THE BIG STORY
For all of the nice stories about things like Monty Williams' path to this point, P.J. Tucker’s fight to prove himself and Chris Paul finally reaching the NBA Finals, there really is only one story that matters as the series begins — what is the status of Giannis Antetokounmpo’s left knee? Listed as doubtful for Game 1, Antetokounmpo played the role of cheerleader for the final two games of the Eastern Conference Finals. The best news for the Bucks is that they proved they could win without him against Atlanta. Ideal, no. But they seem to have enough weapons to remain competitive if he can’t play early in the series.
SO THE STAR IS?
With Antetokounmpo, the two-time MVP possibly out of action, who is the star attraction for this series? Without LeBron James, Steph Curry, Kevin Durant or the usual familiar faces in the Finals, the most likely star power will come from Paul, appearing in his first NBA Finals. But who might put up the biggest numbers? That more likely will be Devin Booker or Khris Middleton.
THE UNSUNG STARS
Brook Lopez is more equipped to play in this series than he was against the Nets in the Eastern Conference semifinals and he emerged as a force in the Game 6 win over Atlanta in the conference finals. But Bobby Portis, who spent the 2019-20 season with the Knicks, came off the bench and into the starting lineup, contributing greatly in the absence of Antetokounmpo. Cam Payne has had his moments for Phoenix in the postseason, but the quiet contributions have come steadily from Jae Crowder and Mikal Bridges.
POINT GUARD: JRUE HOLIDAY VS. CHRIS PAUL
Jrue Holiday has made all the difference for Milwaukee, giving them a steady floor general on both ends of the court to help pull them to this point after disappointing finishes in recent years. But no one has made more of a difference in a franchise than Paul has, lifting the team back into the playoffs and now the Finals at 36 years old. But he admits Holiday is a huge part of the Bucks. "Jrue is just the consummate team guy," Paul said. "Plays the game the right way, defends, can score." EDGE: PHOENIX.
SHOOTING GUARD: KHRIS MIDDLETOWN VS. DEVIN BOOKER
Booker has carried the Suns through much of the postseason, averaging 27 points per game. Middleton has put up 23.4 — the leading scorer on the Bucks other than Antetokounmpo. But they have done more than just put up points and Middleton is the NBA’s playoff leader in defensive win shares this season. EDGE EVEN.
CENTER: BROOK LOPEZ VS. DEANDRE AYTON
Ayton has taken huge steps in the postseason, benefiting greatly from the play of Paul, his well-rounded offensive skill set and athleticism showing out. But Lopez was the biggest factor in the clinching win over Atlanta after his sluggish play seemed out of character with where the league was headed. Lopez has led the NBA in blocked shots in the postseason with 30 but it is his three-point shooting that might stand out in the Finals. EDGE: MILWAUKEE.
POWER FORWARD: GIANNIS ANTETOKOUNMPO VS. JAE CROWDER
Assuming Antetkounmpo returns at some point in this series and in something close to the level he normally operates at, this is a difference-maker in the series. But if he’s not don’t overlook the contributions of Crowder, who does two things — annoys opponents on the court and plays on winning teams, helping Miami to the Finals last season before joining the Suns as a veteran leader. EDGE: MILWAUKEE.
SMALL FORWARD: P.J. TUCKER VS. MIKAL BRIDGES
Bridge might be the most underrated player in the Finals, despite his place as a lottery pick three years ago. From the time he entered the league he has played the game smarter than most on both ends. It will be interesting if they are matched up to see how Bridges responds to the matchup with the hard-nosed Tucker. But what the Bucks really need is Tucker to convert on the corner threes that he will get. EDGE: PHOENIX.
This matchup may rely on the status of Antetokounmpo since in his absence Portis has entered the starting lineup and Pat Connaughton has had his role and minutes rise. The Bucks already had to move Tucker into the starting lineup with Donte DiVincenzo sidelined for the postseason. Jeff Teague is another veteran the Bucks can bring in. But Phoenix should have an edge now. Cam Payne has played well in the postseason and Dario Saric allows them to change styles by filling as a small-ball center. EDGE: PHOENIX.
COACHING: MIKE BUDENHOLZER VS. MONTY WILLIAMS
Budenholzer may have the multiple coach of the year trophies — and Williams was edged out for the award this season by Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau — but the Bucks coach has endured plenty of questioning and criticism even as they have headed to the Finals. There is no question that Williams has the support and belief from his team right now. EDGE: PHOENIX.
If Antetokounmpo is in the lineup and playing with the freakish athleticism that has defined his career it would make a difference, but that seems unlikely right now. So the diverse talent of the Suns figures to overpower the big three - down to two - of the Bucks. Paul may not be the most important player for the Suns in this series, but he should orchestrate them to the title. SUNS IN SEVEN.