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The Final Challenge: Milwaukee’s Mission To Topple Phoenix

Standing between the Bucks and a trophy are the winners of the Western Conference, the Phoenix Suns.

NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at Phoenix Suns Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

By most measures, the Milwaukee Bucks have achieved the greatest level of success that the franchise has seen in nearly 50 years. Having eliminated the Miami Heat, Brooklyn Nets, and most recently the Atlanta Hawks, the Bucks are now one of two teams left standing and will test their mettle in the NBA Finals against the Western Conference Champions, the Phoenix Suns. And not only that, they did it in six. For the culture.

It would be easy for Bucks fans to simply bask in the glory of having finally made it this far, farther than last year, farther than the year before, farther than ever in most of our lifetimes. Fans might feel that way, but the players don’t. The Bucks know that, to accomplish their goal, there’s more work to be done. They know that the only satisfaction they seek lies in victory, here and now, and that the Suns are approaching this series the exact same way. There is work to do, and a challenging path to victory, starting with two road games in Arizona.

So in the interest of preparing for what is sure to be an intense and hard-fought Finals, let’s take a look at who the Phoenix Suns are, what they do, and where the Bucks might find an advantage.

Stats That Stand Out

Season Record: 51-21, 2nd in NBA

Playoff Record: 12-4 (won 4-2 vs. Lakers, 4-0 vs. Nuggets, 4-2 vs. Clippers)

Offensive rating (regular season): 116.3 (7th overall)

Offensive rating (playoffs): 113.6 (10th in postseason, decline of 2.7)

Defensive rating (regular season): 110.4 (6th overall)

Defensive rating (playoffs): 106.7 (2nd in postseason, improvement of 3.7)

Postseason Four Factors (offense)

  • eFG%: 54.4% (6th overall)
  • Free Throw Rate: 0.223 (14th overall, 3rd worst in playoffs)
  • Turnover %: 12.0 (6th overall)
  • Offensive Rebound %: 23.7 (15th overall, 2nd worst in playoffs)

Postseason Four Factors (defense)

  • eFG% allowed: 49.8% (1st overall, best in playoffs by 0.4)
  • Free Throw Rate allowed: 0.259 (9th overall)
  • Turnover % forced: 12.5 (7th overall)
  • Offensive Rebound % allowed: 26.0 (5th overall)

At a glance, the Phoenix Suns are a solid basketball team without a clear preference for any one modus operandi over another; their objective is to win, and they’re comfortable doing it in multiple ways. One theme that stands out about their statistical profile is that they make their shots count; as a team for the season, they have shooting splits of 0.490 from the field (2nd best overall), 0.378 from deep (7th overall), and 0.834 from the line (2nd overall). These figures and rankings have largely translated to the postseason, suggesting that their high level of performance is fairly stable. They also led the league in assists (27.4 per 100 possessions) while also committing the fourth-fewest turnovers (12.7 per 100 possessions), further indicating their discipline on offense and ability to be effective despite playing at a snail’s pace (97.2, 5th slowest in the NBA).

One curious marker is that the Suns, previously the home of “Seven Seconds or Less” where threes would fly early and often, don’t rely on the deep ball all that much. They attempt only 31.8 threes per game in the postseason, good for a 3PAr of only 0.354 (12th in the playoffs, and more than four points lower than the Bucks’ mark of 0.396). Considering their personnel, this makes sense; Phoenix has a number of players who are all defensively versatile and can stretch the floor, and their primary contributors have multiple methods to score, both on their own and in partnering with one another.

The Suns’ offense is led by their pair of stars in the backcourt, Devin Booker and Chris Paul. Between the two of them, they combine for an average of 35.0 field goal attempts per game, comprising over 40% of the Suns’ total field goal attempts. Despite his youth, Booker has long established himself as one of the game’s premier three-level scorers, though his playoff stats are surprisingly uninspiring. He’s converting only 57.1% in the restricted area and his three-point percentage (34.4% on 6.0 attempts per game) seems weaker than expected. Still, Booker is the pace-setter for Phoenix at 27.0 points per game, and has also improved as a playmaker (4.8 assists per game, but also 3.9 turnovers). He will earn the majority of the attention from Milwaukee’s perimeter defenders, though he cannot be the sole focus.

Chris Paul, as usual, is still one of the game’s most impressive point guards; despite a shoulder injury that hampered him earlier in the playoffs and a brief COVID-related absence, seems to be at the height of his powers. His counting stats (18.1 points, 8.7 assists vs. 1.6 turnovers) are exactly what you’d expect from the Point God, even at 36, but his shooting numbers are even more impressive. With overall splits of 0.470/0.405/0.906, Paul is converting on nearly 49% of his shots in the midrange area and an astounding (for a 6’0” guard) 77% on attempts in the restricted area. Mike Budenholzer will want to figure out something to slow Chris Paul down, but there seem to be no good options if CP3 is able to punish the defense from wherever they give him.

Moving on from the two stars at the center of the Phoenix solar system, the next player to focus on is the up-and-coming Deandre Ayton. At 22 years old, the former first overall pick (over both Luka Doncic and Trae Young) has fully embraced his role as a rim-running big man, and his breakout postseason alongside Paul and Booker is a major driver of the Suns’ success. He doesn’t take many shots (only 10.6 per game), but when he does, they’re in the paint (91.5% of them, to be precise) and they go in (shooting 70.6% from the field). He’s an excellent pick-and-roll partner for Phoenix’s guards, as his athleticism makes him a lob target while his skillful touch around the basket gives him options if the alley-oop isn’t there. Ayton’s improvement on the defensive end has also been a revelation; every playoff lineup (min: 20 minutes or more) he’s been in this postseason has boasted a defensive rating of 107.6 or lower, with defensive rebounding percentages vacillating between 48.8 and 51.1. His willingness to do the dirty work is unconventional for a top draftee and has helped put things into place for the Suns.

Flanking Phoenix’s top trio is a veritable stable of versatile wing players: Mikal Bridges, Jae Crowder, Cameron Johnson, and former Buck Torrey Craig have all filled the “3 & D wing” role over the course of the postseason. Bridges and Crowder generally play with the starters while Johnson and Craig make up the reinforcements, but they have a lot of overlap with how they play. Each of the four has a 3PAr over 46% and are converting at an above-average rate, and otherwise they don’t use up very many possessions (Johnson has the highest usage rate, at 17.0). This quartet of forwards is likely to make up the links in the chain that aims to stymie the Bucks’ offense, particularly Crowder if and when Giannis Antetokounmpo makes his Finals debut.

One player who will be worth monitoring in this series is Dario Saric, a former part of the Process Sixers who ended up as Phoenix’s primary backup big man this season. Saric was a regular contributor in the regular season but has had his minutes dry up in the playoffs. He’s a capable offensive player and is able to both score and pass the ball, but he leaves something to be desired as a scorer and a rebounder. It’s fairly likely that we’ll see very little of Saric, as Ayton can handle heavy minutes and Cam Johnson can slide over to play small ball 5 in spot minutes. However, similar to Bobby Portis in the Eastern Conference Finals, it’s possible that Saric just hasn’t had a role thus far in the postseason and is waiting for the right opportunity to contribute.

Last but not least is the human redemption arc that is Cameron Payne, a scoring backup point guard who capably filled in for Chris Paul when he missed time after taking a long and winding road to end up in Phoenix. After getting drafted in the lottery by Oklahoma City in 205, Payne bounced around to three other teams before spending a year in China, another year in the G-League, he finally found a role with the Suns this season and has delivered in a big way. He’s not the most efficient guard (41.4% from the field) but has a higher Assist % than Booker with a lower Turnover % than Paul. Payne will be a challenge for the Bucks to handle, considering Jrue Holiday is their best guard defender and there is no obvious choice for someone to check Payne during the few minutes that Jrue rests.

So how can the Bucks contradict the experts and pull off the upset? As has been the case, Milwaukee’s steps to success will probably start with their defense. Boasting the best defensive rating of the playoffs (105.0, a full 1.7 points better than the Suns’ playoff DRtg), the Bucks will need to continue to demonstrate the #EnergyAndEffort that got them over the hump against both Brooklyn and Atlanta. With Giannis’ availability in question (nobody yet knows if or when he’ll play, or at what level, or how many minutes), the tag team of Jrue Holiday and P.J. Tucker, backed up by Brook Lopez, will likely take on the task of defending Chris Paul and Devin Booker.

Giannis’ health is an obvious question mark, one that has no answer at this time other than “wait and see.” Will he come back to start the series? Will he be the same old Giannis, or will his role shift a bit? Can the Bucks do anything to make his life easier, to reduce the stress on that knee? Playing more off-ball may make things less stressful, something that Giannis’ teammates all got plenty of practice with during the last two games of the Hawks series.

Khris Middleton will also need to start the series strong, which is no sure thing. As his many critics are quick to point out, Khris is a streaky player overall and tends to get off to a slow start when the opponent throws tenacious wing defense at him (and the Suns have a few options to fill that role). He’s still an underrated ball-handler and creator, as well as a capable defender in his own right, so it just comes down to which of his shots fall (and when) for his impact to become known.

“When the shots fall” is most likely the biggest factor that will affect the Bucks’ outcome in the Finals. During the regular season, their three-point shooting had vastly improved as they put up a conversation rate of 38.9%. In the postseason, the Bucks closed out the Hawks with a pair of strong performances that brought their average 31.1%. That’s nearly 8 points lower, a massive obstacle that the Bucks will need to overcome. They simply can't shoot in the playoffs...but that can’t last forever, can it? If whatever spell is putting an invisible lid on the rim gets broken and guys like Bryn Forbes and Pat Connaughton can generate some outside heat, suddenly Milwaukee’s prospects to win their first title since 1971 are much brighter.

What do you think? What are the major threats on the Suns that worry you, and how can the Bucks counter them? Who needs to step up the most, and how? Let us know in the comments, the Finals start tomorrow!