The two regular-season games between Milwaukee and Phoenix this season fit the same script. Both were extremely high scoring. Both went down to the wire. Both saw Phoenix win by a single point, with a free throw by Devin Booker ending up as the game-winner each time.
There was also this: Giannis Antetokounmpo couldn’t be guarded in either game.
And now, it’s the Bucks and Suns — forever tied together after Milwaukee won a 1969 coin flip after the teams’ first seasons for Lew Alcindor — in the NBA Finals, with Antetokounmpo’s status a major question.
The NBA’s title series is set: Game 1 between the Bucks and Suns will be in Phoenix on Tuesday night, the last matchup of this compressed season that navigated its way through the coronavirus pandemic, players and coaches testing positive for COVID-19, and a slew of injuries to some of the game’s biggest stars — Antetokounmpo and Phoenix’s Chris Paul included.
Paul is back, set to play in the NBA Finals for the first time in his career.
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Antetokounmpo can only hope to be that fortunate.
The two-time NBA MVP averaged 40 points on 60% shooting against the Suns this season but hyperextended his left knee during Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals against Atlanta.
The Bucks went 2-0 in the two full games that Antetokounmpo missed to win that series in six games, finishing it — and earning the team’s first finals berth since 1974 — with a 118-107 win on the Hawks’ home floor on Saturday night.
“We’ve got more work to do,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said.
The Bucks lost 125-124 in Phoenix on Feb. 10, then lost 128-127 to the Suns in overtime at Milwaukee on April 19.
Milwaukee won its lone NBA title in 1971. The Suns have never won a championship, last getting to the finals in 1993. They also lost the finals in 1976.
Milwaukee getting to the finals means USA Basketball will be more than a bit short-handed when it starts Olympic training camp in Las Vegas on Tuesday. The U.S. has a 12-man team for the Tokyo Games — and three of those 12, the Suns’ Booker and Milwaukee’s Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday — will be otherwise engaged for the next few days.
Game 7 of the NBA Finals, if the series goes the distance, is July 22. The Olympics open July 23 and the first U.S. game in Tokyo is July 25 against France. USA Basketball will arrange to get Booker, Middleton and Holiday to Tokyo as quickly as possible if the American team leaves for Japan while the finals are still happening.
“It could be worse,” USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo said. “I guess one option is we’re going to have nine players for the first game against France. That’s the worst-case scenario.”
No player on either team has ever won an NBA championship. Jae Crowder went to the finals last season with Miami, then chose to sign a three-year deal with Phoenix last summer.
“I knew our potential,” Crowder said. “I knew where we could get to, the level of basketball we could play, when I first got here. I just knew it was a special group. I knew we had a chance to do something special.”
The Suns indeed have that chance.
So, now, do the Bucks.
One of them is only four wins from hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
All eyes on Giannis
ATLANTA — The Bucks proved they were good enough to wrap up the Eastern Conference finals without their best player.
Now the Bucks face a quick turnaround before Game 1 of the NBA Finals, and it’s not known if that will leave Antetokounmpo sufficient time to recover.
“It’s just a day-to-day thing,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said Saturday night.
“We’ll update it when appropriate. The conversations between he and myself, it’s kind of private and we’ll see where he is each day.”
Budenholzer said he was impressed with the resiliency the Bucks showed in winning back-to-back games without Antetokounmpo, the two-time MVP.
Antetokounmpo remained on the Bucks’ bench and was so animated, sometimes moving onto the court as he communicated with his teammates, that Budenholzer said he feared the star might draw a technical foul.