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NBA Finals: Suns favored as Bucks hope for Giannis Antetokounmpo's return

Phoenix Suns guard Chris Paul listens to coach Monty Williams during Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals on Wednesday in Los Angeles. Photo by Jim Ruymen/UPI
Phoenix Suns guard Chris Paul listens to coach Monty Williams during Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals on Wednesday in Los Angeles. Photo by Jim Ruymen/UPI | License Photo

July 6 (UPI) -- The Phoenix Suns enter the 2021 NBA Finals as slight favorites to beat the Milwaukee Bucks, but the health status of injured All-Star Giannis Antetokounmpo could sway the best-of-seven series.

Game 1 tips off at 9 p.m. EDT Tuesday at Phoenix Suns Arena in Phoenix. The series airs on ABC.

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"Giannis attracts a lot of attention," Bucks center Brook Lopez told reporters Monday. "He's a huge part of what we do. But I think, in a way, with or without Giannis, we know we have to just go out there and play Bucks basketball."

The Bucks, known for their length, offensive efficiency and rebounding, will attempt to win their first NBA title in 50 years. The Suns seek the first championship in the franchise's 53-year history.

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Antetokounmpo is listed as doubtful for Game 1. He missed the last two games of the Eastern Conference Finals due to a hyperextended left knee. The two-time NBA MVP sustained the injury in Game 4 of the series against the Atlanta Hawks on June 29.

The Bucks responded with wins in Game 5 and Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals to clinch a spot in the NBA Finals. Lopez scored a game-high 33 points in Game 5. Bucks guard Khris Middleton poured in a game-high 32 points in Game 6.

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Antetokounmpo was exempt from speaking to reporters Monday because of his uncertain status for Game 1.

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"When Giannis is out there, a lot of times we can just give him the ball and let him go to work and let him orchestrate a lot of things out there," Middleton told reporters.

"Without him, we have to do it by committee, moving the ball around, driving it a little bit more, playing just a little bit faster with a little bit of different flow.

"But I think guys have done a great job of adjusting with him out, with him not out there in two of the most important games of our season."

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Paul, Booker pace Suns

Unlike the Bucks, the Suns are relatively healthy entering the series. They also have three more days of rest than the Bucks after winning the Western Conference Finals on Wednesday. The Bucks captured the Eastern Conference Finals on Saturday.

Led by a backcourt of Chris Paul and Devin Booker, the Suns offense features multiple offensive threats, which could be much more difficult to stop without Antetokounmpo's 6-foot-11 frame in the paint.

Booker enters the series with an average of 27 points per game in the playoffs. Paul averaged 18.1 points and 8.7 assists through his first 14 games this postseason, but pushed his average to 24 points per game in the Western Conference Finals.

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Paul netted playoff career-high 41-point performance in Game 6 of the previous series and is playing some of the best basketball of his career.

"They're very special players," Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said of Paul and Booker. "They're gifted, talented. We have to do our best to make everything hard on them: Limit their easy looks, limit their good looks and keep them off the free throw line.

"I feel like we have a lot of guys we can throw at them, but they test you and challenge you like great players do."

The Suns rank second in the NBA with a shooting percentage of 47.8% this postseason. They rank third in assists per game and averaged the fifth-fewest turnovers.

The Bucks likely will turn to off-season addition Jrue Holiday to guard Paul. Holiday, a 2020-21 NBA All-Defensive First Team selection, helped the Bucks limit Hawks star Trae Young last series and should hinder Paul's scoring ability in the NBA Finals.

Booker, center Deandre Ayton and other Suns role players will need to step up if Holiday can corral the future Hall of Famer.

"Those two guys [Booker and Ayton] are two leaders of our team, so obviously we go off them," Paul told reporters. "We feed off them."

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Holiday, Middleton needed

On the offensive end for the Bucks, Holiday and Middleton must step up to replace the scoring of Antetokounmpo. The Bucks star averaged 28.2 points per game this postseason before his injury, more than any other player in the series.

Antetokounmpo's Bucks averaged an NBA-best 120.1 points per game in the regular season and were the best rebounding team in the Eastern Conference.

Middleton stepped up with 29 points per game through the final two games of the Eastern Conference Finals. Holiday averaged 26 points per game in Antetokounmpo's absence.

Bucks forward Bobby Portis and guard Pat Connaughton also will play key offensive roles if Antetokounmpo isn't able to play.

Connaughton, who averaged just 20 minutes per game through his first three seasons in Milwaukee, totaled 13 points and eight rebounds in 30 minutes in the Eastern Conference Finals finale.

Portis, who averaged 20 minutes per game this season, has averaged 17 points and 8.5 rebounds in 34.1 minutes per game since Antetokounmpo's injury.

"When Giannis is down there with Lopez, they're so big there's really no room, it seems like, for other guys," Suns coach Monty Williams told reporters.

"Everybody they bring in the game pretty much is going to get an offensive rebound. So they haven't stopped playing the way they want to play. The pressure on the paint has been pretty consistent in the playoffs."

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Factors to consider

The Suns beat the Bucks in two regular-season matchups, but Antetokounmpo dominated in both games, including a 47-point performance Feb. 10 in Phoenix.

His absence from the series could prove too difficult for the Bucks to overcome. The perennial All-Star provides the team with elite play on offense and defense.

The Bucks' lack of depth, paired with the Suns' arsenal of skilled shooters and playmakers, could result in an early series deficit even if Antetokounmpo returns from his injury absence.

NBA Finals schedule

All games at 9 p.m. EDT on ABC

Tuesday

Game 1: Bucks at Suns

Thursday

Game 2: Bucks at Suns

Sunday

Game 3: Suns at Bucks

July 14

Game 4: Suns at Bucks

July 17

Game 5 (If necessary): Bucks at Suns

July 20

Game 6 (If necessary): Suns at Bucks

July 22

Game 7 (If necessary): Bucks at Suns

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