2021 NBA Finals: Who Saw This Coming?

By Saransh Sharma, Anish Dhondi, & Nikhil Pradeep

If you told any of us that the Milwaukee Bucks and Phoenix Suns would be the teams in the NBA Finals this season, we would have thought you were crazy. For starters, the Lakers were the defending champions, and if they stayed healthy, they looked like the team to be in the Western Conference, and then the Eastern Conference was a different story. The Miami Heat were the defending Eastern Conference Champions, but Brooklyn had the duo of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, and later added James Harden. While Milwaukee was viewed as a contender, teams like Philadelphia were more trusted, as Milwaukee’s disappointment of previous seasons in the Playoffs was concerning. Both teams defied all odds, as Milwaukee managed to knock out Miami, Brooklyn, and a rising Atlanta team. Phoenix, a team with 6 players under the age of 24 and little to no Playoff experience, knocked out the Lakers, Nuggets, and Clippers to get here. Injuries, COVID, obstacles like this are crazy but adversity happens every season, and both of these teams also dealt with them and preserved, and now have made the Finals as a result. Here are our predictions for which of these two teams will take home the Larry O’Brien Trophy:

2021 NBA Finals: #2 Phoenix Suns vs. #3 Milwaukee Bucks

  • Saransh’s Prediction:

I believed in Phoenix coming into this season. Not Finals-potential believed, but I believed they could be a top-5 Western Conference team and make lots of noise in the Playoffs, but still, not a Finals contender, and for that, I was wrong. Going into the postseason, despite their tough matchup with the Lakers and their youth, I admitted that they truly were contenders, but doubted them due to their inexperience. As for Milwaukee, if you told me Mike Budenholzer would have been their Head Coach again going into this season, and they would win the Eastern Conference, I would have thought that you were insane. Budenholzer had not shown anything to indicate that he was a Finals-level coach, and I did not see him getting much better. While he was very questionable all regular season and most postseason, his adjustments digging Milwaukee out of an 0-2 hole against Brooklyn to win that series, plus making the Finals with the plethora of talent Milwaukee has, may have just saved his job.

This series comes down to the health of Giannis Antetokounmpo. Giannis had a scary knee injury in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Hawks, and while there luckily was no structural damage to his knee, he did not return for the series. Rumors had it that he would have played had there been a Game 7 in that series, but we do not know how close to 100% he would have been, as he is now Doubtful for Game 1 (as of July 5th). With Giannis, these teams are very even, providing for an incredible series. While Phoenix can slow down Giannis with their ‘wall’ of Ayton and Crowder, Khris Middleton became a problem in the Eastern Conference Finals against Atlanta. Middleton showed why Milwaukee was the better regardless of Giannis’ health, as he dominated Games 5 and 6 to put Atlanta away. Middleton presents a tricky test for Mikal Bridges, as he may see Middleton go off as he did against Atlanta, or he may be able to clamp Middleton the way Durant and the Nets did in Games 1 and 2 of that series. Middleton’s hot/cold tendencies game-to-game, along with that of Jrue Holiday, will be what determines if Milwaukee has any chance of making this a series once Giannis comes back. Milwaukee will do everything in their power to make life troublesome for Phoenix, as Chris Paul and Devin Booker will see themselves matched up against Holiday and Middleton quite often, but that will not be enough to keep Milwaukee in this series without Giannis. Not to mention, Phoenix with DeAndre Ayton provides Milwaukee with a challenge they have yet to encounter, which is playing a scoring-oriented center, and Ayton & CP3 in the pick-and-roll game will feast on Brook Lopez & Co.

This series is the perfect series of offensive vs. defensive-minded teams, with great depth on both ends. This series is about health, youth, and consistency, and Phoenix has that edge over Milwaukee. Additionally, they have a much more reliable coach, who can win and put away games in the clutch, manage rotations, and make adjustments much better. Milwaukee will put on a show once Giannis is back and take this series the distance, but it may be too little, too late. Your NBA Champion will be the Phoenix Suns in 7 games.

  • Anish’s Prediction:

At the beginning of the playoffs, no one expected these 2 teams to be in the NBA Finals. Everyone expected a Lakers-Nets Finals, but both Phoenix and Milwaukee shocked the world and overcame the odds. Many will argue that these teams only made it because of injuries to notable stars, including Anthony Davis and Kyrie Irving, which made this path to the NBA Finals easier than others. While it is an unfortunate season in which injuries have taken over much of the game, it is not fair to discredit these teams. 

Now for my prediction, this series will heavily rely on if Giannis can stay healthy. With Giannis doubtful for Game 1, I believe he will not play Game 1 and then rush back for Game 2, hindering his team and forcing Milwaukee to claw their way back into this series. Even fully healthy, I believe the Suns are the better fit team to win the NBA Championship, further setting my prediction. The Suns have the edge over the Bucks in coaching and depth and are close in star power. Devin Booker, Chris Paul, and DeAndre Ayton have been phenomenal in the postseason, while Middleton and Holiday have been on and off. That, along with Giannis’ injury and Phoenix’s momentum, I got the Suns in 5.

  • Nikhil’s Prediction:

In my opinion, the outcome of this series is fully dependent on the health of Giannis Antetokounmpo, and this should not come as any real surprise. The Milwaukee Bucks rallied without their franchise star player to beat the Atlanta Hawks in 6 games, but in all honesty, could have wrapped it up earlier with Antetokounmpo present. All due respect goes out to the Hawks organization, Trae Young, Nate McMillan, etc., but the Bucks were the better team even without Giannis present. As of July 5, he is listed as doubtful for Game 1 of the NBA Finals against the Phoenix Suns, which serves as faint optimism that Antetokounmpo’s injury is small enough to recover from and play through. Hyperextensions with severe sprains typically take longer to recover. However, the nature of this injury is all about pain tolerance, and if one can take it, it is theoretically possible to play through the pain. The Bucks without Giannis lose this series in 4-5 games without any question, as they do not have the instant explosive offense needed to cut through this Phoenix Suns defense. But with Giannis on the court, their chances rise exponentially, and in my opinion, make them the better team. Being the better team is only half the story, however.

The Phoenix Suns are one of the feel-good stories of this injury-battered NBA season, and many regard their unlikely rise to the top as the product of heavy injuries to star players on the teams they beat along the way. However, going from a multi-year long Playoff drought to the 2-seed and a Finals berth is not something that can be justified by such a weak explanation. Quite simply, this is the result of hard work and the chemistry of team members centralized around Monty Williams and Chris Paul, two ‘old heads’ of the game. The work ethic, the drive to win, and above all else, the unwillingness to quit from these two individuals is insanely infectious. Also, when you have the likes of Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton, and Mikal Bridges, all budding young stars in this league ready to soak it all in, it is a recipe for success. This team carries so much momentum, and a bit of magic, given that many did not expect to see them at this stage. This chip on the shoulder-type mentality can be compared to the Miami Heat of the 2020 NBA Finals, and hopefully, Phoenix fares better. Realistically, Phoenix’s weakness is production outside of Booker and Paul, and if the Bucks manage to play good enough defense on them, the chances of winning increase for the Bucks. Defense is also a slight issue, given that the Bucks are a shooting team, and the inevitable matchup between Ayton and some Bucks shooter will cause a hole in the Phoenix defense. The biggest question mark, however, is the ability to stop Giannis Antetokounmpo in the open court, and the ability to keep his matchups, like Ayton and Crowder, out of foul trouble. As long as the Suns have answers to these key points, they place themselves in great contention to win their first franchise NBA Championship.

Given that the injury to Antetokounmpo seems like it will keep him out for at least 2-3 games, I do not see the Bucks being able to keep up or even pose a comeback threat if Giannis returns to play. The Phoenix Suns are too complete of a team for that to be an option, however, they do go a bit blind to their issues on defense, so thus I have them conceding games and drawing the Bucks out to 7 games. Suns in 7.

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