The NBA Finals are upon us once again, and this time Mickey Mouse is nowhere to be seen. Game 1 of professional basketball’s competitive climax tips off tonight in Phoenix at 9 p.m. on ABC. Here’s a handy FAQ with everything you need to know about Devin Booker‘s Phoenix Suns and their opponent, the Milwaukee Bucks, heading into this decisive final series.
How did we get here?
For those that haven’t been following along with this year’s playoffs, the past month has been a dramatic run full of upsets, injuries and unlikely heroes. The Suns entered the playoffs with the league’s second-best record, earning the no. 2 seed in the West and a first-round date with Anthony Davis and the defending champion L.A. Lakers. However, Davis’ groin injury in Game 3 proved to be all the help Phoenix needed as they won the next three games to cruise to a series victory.
The Suns’ momentum carried them all the way to the conference finals. They rattled off 10 straight wins, including a sweep of the Jamal Murray-less Nuggets. They went on to beat Rajon Rondo, DeMarcus Cousins and the L.A. Clippers in six games to advance to their first Finals since 1993, when Charles Barkley & co. fell to Michael Jordan’s Bulls in six games. Phoenix has never won an NBA title.
On the other side of the bracket, Milwaukee entered the playoffs as the three-seed in the East and faced a daunting path to reach the finals. Their first test was a matchup with the reigning conference champion Miami Heat, featuring former ‘Cats Bam Adebayo and Tyler Herro. The Bucks made quick work of them in a four-game sweep. They advanced to face Kevin Durant and the Nets, whom many deemed the title favorites due to their superstar nucleus. But with James Harden and Kyrie Irving battling injuries, they managed to slip by in a thrilling Game 7 as Durant’s last shot fell just short in overtime.
Milwaukee earned a conference finals matchup with the upstart Atlanta Hawks, who had just knocked off the top-seeded Sixers. The Bucks won in six to secure their first Finals appearance since 1974. The franchise has one championship in its history, back in 1971, when they employed a guy by the name of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Why should we care?
Aside from the aforementioned history, this year’s Finals has several interesting storylines. It’s only the second matchup of two teams with decade-plus Finals droughts since the NBA-ABA merger in 1976, joining the Heat-Mavericks tilt in 2006. It’s particularly refreshing to see new blood in the running after the past decade of dominance from the Warriors, Cavs, Heat and really just whichever team LeBron James played for.
Moreover, from a BBNBA standpoint, Devin Booker has a chance to accomplish what few other ‘Cats have: lead his team to championship glory. Since the merger, only three UK players have averaged 12+ points per game while starting on a title-winning team:
Anthony Davis – L.A. Lakers, 2020
Antoine Walker – Miami Heat, 2006
Kevin Grevey – Washington Bullets, 1978
That’s it, that’s the list (if you’re interested in reading more about the history of ex-‘Cats in the Finals, I wrote about it last summer). Before Davis, the last ‘Cat to average 20+ in the Finals on either side was Cliff Hagan in the ’50s. So far in the playoffs, Booker is leading the Suns easily with 27.0 PPG.
From a legacy standpoint, there’s a lot on the line for both teams. Chris Paul is searching for his first championship to put the cherry on top of a surefire Hall-of-Fame career. For Milwaukee, Giannis Antetokounmpo is hoping to add a Larry O’Brien to his impressive trophy case that already includes a MIP and two MVPs. The only player on either team who’s even played in the Finals is journeyman Jae Crowder, who made it with the Cavs in 2018 and again with Miami last year.
Who’s playing, anyhow?
Good question. With all the injuries so far in the playoffs, health is certainly a concern for both sides (please, Lord, don’t make us watch another game where Jrue Holiday is the best player on the court). The biggest name to watch (both figuratively and literally) is Antetokounmpo, who is still dealing with the left knee injury that held him out of the last two games of the ECF. As of Monday night, he’s listed as doubtful for Game 1.
The only player currently injured for the Bucks is Donte DiVincenzo, who underwent season-ending surgery after injuring his foot in the first round. They’ll likely lean on Holiday, Khris Middleton and Brook Lopez for offensive production if Giannis is out.
On the other side, Phoenix should be fully healthy heading into the Finals. Paul missed two games last week on the Covid list, but he never showed symptoms; Cameron Johnson was also inactive in Game 6 against the Clippers with a non-Covid illness, but he’s reportedly good to go now. Like the Bucks, they’re an efficient team that gets production from everyone — but the three-headed monster of Booker, Paul and DeAndre Ayton is where the magic happens. Still, be on the lookout for former Murray State Racer Cameron Payne, who stepped up in a big way during Paul’s absence.
Where? When? How can I watch?
Here’s the lowdown of the Finals schedule, starting Tuesday night. All games are on ABC.
Game 1: Tuesday, 7/6 – Bucks @ Suns – 9:00 ET
Game 2: Thursday, 7/8 – Bucks @ Suns – 9:00 ET
Game 3: Sunday, 7/11 – Suns @ Bucks – 8:00 ET
Game 4: Wednesday, 7/14 – Suns @ Bucks – 9:00 ET
Game 5: Saturday, 7/17 – Bucks @ Suns – 9:00 ET (if necessary)
Game 6: Tuesday, 7/20 – Suns @ Bucks – 9:00 ET (if necessary)
Game 7: Thursday, 7/22 – Bucks @ Suns – 9:00 ET (if necessary)
Who do we want to win?
Pick whoever you like, but personally, I’m rocking with the Suns. Devin Booker’s arc from bubble reject to chasing a championship is just too awesome. Meanwhile, the Bucks are harboring a host of UK villains including Bobby Portis, Justin Jackson and Jordan Nwora. I’d say the choice is simple.