This year’s NBA playoffs have felt like a war of attrition, but don’t make the mistake of dismissing the Phoenix Suns and Milwaukee Bucks as products of an injury-filled year. They were two of the best teams in the regular season, and they each have defeated some great teams and players on their way to their first finals appearances in decades.
The question of whether Giannis Antetokounmpo will be able to return clouds the series. It’s unclear if and when he’ll be able to return, and how well he’d be able to play if he does.
For now, let’s take a look at what the series might look like at the start, with Antetokounmpo likely out. We’ll examine some of the most interesting strategic questions and how each team might try to beat the other:
The Suns’ pick-and-roll
The most important play in today’s basketball is the pick-and-roll. The Suns’ mastery of it has been at the center of their run. Stopping Devin Booker and Chris Paul means finding a solution to Phoenix’s varied approaches to the pick-and-roll.
The Bucks have the defense to do it. Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday, two elite perimeter defenders who can fight over screens, match up nicely with Booker and Paul. Milwaukee will likely employ a switch-heavy defense to prevent Booker and Paul from feasting on midrange pull-ups, a strategy they employed against Trae Young in the Eastern Conference finals to take away his floaters.
Mike Budenholzer should embrace switching to start the series. While it may be tempting to trust your elite perimeter defenders (especially Holiday), Paul in particular has shown that he can diminish the impact of good perimeter defense by making quick decisions coming off screens. Switching could have the effect of drawing Booker and Paul into isolations, slowing down the Suns’ offense.
Booker is a true bucket-getter, but his isolation numbers are middle of the road. In the regular season, Booker isolations produced 0.85 points per possession, an average figure (48th percentile). He’s gone up to 0.94 in the playoffs, something the Bucks will settle with given that isos can bog down offenses. When defenses help in the right way, they can force Booker into tough shots:
Paul can feast on isos, as his numbers have proven (elite in both the regular season and playoffs), but he likely won’t be getting to the rim on those. The Bucks will trust their defenders to stay in front and force him into out of rhythm jump shots.
Milwaukee runs into a problem when you consider their defensive personnel, which obviously gets worse when you take out the Defensive Player of the Year. With Giannis out, it’s likely that Bobby Portis will start. Portis is a great stretch big with confidence on offense, but he can be exploited on defense. Bryn Forbes, the Bucks’ top bench shooter, was targeted on defense by Brooklyn in the conference semifinals. Booker and Paul would love their chances if Budenholzer dusts off Jeff Teague again. (Teague played 10 minutes in Game 6 against the Hawks.) The Suns might also take a shot at playing Brook Lopez off the floor through the pick-and-roll, something Atlanta wasn’t able to do outside of Game 1.
It’s notable that neither the Suns nor the Bucks have been particularly great on offense in the playoffs. In fact, they are just 10th and 11th among playoff teams in offensive rating. They’re first and second in defensive rating. Like the midrange, the demise of defense in the NBA has been greatly exaggerated.
Phoenix’s offense inspires more confidence heading into this series given how reliable Booker and Paul have been in the biggest moments. They are great passers and great shooters, and with Deandre Ayton, the Suns have a polished big man under the basket who can catch lobs, grab offensive rebounds, and punish smaller defenders.
A big part of their offense, though, relies on the streaky shooting of 3-and-D wings. Jae Crowder might go 0-for-7 or 5-for-7 on any given night. Mikal Bridges has quietly struggled for the past couple of rounds, shooting just 32 percent from three since the start of the second round. But with some good Crowder games and a red-hot Cam Johnson, the Suns have had enough shooting.
Look out for Holiday defending Booker, as well. Patrick Beverley gave Booker significant trouble in the conference finals, and Holiday might be able to do the same.
Where does the Bucks’ offense come from?
Milwaukee has had long bouts of offensive struggles in these playoffs. It was their defense that beat Brooklyn, and the individual performance of Middleton was a big reason for their conference finals win over a banged-up Hawks team.
Antetokounmpo finds his effectiveness in transition and as a screen-setter in the half-court. Without him, the Bucks might have a more direct task in front of them — let Middleton and Holiday create offense. There will be no walls to bang their heads into. However, they lose the deadly threat of Giannis when play breaks down, and they give Ayton the opportunity to be a pure rim protector guarding Lopez, rather than the designated Giannis stopper.
There were some good signs for the Bucks’ offense after Antetokounmpo went down. Holiday found his form again after a collection of quiet games against the Nets, attacking the weak perimeter defenders Atlanta put on the court and creating offense at a high level. He contributed an efficient 27-9-9 performance in Game 6. Middleton scored 16 points in a row in the third quarter of that game.
Bridges will likely guard Middleton. It’s possible that Phoenix will put Paul on Holiday, though that runs counter to their season-long strategy of using Paul on weaker offensive players to preserve his energy. It’s the finals, so now is the time to go all-in. Booker, like Trae Young before him, will likely hide on PJ Tucker.
At least until Antetokounmpo returns, and likely after, everything for the Bucks will come down to their two perimeter stars, especially Middleton. Their offense in the clutch will revolve around Middleton’s shot-making. That worked a few times against the Hawks, most notably in Game 3, when he produced 38 points and a dominant fourth quarter to win them the game.
Milwaukee, even without Giannis, can be competitive in this series unless Middleton and/or Holiday significantly falters. The wild card of Giannis’s availability adds a lot of intrigue. Phoenix, as they have been able to do in their previous series, will be motivated to take a quick lead in the series.
This finals, while irreversibly marred by all of the injuries, is huge for these two teams and all these players. It’s not often that two teams in this position have met in the finals — the two franchises have combined for one championship (from the early 1970s) and most of these players have never appeared in the finals. The stakes are high.