Whether he plays or not, Giannis Antetokounmpo is a problem in the 2021 NBA Finals.
For Milwaukee, it’s obvious: Antetokounmpo’s presence is the only guaranteed advantage the Bucks hold against the Suns, and even that statement has its limits.
And for Phoenix, the same problem that almost every team in the NBA has faced over the past two years sticks out like a sore thumb: Antetokounmpo is a matchup nightmare, with positives in every defensive matchup or scheme tough to find.
But for the Suns, some do exist. In the two regular season games between these two teams – which were both worthy of regular season Game of the Year consideration – Deandre Ayton did an impressive job defending Antetokounmpo on drives and postups, and forced jump shots instead. He kept a low base, used his hands and moved his feet, and didn’t ever find himself overshooting his eventual recovery in the pick and roll.
Those performances came before Ayton’s ascension as a valuable playoff performer – before he gave Anthony Davis problems in the first round, before he played MVP Nikola Jokic to a draw in the second round and before he didn’t let the Los Angeles Clippers take advantage of him with their small-ball ways in the Western Conference Finals.
So assuming Ayton is the primary defender on Antetokounmpo, that is, when he plays, the matchup may not be as much of a lost cause for Phoenix as one may think.
Milwaukee can make Ayton work and let Antetokounmpo shine by using him as the roll man in the PNR at an even higher usage than it has during the regular season and playoffs, both of which saw a much-needed increase in those types of plays. This forces maximum movement from Ayton, which while improved, is likely the weakest part of his game defensively aside from some general wavering effort at times. If done enough – and successfully – it could force the Suns to switch that action more frequently to give Ayton a break. Depending on the ball-handler, that could pit one of the Suns smaller or more challenged defensive players – Devin Booker or Chris Paul – on Antetokounmpo when he rolls, which is tough sledding for Phoenix.
Of course, the Suns avoid this by putting a more defensively-apt player on the PNR ball-handler – likely Jrue Holiday. But that requires sacrificing Mikal Bridges – who’s almost certainly going to be glued to Khris Middleton in this series and isn’t someone the Bucks are going to pick on – or Jae Crowder, another astute Antetokounmpo defender.
If Ayton struggles, Crowder is the Suns secret weapon. He was one of the main reasons for the Bucks’ colossal letdown in the Bubble last season, acting as a one-man wall against Antetokounmpo’s constant straight-line, bull-rush drives to the rim. Milwaukee’s offense has evolved past that, thanks in part to Middleton’s elevated shot-making and the presence of Holiday as a true point guard. But Crowder’s history is a positive sign for Phoenix, and can be used at its deposition if Antetokounmpo puts Ayton through hell.
The Bucks don’t have to rely on Antetokounmpo so heavily, even though it gives them the best shot to win the series. Middleton has proven that he can play to the level of the best player on a championship team at times – his takeover ability has been on display twice this postseason. Holiday’s shot creation and jump shooting numbers have plummeted in these playoffs, but he’ll likely have one of Booker or Paul on him, which could be a favorable matchup thanks to Booker’s deficiencies defending one-on-one and Paul’s multiple nagging injuries.
Milwaukee might also be forced to not rely on Antetokounmpo. Listed as questionable for Game 1, his status for the series is completely up in the air. If he doesn’t play a majority of the games, the Bucks chances of winning this series are quite low.
The MVP of these playoffs so far has been either Booker or Paul. We’ll see if either of them play at that same level during this series, and in turn win it, but up until this point, the top of the ballot belongs to one or the other.
That’s why Antetokounmpo’s presence is critical. As well as Middleton has played, and as high as Holiday’s ceiling is as a creator for himself and others, Booker and Paul are just better at the top skills that Milwaukee’s duo possesses.
The Suns also have many ways to toy with Milwaukee, with Antetokounmpo in the fold or not. While half of the Bucks’ demise against the Heat in the second round of the playoffs last season had to do with its poor offensive strategy involving the two-time MVP, the other half was its drop PNR defense and lack of switching.
The Bucks experimented with switching throughout the 2020-21 regular season, and deployed it at times against Brooklyn in the second round and in the final two games of their Eastern Conference Finals matchup with the Hawks. It was successful, but perhaps that was out of necessity – Brook Lopez’s constant drifts to the arc of the restricted area were giving Trae Young and company floater after floater. Lopez at least put something menacing in front of drivers.
Playing drop coverage against the Suns is a death sentence. Booker and Paul have ate well in the postseason with mid-range shots – they’ve been able to get shots off with little space or create it with their crossovers and elevation on jump shots. If Lopez is dropping as far as he can, Booker and Paul could average 30 points per game this series. Those are not the guys Milwaukee should be letting beat them – at least willingly.
Lopez’s dropping in the PNR limits opportunities for Ayton offensively, although his sneaky face-up game could emerge in this series. Ayton is quicker and more athletic than Lopez – he’ll have the advantage if he wants to dabble in some shot creation.
If and when he plays, the Bucks also have Antetokounmpo to deploy defensively. The Suns are not going to want him switching or dropping in the PNR, as he matches up way better with Ayton on the roll and could swallow whatever Phoenix guard is the ball-handler. If Lopez struggles against Ayton, and is toasted when the Bucks potentially switch, Antetokounmpo at the five is the Bucks’ last resort – and it’s a pretty good one.
Lopez’s shortcomings on defense in this series could be made up for on the other end. Him and Antetokounmpo are a size nightmare for the Suns, who could be forced to play Dario Saric next to Ayton for more minutes than they’d like to. While it’s possible Ayton could do a good job on Antetokounmpo, Lopez’s ability to space the floor forces Phoenix to give up serious height on three-point attempts, and his post-ups could be overpowering against a smaller wing.
For the all perhaps overbearing all talk about the NBA being a make-or-miss league these days, parts of that description hold very true in this series. If the Suns hit enough shots, they can make up for what they’re giving up to Lopez – if they hold true to their usual rotations and don’t increase Sarics’s minutes.
Phoenix also has to hit shots in this sense: outside of Lopez, the Bucks aren’t going to play anyone the Suns can easily hunt on the defensive end. Holiday, Middleton, Antetokounmpo, PJ Tucker and Lopez (to a certain degree) are all excellent defenders. Lopez is the only one the Suns have a real advantage against. When the shots are there against those defenders, they have to go down – that task falls on Booker and Paul maintaining the level of play they have in these playoffs. If that production from the backcourt is still there, the Suns probably have the best two players on the court, whether Antetokounmpo is playing or not. But Milwaukee’s defense with or without its best players gives it a huge advantage in the series.
This series is incredibly even, which makes Antetokounmpo’s injury hurt bad for Milwaukee and for fans who want an entertaining series. The Suns win every game he doesn’t play in – the star-power on their end is just too much for the Bucks to overcome. While it seems likely he plays eventually, the Suns win at least two games in this series with him on the court. If he misses one or two contests, that could give the Bucks no hope. Since Antetokounmpo was likely to play in a Game 7 against the Hawks, he should be back for Game 2 if he doesn’t play Tuesday night. That extra win should give the Suns the boost they need.
Pick: Suns in 7