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Everything you need to know about the NBA Finals

Deep Dive

A rare Tuesday morning newsletter from us, but for a very special occasion: the NBA Finals start tonight. Before Game 1 tips off at 9 p.m. ET, we have all the goods on the championship matchup.

July 06, 2021
SOURCE: NBA/GIPHY
SOURCE: NBA/GIPHY

QUOTE OF THE DAY

I dream about winning a championship, where everybody is hooting and hollering for you. The whole world is drawn to the NBA Finals. 

—Former NBA star and Hall of Famer Ray Allen, who knows a thing or two about the NBA Finals: he won two NBA Championships in his 18-season career.

🏆 The NBA Finals

SOURCE: ESPN/TWITTER

At this time last year, the 2019–20 postseason hadn’t even started, and it wasn’t until October before the LA Lakers hoisted the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy. Now we’re on the verge of crowning a second NBA champion in nine months, with the Milwaukee Bucks and Phoenix Suns emerging from the pandemic-shortened 2020–21 season as the final two contenders.

  • The Eastern Conference champion Bucks and Western Conference champion Suns will begin their best-of-seven series tonight, with Phoenix hosting the first two games.

The Suns are looking to become the 21st franchise in NBA history to win an NBA Championship, having lost in the Finals twice before. The Bucks, on the other hand, are trying to regain their former glory and end a 50-year drought after last winning in 1971.

  • This unexpected Finals pairing features future Hall of Famers, soon-to-be Olympians, dangerous X factors and the best defenses in the league, and while we can’t say either team has the clear advantage, we do know we’re in for an exciting two weeks.

☀️ Phoenix Suns

SOURCE: ROBERT HANASHIRO/USA TODAY SPORTS

Looking back: Three years ago, the Suns went 21-61 in the regular season. Two years ago, they went 19-63. They were bad. But interestingly, not much of the roster has changed since then. Instead, the Suns spent the past couple of seasons focusing on their defense and improving their team chemistry...and clearly, it’s working.

  • They went 51-21 in the regular season, winning the Pacific Division for the first time since 2007 and finishing second in the Western Conference.
  • In the postseason, they defeated the No. 7 seeded and defending NBA champion LA Lakers, the No. 3 seeded Denver Nuggets and the No. 4 seeded LA Clippers to reach their first NBA Finals appearance in 28 years.

Who to watch: Ten-time All-Star Chris Paul is no stranger to the playoffs, but this marks his first finals appearance in his 16-season career. Alongside Devin Booker, who’ll hop on a plane to Tokyo as soon as the finals are over, the Suns stars will duke it out for the series MVP title as they try to lead their team to glory.

The X factor: In a series so evenly matched, Deandre Ayton can be the difference maker. As the de facto No. 3, he’s averaging 16.2 points and 11.8 rebounds per game, and has already shut down Lakers Anthony Davis, Andre Drummond and current league MVP Nugget Nikola Jokic in the postseason.

🦌 Milwaukee Bucks

SOURCE: JASON GETZ/USA TODAY SPORTS

Looking back: Finally, the Bucks have arrived. In stark contrast to Phoenix, the Bucks recorded the best regular-season records in 2019 and 2020, but were ousted from both postseasons before the Finals.

  • Like the Suns, the Bucks were divisional champs this regular season, clinching the Central Division and coming third in the Eastern Conference, thanks to a solid 46-26 record.
  • To make it to their first Finals since 1974, they swept the Miami Heat, took the heavily favored Brooklyn Nets to seven games and beat the Atlanta Hawks, losing just one home game in three rounds.

Who to watch: This NBA postseason has been pockmarked by bad injuries to big stars, and the Bucks aren’t exempt. They’ll start the series without top star, leading scorer and 2020 league MVP, Giannis Antetokounmpo (pronounced YAHN-iss ah-dedo-KOON-bo), after he hyperextended his knee in Game 4 against the Hawks.

  • The Bucks have no shortage of star power though, with Team USA stars Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton filling in the gap. And, of course, Giannis’ big brother, Thanasis, will make sure the Antetokounmpo name is well represented.

The X factor: Honestly, it’s Giannis’ knee. With no structural damage, he’ll likely be back in the lineup soon, but without the main driver of the Bucks’ shutdown defense on the court, the Suns could take control of the series before he’s able to return. Never before has an NBA Championship rested so heavily on one hyperextended joint.

🏀 The matchup

SOURCE: JOE CAMPOREALE/USA TODAY SPORTS

No player on either team has ever won an NBA Championship, so regardless of what each team brings to the table, Finals experience isn’t a factor.

  • Head-to-head records don’t count for much either. They met each other twice during the regular season, and though Phoenix won both games, it was by a single point each time, and game two went to overtime.
  • Instead, both the Bucks and Suns will rely on strong defense, star power, roster depth and veteran coaching from Mike Budenholzer and Monty Williams, respectively, to get ahead.

But with all this said, there is one player who’s a winner no matter what: Torrey Craig started the season with the Bucks before being traded to the Suns in March, so he’ll get a championship ring regardless. Winner, winner, chicken dinner.

👀 How to watch

SOURCE: JOE CAMPOREALE/USA TODAY SPORTS

Except for Sunday’s Game 3 at 8 p.m. ET, every other game is set for 9 p.m. ET, starting tonight. Tune in to TSN1 or TSN4 in Canada, and ABC or ESPN3 in the U.S. Don’t miss a minute.