July 6, 2021 9:24:53 am
An NBA season dominated by injuries to All-Star-calibre players comes to a close with the Milwaukee Bucks taking on the Phoenix Suns in the Finals starting July 7. It’s a match-up between two teams that weren’t expected to get this far in the tournament.
But as unlikely finalists as they may be, the Bucks and Suns have deserved to get this far. After all, they did beat the highly-favoured and star-studded Los Angeles Lakers and Brooklyn Nets respectively en route to the best-of-seven-game title clash.
Long time, no see
It’s been a while since either team was last in an NBA final.
The Suns, who just two years ago finished at the bottom of the Eastern Conference, have reached the finals twice. They lost 4-2 to the Boston Celtics in 1976, and their Charles Barkley-led team lost by that same scoreline to Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls in 1993.
The Bucks’ wait for a Finals appearance though has been longer, both coming in the early 1970s when they had the great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in their ranks. They won their first ever Final in 1971 but lost their only other title match-up in 1974 to the Celtics.
Chris Paul’s redemption song
The only accolade 36-year-old Chris Paul is yet to achieve in his NBA career is the title itself. Christened ‘Point God,’ his playoff record has been the only blotch in an otherwise spotless 16-year career.
In his six years with the Los Angeles Clippers, he made the playoffs six times from 2012 to 2017. Teaming up with talented players like Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan in a team that was famously dubbed ‘Lob City’ – tossing the ball up for a teammate to dunk – their title runs failed dramatically without even reaching the Conference Finals.
In 2018 he reached the Western Conference title with the Houston Rockets after forming a strong partnership with James Harden. But a poor shooting game in the deciding Game 7 clash against the Golden State Warriors saw the Rockets miss 27 consecutive three-point attempts
In a young man’s league, Paul has now bucked the narrative to reach his first NBA Finals, that too with a Suns team never expected to get this far.
The biggest stars for the Bucks and Suns are two-time Most Valuable Player (MVP) Giannis Antetokounmpo and Devin Booker respectively. Neither though has been made to carry their teams on their own.
Khris Middleton, the 6-foot-8 small forward for the Bucks played a stellar role in the playoffs, almost single-handedly carrying the team forward while the consistent scoring Greek struggled with injury. Middleton even managed to notch up a double-double (23 points and 10 rebounds) in Game 7 against the Nets for a spot in the Eastern Conference Final.
Middleton effectively took the pressure of scoring off Antetokounmpo’s shoulders.
For the Suns meanwhile, Paul’s introduction to the team this season eased the load of scoring on Booker. In the Booker-Paul duo, the team has two potent ball-handlers to call upon at any moment. They helped the Suns sweep the Denver Nuggets, who have the current league MVP Nikola Jokic in their ranks, 4-0. That win came between identical 4-2 wins over both Los Angeles teams – beating the Lakers in the first round and the Clippers in the Western Conference Finals.
LeBron and Curry’s streak ends
When the Suns knocked the Lakers out in the first round of the playoffs, they ensured that this would be the first time in over a decade that neither LeBron James nor Stephen Curry would compete in an NBA Final series.
Curry’s Golden State Warriors team didn’t even make the playoffs this term, as they lost a play-in game for the eight seed to the Lakers – James almost fittingly sinking a three-pointer over Curry after 58 seconds of the match.
But that win just meant that the defending champions, led by James, would fall in the first round of the Western Conference to the Suns. It meant that for the first time since 2010 – Lakers versus Celtics – there’d be an NBA winning team without James or Curry in the mix.
Game 1 of the NBA Finals will be live at 6:30 AM on Wednesday, July 7 on Star Sports Network
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