I'll save you a little bit of time from the start here: I'm picking the Suns to win both Game 1 and the series as a whole. I do, however, want to offer a slight defense of the Giannis Antetokounmpo-less Bucks to those wondering if Milwaukee can compete at all in this series if its best player is injured. As of this writing, he is listed as doubtful for Game 1.
At a bare minimum, it seems as though the Bucks can score without Giannis, and they can do so in different ways. They scored 66 paint points in Game 5 of the East finals, but only 40 in Game 6. They closed that gap almost entirely by making 17 3-pointers in Game 6 after hitting only nine in Game 5. The Suns allowed fewer shots at the rim than the Hawks did in the regular season, but opponents made a higher percentage against Phoenix. The two defenses performed relatively similar against 3-pointers: Good, but not great. Phoenix's defense has been stellar in the postseason. It's unclear how much of that is based on who the Suns have been playing.
Milwaukee's defense has declined by over five points per 100 possessions with Giannis sidelined, but it is starting from such a high point that it can afford such a dip. The Bucks have allowed 107.1 points per 100 possessions without Giannis in these playoffs. Phoenix is the only non-Bucks team to allow fewer points per 100 possessions than that this postseason. Jrue Holiday remains one of the best guard defenders in the NBA. P.J. Tucker, Brook Lopez and Khris Middleton are close to elite. There are strategic reasons to doubt Milwaukee's defense against Phoenix (which we'll get into), but it's not as though it falls off of a cliff without Giannis.
There's a path here. That's all I'm suggesting. The Bucks probably won't need to win the series without their best player, but if they can steal a game in Phoenix while he recovers, they'll set themselves up to control their destiny at home. That's unlikely. It's just not impossible. With a hot shooting night and some stellar defense, the Bucks could steal a game before they get their two-time MVP back. That being said, I'm picking Phoenix in Game 1, and here's why.
All lines via William Hill Sportsbook
Phoenix Suns vs. Milwaukee Bucks
Date: Tuesday, July 6 | Time: 9 p.m. ET | TV: ABC | Live stream: fuboTV (Try for free)
The Bucks allow the second-most mid-range shots in the NBA. The Suns took the fourth-most in the regular season and made a higher percentage of them than any other team. Milwaukee's drop-coverage scheme is designed to allow the very shots Phoenix wants to take, and while it found success in Game 2 of the Hawks series by playing Brook Lopez closer to the screen (usually around the free-throw line), having Giannis protecting him from behind made that plan far more palatable. Without him, the Bucks are stuck with the same dilemma that doomed Denver: Drop their big men and watch Chris Paul kill them with jumper after jumper, or risk playing higher and getting blown by for layups. The Bucks have the defensive talent to crack the code eventually, but Game 1 favors the team with the schematic advantage. The pick: Suns -6
Think about the guards Phoenix has played this postseason. Reggie Jackson was probably the best one it faced, and he averaged over 20 points per game in the Western Conference finals. A star like Jrue Holiday should find similar success, especially after scoring 52 total points in the last two games of the Atlanta series. Paul is still a good defender, but he's limited, physically, at his age, and Devin Booker carries too much of an offensive burden to guard Holiday. He should have a good series given those matches, and this point total appears low. The pick: Holiday Over 22.5 points
Most of Milwaukee's starters are strong defenders, but the reserves are not. Bryn Forbes is going to be hunted and the Bucks struggle with speedier guards when Holiday takes a rest. Until Giannis returns, that should put Cam Payne in a strong position against Milwaukee's drop coverage. He should be able to get around Lopez if he plays higher up, but can also punish the Bucks from mid-range if need be. This is a low line for a player that has flashed significant upside this postseason. The pick: Payne Over 6.5 points