A Deep And Illuminating NBA Finals Preview For Basketball Morons
2:32 PM EDT on July 6, 2021
Well, well, well. If it isn't Casual Basketball Viewer, walkin' back into my place after all these years, just in time for tonight's Game 1 of the 2021 NBA Finals. Like I'll just hand over all this knowledge, like it was nothing! I might have known. You'll never change, Casual Basketball Viewer.
This year's finalists are the, the ... [double-checks notes] Milwaukee Bucks? And the ... the Phoenix ... Suns. The Milwaukee Bucks and the Phoenix Suns! I'm reading it off the internet, and that's what it says. Is your bowtie spinning like a pinwheel? Mine is! I feel like I should be washing my mouth out with turpentine. The Bucks and the Suns. Milwaukee and Phoenix. What a world.
It's the first Finals matchup since 2010 that has not featured either LeBron James, the Golden State Warriors, or both LeBron James and the Golden State Warriors. Who knows. Maybe this will be the beginning of these two teams' long reigns atop their respective conferences; maybe this is the dawn of the age of the Bucks and Suns as the twin poles of the NBA. More likely everybody will look back a few years from now at this ludicrous, abominable, injury-marred 2020-21 season and be like, "Hm, yeah, you know what, launching a hyper-compressed 72-game schedule just a couple months after the end of the stupid bubble season, and amid the bleakest depths of the pandemic, was a really fucking stupid idea," and will regard the presence of the Bucks and Suns in the Finals as just more evidence of it.
But look, to paraphrase the words of belatedly dead war criminal Donald Rumsfeld, you go to the water cooler with the NBA Finals you have, not the NBA Finals you might want or wish to have. It's the Bucks and the Suns, dammit, and there's nothing anybody can do about it. So let's talk about this damn thing. Below you'll find insanely thorough and expert "deep-dives" (fancy journalism term) into each of the contestants; if you behave yourself, and if I can get all the other stuff written before the damn game starts, I may predict the winner at the end. With that in mind, and with my editor waving a katana at me in a threatening manner: Onward, to the teams!
How did these bozos get here?
It's a fun story! The Suns hadn't made the playoffs since the spring of 2010; they hadn't crested .500 across an entire season since 2013-14; prior to last season, they'd finished with a winning percentage below .300 (!) for four straight years (!). With a slightly improved record but still miles shy of .500, they juuuuust qualified for the bubble seeding games last summer; riding inspired play by Cameron Payne, a lottery-pick flameout on the verge of taking his talents to South China, they won all eight of their bubble games (they were the only team to go undefeated in the bubble!) and still, hilariously, fell short of qualifying for the playoffs—and decided, at an organizational level, that this meant the time had arrived to Go For It.
Take a moment, I implore you, to appreciate how fucking cool and bold this was. It is incredibly rare in the modern NBA, a bizarro ecosystem in which only the already-good teams ever try to improve themselves and the bad ones mostly jockey for ways to get worse, for an organization to interpret virtually anything as a prompt to Go For It. Most front offices, in most circumstances, are much more eagerly looking for excuses to pull their own plug—to hollow out their rosters and go in the tank for a few years—than to bolt for a ring. It's good for profits, it's good for executive job security, it puts downward pressure on coach and player salaries across the league, and, thanks to credible media clowns happy to lap up Silicon Valley aphorism and Process bullshit if it facilitates their managerial fantasizing, it comes with virtually no accountability attached. If the Suns' executive honchos had responded to last season's fifth-straight sub-.500 finish by selling off their team's young players and rebooting the club's interminable rebuild for the umpteenth time, I probably do not even have to tell you exactly which basketbloggers would have hailed their gimlet-eyed seriousness of purpose in reward. Instead, the Suns traded four players and a protected first-round draft pick to the Oklahoma City Thunder (an organization blatantly swan-diving into the tank, in the immediate aftermath of a surprise playoff appearance) in exchange for a then-35-year-old Chris Paul, a move that makes absolutely no sense except as an attempt to improve a crummy team as much as possible right away. That's fucking cool.
And it worked! Paul, one of the most fastidious and monomaniacal manufacturers of regular-season success in the history of the sport, organized the Suns' wayward young goobers and motley skill-sets into perhaps the sharpest and most adaptable team in the league. Previously empty stats-getters became whirring engines of offense; a hazy, indistinct young big man came into focus as a ball-screening force and an athletic terror around both baskets. It didn't matter that guys like Mikal Bridges, Jae Crowder, and Torrey Craig can't handle the ball or make sophisticated reads with it; all they had to do was run hard, know where to stand, and make open shots. For the time-worn concept of adding a wily veteran with winning experience to a young team with talent but no idea how to play—a concept scorned for years by the league's most ardent Process practitioners—this is pretty much the ideal outcome: that the old head will look at the aimless young goobers and see how they make sense as parts that work together, and that they'll trust the sense he makes of things.
Hoo boy, look at the time. We've really got to move along here.
Who are the guys?
The previously empty stats-getter who became a whirring engine of offense is Devin Booker. I can't get mad at any knowledgeable reader who calls baloney on that framing: In total, Booker's output with Chris Paul on the team looks basically indistinguishable from his output prior to Paul's arrival, and so maybe it's not totally wrong to say that I, a Devin Booker Hater, am pretending to see some big difference for the sake of giving credit to Chris Paul instead of acknowledging that Booker has been a fine player right in front of me for years while I called him a born loser and his generation's Antawn Jamison and so forth. On the other hand, you can go to hell!
The hazy, indistinct young big man who came into focus as a ball-screening force and an athletic terror around both baskets is Deandre Ayton. Ayton's a funny example of how the Draft Industrial Complex struggles sometimes to figure out what it's looking at, particularly in a period during which the game has undergone huge stylistic changes. The book on him, prior to the 2018 draft, was that he was something of an anachronism: A giant with the sort of balanced traditional big-man skills that might have made him an obvious franchise player in, like, 1994, but without the agility, shooting range, and above-the-rim explosiveness that mark an all-star center in the pace-and-space era. How would he fare on defensive switches? How would he protect the rim? Could he ever be a league-average defender? Could he space the floor and go up for lobs and warp the action without the ball in his hands, or would he need to ruminate in the low-post and mid-range to make use of his skills? Would he turn out to be Extra-Large Greg Monroe, a splendidly gifted basketball player whose abilities are just fatally incompatible with how basketball games are won nowadays?
What's funny isn't that Ayton has turned out to be good enough at, like, old-fashioned Kevin McHale shit to make those concerns seems minor, but that the whole book on him was wrong. He's every bit a modern, athletically hypercharged 21st-century center! He soars for lobs; he eats offensive rebounds; he has pogo-stick jumping ability and it looks downright uncanny on a guy his size. He ports around the floor on defense, walling off the paint and swatting away weak shit and acquitting himself just fine on switches against smaller, quicker opponents. OK, fine, yes, he can't shoot threes. But he's a perfectly credible 48-percent shooter in the midrange, and hits 77 percent of his free throws, so there's every reason to believe he can develop his shooting range over time. He's terrific. (The Suns were still nuts to pass up Luka Doncic, but at this rate they'll never really regret it.)
Ah right and then there's Chris Paul. We already covered his ass. Moving along now!
Should I root for the Suns?
Their arc is a lot more compelling than the Bucks', in my opinion. If you like to believe that the outcome of one NBA season can have a meaningful impact on future decisions made around the league, then the previously shitty Suns trading for Chris Paul and winning the Finals—one season after the previously shitty Lakers traded for Anthony Davis and won the Finals and two seasons after the previously, uh, not shitty at all but certainly not title-contending Toronto Raptors traded for Kawhi Leonard and won the Finals, and all of this on the heels of the Warriors signing Kevin Durant and winning two Finals and the dismal Cavaliers signing LeBron James and winning the Finals—is a good outcome, because it might contribute to fanbases around the league losing patience with endless tanking scams and asking why their teams' front offices don't swing for the fences. That's good for the sport and good for players and good for fans. It's good when executive morons feel existentially pressured to make big moves and sellout for rings.
On the other hand, maybe you're a sour crank like me, and you know all the above stuff is true but still feel there's something somehow dissatisfying about a badly run penny-ante perennial loser like the Phoenix Suns organization wiping away a decade of incompetent penny-pinching bullshit with one trade that makes all parties look like geniuses and mints their rings for them. In which case, root for the meteor! We're moving on now!
What do they need to do to win?
Possibly they just need to show up. Milwaukee's two-time MVP folded his knee backward like the kid at the end of The Arrival a week ago. Let's not overthink this.
How will Chris Paul annoy the shit out of me in this series?
At some point he will weaponize an obscure rule that hasn't been enforced in 62 years, prohibiting any pair of shoes worn on the court from having more than two fluorescent colors on it at the same time, in order to force the officials to wipe away a gutty game-tying Milwaukee bucket and award the Suns a pair of technical free-throws. Somehow, even after having done this, he will be even more uptight and aggrieved than the Bucks about the whole thing.
What is their deal?
The Bucks entered each of the previous two postseasons as the East's top seed; Giannis Antetokounmpo won the league's MVP award in each of those seasons; in each of those seasons, the Bucks crapped out shy of the Finals at the hands of the team that eventually got there. This time around, they hovered in the background of the Philadelphia 76ers and Brooklyn Nets pretty much all season, finished in third place in the conference, and Giannis came in a distant fourth in the MVP voting, and now here they are, in the Finals for the first time since 1974, when they had Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on the roster. Go figure.
Up to a point, it's fair to observe that the Bucks' playoff run benefited tremendously from the overall motherfuckedness of this season: In the second round (after dispatching the miserable Miami Heat in the first), they caught a hollowed-out version of the previously superpowered Nets, one featuring Kevin Durant, a one-legged James Harden, and a handful of randos who would not crack the rotation of any of the other playoff teams in either conference. In the conference finals, the Bucks lucked into a green and totally overmatched Atlanta Hawks team that itself had a hilariously blessed path to that point, facing the East's two most neurotic self-defeating clusterfucks (the New York Knicks and Philadelphia 76ers) in the first two rounds. Then Atlanta's best player, Trae Young, probably the only guy on that team's whole roster remotely equal to the moment, injured himself in the third game of the series and wasn't anything like himself at any point after that. So, yes, the Bucks got some luck.
There's the usual caveat, of course, which is that every championship team in the history of the sport has benefited from the misfortune of opponents to get where it got, and that part of what makes it the legitimate champion, in every case, is its ability to weather its own misfortunes and take advantage of what good luck it gets. And then there's the other caveat, which is that by the time a team is good enough to weather the misfortunes that would prevent it from appearing in the Finals, it has already gotten lucky a dozen times over, in draft lotteries and injuries averted and myriad other ways that observers sometimes see fit to imagine accrue to the credit of some sweaty moron in a suit. And then there's the other other caveat, which is that Giannis hasn't played since the third quarter of Game 4 of the Hawks series, when his left leg bent at an absolutely disgusting and totally wrong angle after a collision with Atlanta's Clint Capela, and for long minutes it seemed certain that he'd destroyed his knee, or anyway I sure felt like I was going to puke. And the Bucks had to overcome that, and did, or else I'd be writing this paragraph about reasons not to dismiss the Atlanta Hawks' path to the Finals as uniquely fluky.
In any damn event, and 900 words later, they're here, and so they might as well try to get some rings for the whole endeavor.
Who are the guys?
The obvious guy is Giannis Antetokounmpo, whom the Bucks have listed as questionable for tonight's Game 1. Here's the (extremely fucking gross!) injury:
Giannis seems unlikely to be 100-percent healthy at any point between now and the end of this series. If that happened to my leg, I would simply have dug a hole in the ground and crawled into it; that he's even "questionable" rather than "still sobbing hysterically and calling for his mommy" is a testament to his astonishing physical hardiness. Nevertheless, it's a tough situation for the Bucks. What takes some sting out of it (for the Bucks, anyway; I have no idea how much it stings for Giannis's leg) is that his absence has created some room for the Bucks to feature Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton, and they've been terrific.
Holiday is a stone-faced assassin like Kawhi Leonard; for big and important stretches of the Atlanta series it seemed for all the world that he was guarding every Hawk at the same time while also pouring in killer buckets at the other end. This is rude to say and possibly empirically sketchy, but to my eyes, in a playoff series Milwaukee's offense is more dynamic, more versatile, and harder to defend when the ball is in Holiday's hands and Giannis is off the court altogether than when Giannis has it.
As for Middleton, I think by now Bucks fans are just used to the occasional weird quarters-long spells of clanky shooting and dumb turnovers from him. He has a Klay Thompson-like ability to slide into a blank-eyed God Mode in meaningful moments, as he did in the second half of Saturday's decisive Game 6 of the conference finals, when he singlehandedly buried the Hawks beneath an avalanche of buckets in the second half. I'm going to say something crazy right now! Are you ready? Here it is: When he is at his best, as he was for that chunk of Game 6, Middleton is the smoothest and most dynamic individual wing scorer in the NBA who does not play for the Brooklyn Nets. He has it all! Moves on top of moves at all three levels of a defense, counters for however a defense tries to take those moves away, range, touch, footwork, handle, quickness, the strength to move defenders around, even (figurative, I'm sure) bloodlust. At his best, he's who Boston's Jayson Tatum hasn't become yet, and who he could aspire to be. Unfortunately, when he's not at his best, he's sometimes Tony Snell instead. No NBA player should aspire to be Tony Snell! You can aim higher than that.
Is Brook Lopez one of the key guys? Maybe. He certainly has the capacity to completely undo the occasional opposing team. Unfortunately, this blog was already too long like 3,000 words ago, so he can go to hell.
Should I root for the Bucks?
It's cool how the Bucks, whose tactical inflexibility and committed over-reliance on Giannis doomed them in each of the past two postseasons, were forced to figure out how to win a series without him, and revealed new versatility and adaptability, and did it. And Giannis himself, for all that he's been pretty drastically overhyped over the past couple of seasons by a star-making apparatus hungry for a new telegenic star whose games would start earlier than 10:30 ET, truly is one of the league's bright lights: A by-all-indications sweet and decent dude who also happens to be one of the great athletic marvels in the history of this or any sport, and who has made remarkable strides (pun intended!) from a raw deerlike teen to a guy who could put up a 35-15-8 line in a playoff game and get called a fraud because he shoots his free-throws badly. He's easy to like and to root for—certainly more so than Dark Arts Gnome Chris Paul—and seeing him crowned champion would feel good or at least not-bad to pretty much everyone but (possibly apocryphal) Phoenix Suns fans.
I don't really have an "on the other hand," here. I have been a vocal Giannis doubter for, like, three years now? So I guess it could be a bit awkward for me if he goes off and wins Finals MVP. Luckily, I have my asterisk pre-loaded and ready to fire: This whole season has been bullshit, and its outcomes are the most suspect and disreputable of any since the lockout-shortened 1998-99 campaign! So really, I'm fine either way. It's terrible to live like this.
What do they need to do to win?
A lot of the matchups look at worst manageable, and at best good, for the Bucks. If Giannis plays, then the Bucks need him to be able to approximate himself, if only on defense and in transition; there's a bleak version of the next two weeks in which this series comes down to the question of whether the shithousing Suns are hacking-a-Giannis out of desperation, to prevent the Bucks from getting out and running and dunking and bombing threes after defensive stops, or the shithousing Suns are hacking-a-Giannis from a position of strength, because he's on the floor as a feeble, diminished version of himself and Chris Paul has figured out that they can weaponize Mike Budenholzer's unwillingness to yank the two-time MVP from the game even though he can't do anything.
Sounds like you expect the Suns to do a fair amount of shithousing, then?
I do! This is Chris Paul's first trip to the Finals, and the odds suggest it also has a strong chance to be his last. This man will sneak into the arena overnight and lay mines beneath the floorboards if he must. We may see heretofore unimagined Dark Arts between now and when they give out the trophy.
So who's going to wi—
I'm sorry, we ran out of time. This blog is over.
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