For six years, Chris Paul did everything in his power to lead the Los Angeles Clippers to the NBA Finals. Now, only one side will have the chance to get there. Paul's Phoenix Suns face those Clippers in the Western Conference finals, and the winner will have a chance to earn the NBA championship that has eluded both for decades.
Of course, Paul will miss an undetermined amount of time due to the NBA's health and safety protocols. The Clippers are missing a star of their own as Kawhi Leonard is out due to a knee injury. They don't know when he will be back either, and that makes this one of the most unpredictable series of the postseason.
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In the Eastern Conference, Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks got past the Brooklyn Nets for their second conference finals appearance in three years. They get Trae Young and the surprising Atlanta Hawks, who knocked off the top-seeded Philadelphia 76ers in seven games.
Now, all four teams will see their depth tested against conference finals-caliber opponents as we get to see two strong showdowns between the Clippers-Suns and Hawks-Bucks. Who will win and play in the 2021 NBA Finals? Here's what our experts have to say.
(2) Phoenix Suns vs. (4) Los Angeles Clippers in West finals
Reiter's take: Chris Paul has found in this young Phoenix team the opus for his potential masterpiece, and the Kawhi-less Clippers, that Utah comeback notwithstanding, won't pose enough of a challenge once CP3 is back. Devin Booker is a star, Deandre Ayton has taken 10 giant steps forward this season, and Phoenix will marshal the same energy and surety under pressure that got them here to keep it rolling. Pick: Suns in six
Quinn's take: It was a valiant effort for the Clippers to get here without Kawhi Leonard, but at the moment, it seems as though he'll be out longer than Chris Paul. Even if he isn't, the Suns are slightly better equipped to play without their best player. Devin Booker can pick up the shot-creation load, and the Suns will do a better job of denying dribble penetration than the Jazz did (though Ayton faces the same danger Rudy Gobert did against these small Clipper lineups). The injuries make this the least predictable conference finals series in quite some time, but I'd lean Phoenix slightly. Pick: Suns in six
Botkin's take: Kawhi Leonard being out is the difference. Chris Paul will likely be back at some point in the series, and I struggle to find a single hole in Phoenix's attack. We'll see how Ayton fares against the Clippers' small units. but he can also beat them up on the glass and Phoenix has plenty of lineup alternatives. The Clippers can win this even without Leonard. They are loaded with shooting and Paul George is in star mode. It'll be tight. But I give the edge to the Suns. Pick: Suns in seven
Wimbish's take: Even without Kawhi, I think L.A. still manages to win this series. The Clippers are going to have several guys to throw at Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges, and Chris Paul (when he returns). It's not going to be an easy series, and both teams are going to get their shots, but I think the Clippers sneak past the Suns in what should be an exciting series. Pick: Clippers in seven
Ward-Henninger's take: The Clippers' small-ball approach should have the same effect on Deandre Ayton as it did on Rudy Gobert, which should help L.A. stay in a series in which they're outmatched -- at least on paper. Chris Paul's absence is the key factor here, obviously, but assuming he's back for Game 3 at the latest, the Suns should be able to stave off the pesky Clippers without Kawhi Leonard. As great as Reggie Jackson, Terance Mann and Marcus Morris have been, a lot is being asked of them against a team as good as the Suns. Pick: Suns in seven
Maloney's take: It was amazing that the Clippers closed out the Jazz without Kawhi Leonard, but asking them to win an entire series while shorthanded is too much. Chris Paul's absence for at least Game 1 does give the Clippers some hope, but the Suns are just a really good team so we'll ride with them. Pick: Suns in seven
Herbert's take: Without knowing what's up with Kawhi Leonard or Chris Paul, this gets a big old shrug from me. But I suppose I'll take the team that can play 5-out on offense and any kind of defense it wants to. Versatility is (almost) everything. Pick: Clippers in six
Kaskey-Blomain's take: Depth is huge in the postseason, and the Clippers appear to be the deeper team in this matchup. Plus, the Clippers are the most experienced team when it comes to postseason play. Outside of Chris Paul and Jae Crowder, the Suns don't have much postseason experience at all. The unknown status of Kawhi Leonard makes this series somewhat hard to pick, but Paul George played excellent basketball in Leonard's absence to close out the Jazz in the semifinals, and if he can continue to play at such a high level, the Clippers could be making their first-ever NBA Finals appearance. Pick: Clippers in seven
(2) Milwaukee Bucks vs. (5) Atlanta Hawks in East finals
Reiter's take: The Hawks keep up its gutsy, surprising run, and make it tough on the series favorite. But the Bucks, liberated from the fear of losing to the Nets, comfortably shift back to more consistent play. Kris Middleton hits shots, Jrue Holiday shakes off some awful performances, the Bucks play lock-down D, and Giannis looks as aggressive and capable as he did toward the end of that series. Milwaukee hasn't played, consistently, to the level it can, but that changes in the Eastern Conference finals. Pick: Bucks in six
Botkin's take: Jrue Holiday has a bounce-back series. Atlanta will miss De'Andre Hunter more in this series than it did vs. Philadelphia. Milwaukee's defense was awesome against the Nets, and Trae Young will find life difficult, though I fully expect him to have a good, if hard-earned, series. I want to pick Atlanta. Believe me. This is one of the most fun NBA stories I can remember, probably since Stephen Curry and the Warriors burst onto the scene in the 2013 playoffs. But my head tells me the run ends here. The Bucks are just a little too good, their own shot-creating issues notwithstanding. Pick: Bucks in five
Quinn's take: If the Hawks were at full strength, I'd give them a puncher's chance. But De'Andre Hunter being out and Bogdan Bogdanovic looking hobbled just drains too much talent for me to really consider the Hawks here. Jrue Holiday is slightly better-suited to defending Trae Young than Ben Simmons was, and unlike Joel Embiid, Giannis Antetokounmpo doesn't appear to be playing on one leg. It was a valiant effort, and if the Hawks are at full strength next season, we could be having a different conversation, but for now, this is Milwaukee's series to lose. Pick: Bucks in five
Wimbish's take: This will be the most complete and toughest team the Hawks will have faced in the playoffs thus far, and after overcoming the injury-riddled Nets, Milwaukee seems primed to advance to the NBA Finals. Jrue Holiday offers a capable defender in trying to check Trae Young, and the Hawks won't have anyone to contain Giannis Antetokounmpo, who should have a big series against Atlanta. Pick: Bucks in six
Maloney's take: This has been a really cool run by the Hawks, but the fact that they're still here says more about the Sixers than it does them. The Bucks are the better team and should win this series without too much trouble. Pick: Bucks in five
Herbert's take: Milwaukee started its second-round series against Brooklyn terribly, then, eventually, worked some things out. In the end, the Bucks won … but at what cost? They're coming off a brutal series made all the more taxing by the fact that this is the most top-heavy of the four conference finalists, particularly with Donte DiVincenzo sidelined. Milwaukee is rightfully the favorite because it employs Giannis Antetokounmpo and it can put Jrue Holiday on Trae Young, but I came close to picking the the Hawks because of their depth, their playmaking and their shooting. Pick: Bucks in seven
Kaskey-Blomain's take: The Hawks have been the surprise of the postseason so far, but their run ends here. The Bucks are the deeper, and more experienced team in this series, In Holiday, the Bucks have an excellent option for defending Young, who is the engine of Atlanta's offense. On the other side, the Hawks will likely struggle with Milwaukee's size as Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez and Giannis Antetokounmpo could all pose problems for Atlanta. The Hawks' ability to put up points might allow them to steal a game, or two, but ultimately Milwaukee will prove to be too much to handle for the young Atlanta team. Pick: Bucks in six
Ward-Henninger's take: Atlanta's defense is underrated and Milwaukee's occasional offensive droughts are well documented, so I think this will be a closer series than it might appear on paper. The Hawks have played with nothing to lose all postseason, and now the Bucks have everything to lose as the presumptive favorite to make the Finals. I trust Trae Young in close games, and there should be plenty of them on this series. Ultimately, however, the Bucks should pull it out with a Game 7 win at home. Pick: Bucks in seven