempts. Chris Paul, Cam Johnson and Mikal Bridges had very good shooting performances in those regular season meetings with Milwaukee, and we should expect that to continue in the NBA Finals.
It is not all roses for the Phoenix Suns in this matchup though. The way their offense runs, a bad shooting night can derail everything. Phoenix has taken just 27.6% of its attempts within four feet of the basket this postseason, something on par with their numbers in the regular season in which they finished last in frequency of attempts at the rim. Milwaukee’s defensive philosophy has its weaknesses, but it is extremely effective in deterring teams from shooting at the hoop. The Bucks finished second in the regular season in opponent frequency of attempts within four feet (27.8%) and allowed just 61.6% shooting. That has continued here in the postseason where Milwaukee ranks first in both opponent frequency of attempts at the rim (23.4%) and shooting (60.4%). In their regular season losses the Suns shot just 43.4% from the mid-range area of the floor, a rate on par with an average NBA team. Shots at the rim are the highest quality of shot a team can get, and they work to stabilize an offense that has gone cold. If the jumpshots stop falling for Phoenix it is likely they will not have the ability to right the ship with runs to the rim, an area they have struggled in all season long.
The total for Game 1 of the NBA Finals opened at 217 and that is essentially the consensus number as of Monday morning. In the regular season the two games finished with 249 and 232 points in regulation respectively (Second game went to overtime), and the closing totals were 226.5 and 232 at most shops. That is a 9.5 and 14.5 point difference in the two regular season totals to this one, so what gives? There could be the absence of Antetokounmpo not playing in this game factored in, but the numbers dictate the Bucks get worse defensively without him and that scoring goes up. That is supported by the last two games of the Eastern Conference Finals, both of which went over the total.
Both teams also run an offense the other has trouble defending, especially if Giannis is going to play. Phoenix can exploit the soft drop coverage of Milwaukee, hitting mid-range jumpers and open 3-point attempts, something they did in the regular season when they shot 50.6% from mid-range and 45.1% from deep. The Bucks can throttle the Suns’ interior defense as well, like when they went 47-of-63 at the rim (74.6%) while scoring 106 points in the paint. These are two offenses built to exploit the other defense. Why would there be such a massive adjustment from the regular season totals? This series has the makings of an exciting, high-scoring affair.
Given what we know about these matchups, there are some angles on a couple of player props that stick out at the beginning of this series.
Mikal Bridges Made 3-Point Attempts
There have not been props posted yet, but I would expect Bridges to have a great series from a shooting perspective. In the two games against Milwaukee in the regular season he went a combined 8-of-10 from beyond the arc and 14-of-18 overall. The drop coverage the Bucks play allows shooters camped on the perimeter like Bridges will be to find open looks. He is also a dynamic cutter and finisher, so there is potential for a massive series overall, but this matchup is tailor-made for a player like him.
Chris Paul Points & Assists
This might be chalky, but this is another in which I think the matchup works perfectly in favor of Paul’s game. In the regular season Paul averaged 25.0 points and 10.0 assists per game against Milwaukee, the highest of any team he faced this season. The drop coverage allows him to score in an area of the floor in which he is comfortable and the open shooters allow him to rack up assists. Playing these over is dangerous, as the market will be shaded somewhat higher than usual on a star player, so keep an eye on these when posted.
Final Prediction: Suns in 6
Given the unknown status of Giannis Antetokounmpo, the coaching advantage and matchups it is hard to look past the Phoenix Suns here. Chris Paul is the perfect player to disrupt the Bucks’ defense and they have enough shooters to exploit a perimeter defense that has bothered me all season long. This series does have the potential to be a fun, high-scoring set and when the smoke clears it should be the Point God hoisting his first Larry O’Brien.