The NBA Finals are where legacies can be changed forever.
Under the brightest lights the NBA has to offer, the pressure often falls on the shoulders of the stars who carried their teams to this point in the season. For the Phoenix Suns, that means players like Chris Paul, Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton. For the Milwaukee Bucks, you're looking at Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday, as well as, of course, the injured Giannis Antetokounmpo.
But while it's important for the stars to continue doing what they have done, games can and will be decided by the supporting cast members who step up when it matters most.
Who are the X-Factors who could decide the 2021 NBA Finals?
Jae Crowder, Phoenix Suns
Right away, one thing that separates Crowder as an X-Factor is that he is the only player on either team who has ever played in the NBA Finals. The veteran forward was crucial during the Miami Heat's run to the Finals last season, and he is one of the most playoff-experienced players still standing this season.
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During that playoff run last year, Crowder was the difference-maker in Miami pulling off the second-round upset over Milwaukee, torching the higher seed for 15.2 points per game while shooting 43.1 percent from 3-point range. Knocking down 4.4 3s per game, Crowder's perimeter shooting helped break what was the league's best defence all season, and he'll look to do the same in this series for his new team.
The Suns are a perfect 6-0 when Crowder reaches double figures scoring this postseason, compared to a 5-4 record in the games he has failed to score at least 10 points.
Brook Lopez, Milwaukee Bucks
Lopez showed just how important he can be to Milwaukee's success when he went for a playoff-career-high 33 points to go with seven rebounds and four blocks in a series-altering Game 5 win over the Atlanta Hawks in the Eastern Conference Finals, stepping up in Antetokounmpo's absence.
MORE: Middleton, Holiday and the Bucks' wildcard without Giannis
While any above-average scoring output is needed with the two-time MVP sidelined, defence is where Lopez will make the biggest difference in the NBA Finals.
The 33-year-old centre struggled mightily against the younger, more athletic 22-year-old Deandre Ayton during the regular season. According to the NBA's matchup data, in two meetings against the Suns, Ayton had 23 points while shooting 10-for-12 from the field when being guarded by Lopez. Scoring with ease, Lopez will have to do a much better job of making life difficult for a player who is shooting 70.6 percent from the field in these playoffs.
On top of that, it's safe to assume Lopez will be a target in an endless number of pick-and-rolls between Paul and Booker. Phoenix's duo has made a killing on midrange pull-ups out of the pick-and-roll this postseason and will test Lopez's versatility as he looks to disrupt those midrange attempts.
Lopez has been a strong defender during this run (his playoff-leading 30 blocks is one indicator of that) and his play on that side of the ball will have a huge impact on this series.
Mikal Bridges, Phoenix Suns
With Antetokounmpo sidelined for potentially the start of the Finals, even more responsibility falls on Bridges as Phoenix's "Middleton stopper."
According to the NBA's matchup data, the wiry and energetic 24-year-old drew the primary assignment of guarding Middleton in the regular season, holding him to just nine points (4-9 FG, 1-2 3PT) and three assists on approximately 34 partial possessions over two meetings. The Suns would certainly live with that sort of production from Middleton, who averaged 29.0 points and 7.5 assists in the final two games of the Eastern Conference Finals without the two-time MVP.
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Offensively, the Suns could use more than they have received from Bridges since the first round. An established 3-and-D player, Bridges' 3-point percentage has been declining as the playoffs roll on. He shot 38.2 percent from the perimeter against the Los Angeles Lakers, 33.3 percent against the Denver Nuggets and 31.6 percent against the LA Clippers.
While the Suns can overcome quiet games offensively from Bridges, holding Middleton in check will be the key to defeating the Bucks while Antetokounmpo remains out. That could be the difference of whether or not Phoenix defends home court and heads to Milwaukee with a 2-0 lead.
Bobby Portis, Milwaukee Bucks
Portis will be the X-Factor for the Bucks until (or if) Antetokounmpo returns to the floor.
Filling in as a starter in the All-Star forward's absence, Portis has done his job to help get Milwaukee to this point. He went off for a playoff-career-high 22 points in his first-ever playoff start in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals to give his team a 3-2 series lead over the Hawks. His scoring bursts have been a difference-maker this postseason, as the Bucks are 6-1 in games where he reaches double figures and 4-3 when he does not.
Portis averaged 12.5 points and 6.5 rebounds over his two appearances as an interim starter, bringing an energy, intensity and physical presence in Antetokounmpo's place.
Additionally, if Lopez isn't able to keep up with the Suns' never-ending pick-and-roll sets, head coach Mike Budenholzer may look to the more agile and versatile Portis to try and contain Phoenix's most dangerous weapon.
If needed, can the 26-year-old continue to fill the giant void left behind from the two-time MVP?
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