And then there were two.
On Tuesday (ET), the Phoenix Suns host the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 1 of the 2021 NBA Finals. It's the start of what has the makings of a highly competitive series between two of the league's best teams this season.
Whereas the Suns (51-21) finished the regular season with the second-best record in the Western Conference, the Bucks (46-26) finished with the third-best record in the Eastern Conference. Not only that, but the Suns and Bucks were two of only four teams - the others being the LA Clippers and Utah Jazz - to land in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency.
While Giannis Antetokounmpo's availability for the Finals is up in the air after he hyperextended his left knee in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals, the Bucks were able to close that series out without him in dominant fashion. He has been upgraded from "doubtful" to "questionable" ahead of Game 1, giving some sign of hope that the two-time MVP may be able to return at some point in this series.
With that in mind, our NBA.com Staff answers six pressing questions facing both teams entering the 2021 NBA Finals.
Can the Bucks win without Giannis Antetokounmpo?
Scott Rafferty (@crabdribbles): I think the Bucks can still make this series competitive if Antetokounmpo is limited or unable to go, but I have a hard time seeing them actually winning it without him. The Suns are too good on both ends of the court and enter the Finals at pretty much full strength. Considering how bad Antetokounmpo's injury looked, it'll be interesting to see what kind of shape he is in if he is able to play.
Gilbert McGregor (@GMcGregor21): Similar to what Scott said, I think this Bucks team is talented enough to hang around without Antetokounmpo, but they're not good enough to beat the Suns four out of seven times without their MVP. Phoenix has proven to be a very, very tough team this postseason and it continues to take care of business. This would be no different.
Kyle Irving (@KyleIrv_): I agree with both Scott and Gil here. The Bucks are going to put up a better fight than people expect, but the Suns will still win the Finals if Antetokounmpo is out or compromised. Despite being favourites, Phoenix isn't the type of team to come into this series with a sense of entitlement. It has gotten this far with an underdog mentality and I don't see that chip brushing off their shoulder on the biggest stage.
Who should be the Finals MVP favourite?
Rafferty: If Antetokounmpo was healthy, he'd be my answer. But with his availability up in the air, I'm going with Chris Paul. He's the leader of this Suns team and has been their closer all season long. With this being his first trip to the Finals, I'm guessing he's going to make the most of the opportunity.
McGregor: Repeats of Paul's Game 6 performance came to mind first, but I get the feeling that Devin Booker is going to shake off his struggles from the Western Conference Finals and turn in more legendary performances that align with his closeout 47-point performance against the Los Angeles Lakers and his 40-point triple-double against the LA Clippers. That's MVP worthy, and then some.
Irving: The narrative heavily favours Chris Paul in his long-awaited, first-ever NBA Finals appearance, so he should be the Finals MVP front-runner. After seeing him go for 37 points and seven assists to close out the Denver Nuggets in the West Semis, followed by a masterpiece closeout Game 6 of 41 points, eight assists and zero turnovers against the Clippers, something tells me Paul is going to assure he takes home that Finals MVP trophy if given the opportunity to put the Finals away for the Suns.
Who is the biggest X-Factor in the series?
Rafferty: Deandre Ayton, without a doubt. Offensively, the Suns are going to need him to put pressure on the Bucks as a roller, cutter and rebounder. Defensively, he will likely draw the assignment of guarding Antetokounmpo if the two-time MVP is able to go. Antetokounmpo averaged 40.0 points per game on - wait for it - 60.0 percent shooting from the field against the Suns during the regular season, but the numbers point to Ayton defending him pretty well. If Ayton can make Antetokounmpo's life difficult, it would likely tip the scales in Phoenix's favour.
McGregor: It's Bobby Portis for me. As indicated above, the Bucks can't win this series without Antetokounmpo. If he were to return, they can't fall into an insurmountable hole. Since we don't know when Giannis will be back, I'll say they must avoid a 3-0 deficit in the worst-case scenario of him missing three games becomes a reality.
Dropping the first two wouldn't be the end of the world, but I fear that Antetokounmpo could potentially rush back to avoid falling down in a 3-0 hole. If Portis can step up to help this team take one of the first two games, I'd like Milwaukee's chances much more.
Irving: I'm going with Mikal Bridges. The 24-year-old wing drew the responsibility of defending Khris Middleton in both matchups against the Bucks during the regular season and he did a solid job containing the All-Star forward, holding him to just nine points (4-9 FG, 1-2 3PT) and three assists over approximately 34 partial possessions. If Antetokounmpo can't suit up, Milwaukee will need Middleton to step up the way he did to close out the Hawks, and it will be Bridges' duty to prevent that from happening. If he can replicate what we saw of him against Middleton in the regular season, this series will be extremely tough for the short-handed Bucks.
What do the Bucks need to do to win?
Rafferty: No surprises here - contain Paul and Booker, specifically in the pick-and-roll.
As you're probably well aware of, few teams give up as many midrange shots per game as the Bucks do, and the Suns have two of the best midrange shooters in the league in Paul and Booker. Whether Antetokounmpo plays or not, will the Bucks continue to go to their normal drop coverage, putting them at risk of Paul and Booker getting to their spots from midrange? Or will they switch more aggressively, like we saw in the last two games of the Eastern Conference Finals?
Either way, it's going to be a joy watching Jrue Holiday battle with both Paul and Booker.
McGregor: It sounds simple, but they're going to have to shoot the ball well.
The Bucks, who shot 38.9 percent from deep during the regular season, are shooting uncharacteristically poor from the perimeter in these playoffs. Granted the figures are impacted by some abysmally subpar shooting nights, but Milwaukee enters the Finals shooting 31.1 percent from deep.
This team opened the postseason earning a win despite shooting 5-for-31 from deep. It even earned a win over Brooklyn despite shooting an oddly similar 6-for-31. The Game 5 win in the Eastern Conference Finals? 9-for-29.
Given the uncertainty around Antetokounmpo and the Suns' ability, nights like those just aren't going to cut it.
Irving: Get the supporting cast going. I fully expect Middleton and Holiday to continue to produce the way they have since Antetokounmpo went down, so that means the responsibility falls on the "other guys" to give the Bucks a jolt and take them over the top.
We saw Bryn Forbes knock down six and seven 3s in Games 2 and 4, respectively, against the Miami Heat in the first round. We saw PJ Tucker go for 13 points on three 3s while playing lockdown defence on Kevin Durant in a crucial Game 4 win over the Nets in the East Semis. We saw Lopez (33 points) and Portis (22 points) each notch playoff career highs to give Milwaukee a 3-2 series lead in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Playing short-handed, the Bucks will need an outburst from at least one of those players each game to bring the playing field back to even.
What do the Suns need to do to win?
Rafferty: Control the boards. Specifically, the defensive boards. According to NBA.com, the Bucks are averaging 12.7 offensive rebounds per game and 16.6 second chance points per game in the playoffs, both of which lead the league. It's not just Antetokounmpo and Brook Lopez either. Tucker has been a factor on the offensive glass in the playoffs, as have Holiday, Middleton, Portis and Pat Connaughton. If you don't box everyone on the Bucks out, they will make you pay. The Atlanta Hawks learned that the hard way.
McGregor: Make life difficult for Holiday and Middleton and the Bucks won't have much of a chance.
It isn't breaking news by any means, but Milwaukee will struggle without its two-time MVP and leading scorer. Still, the Bucks found ways against a strong Hawks team and much of that had to do with the fact that Holiday, Middleton and, to a lesser extent, Portis stepped up.
Milwaukee is built to bend and not break in Antetokounmpo's absence and that's just what it has done so far. Looking back at its closeout victory over Atlanta, and it's hard to ignore that Middleton (32) and Holiday (27) combined for 59 points.
As they don't have to worry about the big fella to start, the Suns can get a big advantage over the Bucks by getting their perimeter duo out of sorts with defensive schemes, setting them back from the jump.
Irving: Continue to play their brand of basketball. It sounds cliché, but entering this series as the favourites, it could be easy to get caught up in thinking this will be an easy path to a title if the Bucks were to be without Antetokounmpo for the whole series. It's important that the Suns keep the same underdog mentality that we've seen from them all season while continuing to do the things that got them to this point. Pick-and-rolls with their two superstar guards and their breakout centre. Sharing the ball, making the extra pass and finding the open man on the 3-point line. Physical, in-your-face defence with active hands to try and create points off turnovers and missed shots.
If the Suns play their brand of basketball, they'll take care of business.
Who will be crowned champions?
Rafferty: If Antetokounmpo was at full strength, the Bucks would get my pick. Since he's not, I'm going with Suns in six.
I'm just hoping the regular season matchups between the Suns and Bucks was a taste of what's to come.
McGregor: I'm rolling with the Suns in six as well, they're entering the series at 100 percent, have home court advantage and it feels like they've got the majority of the momentum, if not all of it.
Irving: To be clear, I was going Suns regardless of Antetokounmpo's status. They're the better team, in my opinion. Give me Suns in 5.
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