The weirdest NBA Finals in a while will begin on Tuesday, with the Phoenix Suns hosting Milwaukee Bucks. Both teams profiled as contenders during the regular season, but the Suns hadn't made the playoffs for a decade before this run and the Bucks looked like they were toast a couple of games into the second round.
To get here, Phoenix overcame what looked like a nightmare first-round matchup against the defending-champion Los Angeles Lakers and Milwaukee survived scary seven games against the Brooklyn Nets in the second round. Their opponents were cursed with terrible injury luck, but they've had to deal with some setbacks, too: The Suns' Chris Paul hurt his shoulder against the Lakers and missed the first two games of the conference finals because of the league's COVID-19 health and safety protocols, while the Bucks had to close out the conference finals without Giannis Antetokounmpo and lost Donte DiVincenzo three games into the postseason.
Antetokounmpo's hyperextended left knee looms as the biggest storyline of the 2021 NBA Finals. His status is up in the air heading into Game 1. In previewing the series, that's where we have to start.
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1. What's up with Giannis?
According to Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer, Antetokounmpo is day-to-day heading into Game 1. If he's unavailable, on offense they'll have to try to get by the way they did at the end of the Eastern Conference finals: by leaning on Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday for playmaking, using Brook Lopez as a roller and taking advantage of the extra space with Bobby Portis in Antetokounmpo's place.
Milwaukee's defense looked pretty good without Antetokounmpo at the end of the Atlanta series, but the switching might not have worked if Trae Young had been healthy. It's fair to be skeptical of the Bucks pulling it off against Paul and Devin Booker.
The question here isn't just whether or not Antetokounmpo can play; it's how diminished he will be if he's on the court. So much of his game is about being able to cover ground quickly and overpowering his opponents. Can he be the same force he usually is in transition? Can he make the same rotations he usually makes on defense?
2. Can the Bucks handle the Suns' pick-and-roll game?
When the Suns have the ball, this is an interesting matchup simply by virtue of their shot profile: In the regular season, Milwaukee allowed the most long 2s in the league, and Phoenix took more of those shots than almost anybody. This is a product of the Bucks' base defensive scheme -- deep drop coverage -- and the fact that Paul and Booker are proficient midrange shooters.
To Milwaukee's credit, it experimented with different schemes throughout the season and has adjusted in the playoffs. The best example of this came in Game 2 of the conference finals, in which the Bucks clamped down on Young by playing a much more aggressive version of its conventional coverage. Later on, they disrupted Atlanta's rhythm with switching, even letting Lopez and Portis guard Young on the perimeter.
Phoenix scored 102.7 per 100 possessions in the halfcourt in the regular season, per Cleaning The Glass, the third-best mark in the NBA, and it managed 106.8 per 100 in its two games against the Bucks. (Both were one-point victories.) No team scored better in the halfcourt against top-10 defenses. While the Suns cannot match the full-strength Brooklyn Nets in terms of firepower, this machine is oiled spectacularly well. Turnovers are extremely rare and, now that Deandre Ayton is starring in his role and shooting 75 percent at the rim, it is incredibly difficult to account for him and the shooters at the same time.
Paul and Booker will happily take pull-up 2s if the defense is conceding them. And if Milwaukee elects to switch in order to keep the ball in front and stay out of rotation, then they'll go matchup hunting. Paul is a master of manipulating the defense, and I expect the Bucks to try to make him think by giving him multiple looks (and having Holiday pressure him like crazy).
3. What if Milwaukee can't run?
The Bucks have made up for a halfcourt offense that has been subpar for most of the postseason by getting stops, getting out on the break and crashing the offensive glass. Everybody says the game slows down in the playoffs, but Milwaukee has minimized that effect -- it has used 17.1 percent of its playoff possessions in transition, down from 17.8 percent in the regular season, per CTG, and it has scored 13.7 fast break points per 100 possessions, down from 14.1 per 100 in the regular season.
This is an enormous variable because of Antetokounmpo's injury and because of the opponent. Phoenix limits transition opportunities better than just about anybody because it takes care of the ball, plays at a slow pace and doesn't prioritize the offensive glass. Regardless of whether or not Antetokounmpo is in the lineup, I'm curious to see whether or not the Bucks will try to leak out after the Suns' 3-point attempts, a gambit that paid off at times in the conference finals.
If Milwaukee can't find easy baskets on the break, then it needs to manufacture them another way. Phoenix is a good defensive rebounding team, but the Bucks will surely try to use their size advantage on the boards when Antetokounmpo or Portis is at the power forward spot.
4. Can Ayton swing this thing?
Ayton has passed a bunch of playoff tests with flying colors, and he's not going to see anything completely new in the Finals. He is not the typical swing player, but he is an X-factor. Ayton's production has been a good barometer for Phoenix's offense throughout the playoffs, and, depending on how Milwaukee treats him, he could have an opportunity to assert himself even more.
One of the reasons the Los Angeles Clippers were able to win Game 5 of the Western Conference finals is that they elected to switch smaller defenders onto Ayton. This is a risky strategy against such a strong player with such a soft touch around the basket, but it can also put the Suns in an uncomfortable position. They don't want their offense to turn into a series of Ayton post-ups.
If the Bucks try this, it's up to Ayton to get deep post position and punish them on the glass. And on the other end, it's up to him to continue to avoid foul trouble, particularly if/when Antetokounmpo is attacking the basket. When Antetokounmpo is not on the floor, it will be a team-wide effort to communicate defensively so Ayton can stay around the rim, just like it was against Los Angeles' small lineups.