Three games in, three things we have learned from the Bucks vs. Suns NBA Finals

Milwaukee Bucks forward Khris Middleton (22) reacts with guard Jrue Holiday (21) after the Bucks defeated the Atlanta Hawks in game three of the Eastern Conference Finals for the 2021 NBA Playoffs at State Farm Arena.
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Ricky Dimon

NBA

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Since graduating from Davidson (The College That Stephen Curry Built), I have been writing about sports--just about any and all you can think of!--and coaching tennis in Atlanta, Ga. Beyond the four major sports, I am an avid tennis fan and cover the ATP Tour on a daily basis. If I'm not busy writing, you can generally find me on a tennis court or traveling the world wherever a sporting event takes me.

It is sometimes said that a playoff series does not really begin until one team wins on the road. Although that’s not entirely accurate, it has proved to be true enough in the 2021 NBA Finals. Through three contests between the Milwaukee Bucks and Phoenix Suns, the home team is 3-0 and no game has delivered any real drama.

Let’s reflect on what has transpired so far and discuss what it could mean for the remainder of the series.

1. Giannis Antetokounmpo is back and better than ever

After Giannis Antetokounpo went down with a hyperextended knee in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals, it was unclear if he would even play in this series. Oh, he has played alright. Antetokounmpo is just the second player in history with back-to-back 40-point, 10-rebound games in the NBA Finals, joining Shaquille O’Neal. In Game 2 and Game 3 combined, the Greek Freak scored 74 of his 83 points in either the paint or at the free-throw line.

Hello, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday. Yes, that’s what the above statistic means. The Suns simply cannot let Antetokounmpo score so easily, and they presumably won’t have Deandre Ayton in foul trouble to the extent that they endured in Game 3. Ayton and company have to do a better job of protecting the paint, forcing the Bucks to beat them from the perimeter. Middleton and Holiday haven’t yet got on track in the finals, but look for them to do so in the very near future.

2. The Suns have better role players

Antetokounmpo will have to continue being the best player in this series if his team wants to tie it up and eventually win it. Really, the Bucks’ big three of Antetokounmpo, Middleton, and Holiday must outperform their Suns’ counterparts of Chris Paul, Devin Booker, and Ayton. Phoenix’s supporting cast is just too good for there to be any other pathway to a Milwaukee title. Jae Crowder scored 18 points on Sunday despite the loss and he is 9-for-12 from deep over the past two games. His physicality down low is also a factor. Cameron Johnson, who dunked all over PJ Tucker in Game 3, has scored in double figures in six of the last eight games dating back to the Western Conference Finals.

3. We haven’t seen both teams play well at the same time

It has to be said that the first three games of this series have left a little to be desired. They haven’t been downright terrible; they just haven’t been great. And in the NBA Finals, we want great.

I expect we will get it in Game 4 — and perhaps in general throughout the remainder of the series. In Game 1 and 2, the Bucks had to play on the road and without any rest following their series against the Atlanta Hawks. In Game 3, the Suns were plagued by foul trouble (Ayton) and a rare anemic performance by Booker (3-for-14, 1-for-7 from three-point range). Those are aberrations as opposed to the rule, so don’t be surprised if both teams are at their best for Game 4 and beyond, especially from an offensive standpoint. The total has come down to 220 from 222 after Game 3 produced exactly 220 points, and in the early stages of Game 4 analysis, I like the value of an over play.

As for the outright winner, I had the Suns in seven at the start of the NBA Finals and there is no reason to flip-flop now. It probably would have been Suns in four…yes, Suns in four…or maybe five had they won again on Sunday. If you are holding a Suns in seven ticket, you can’t be disappointed that they lost Game 3.

Similarly, if you want to double down on Phoenix winning the title, Sunday’s setback was beneficial in terms of creating value. The Western Conference champions are now -270 to emerge victorious, which may not seem like a great price until you consider that they would have been something like -1200 to win it had they had gone up 3-0. Because the Suns are still armed with a 2-1 lead and still hold home-court advantage, -270 may be enticing.

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