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The most unexpected NBA Finals matchup is here

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This likely isn’t the Finals matchup anyone saw coming at the beginning of the season.

NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at Phoenix Suns Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

I know, I know. I promised that my next post (which is this one) would be more positive than my earlier posts about these playoffs. Admittedly, that is a very low bar. Two of them were titled:

Injuries and blowouts have marred the NBA Playoffs so far” and “The NBA Playoffs Have Featured Some Brutal Individual Performances”.

Even my one fairly neutral piece title “Rooting for the Jazz and other Playoff thoughts“ snuck in some negativity in the subtitle: “Also rooting for no Nets vs. Suns finals”. While we avoided the Brooklyn Nets in the Finals, we are stuck with the Phoenix Suns. At least there’s a Spursian team on the other side.

But honestly, both teams made the Finals in no small part because their opponents suffered devastating playoff injuries. Does anyone think these Milwaukee Bucks could have prevailed over a full-strength Nets team? In Game Two of that series, the Nets beat the Bucks 125-86 — without James Harden. Future NBA champions should not be losing playoff games by almost forty points, or allow their opponent to shoot 52/50/86, leading to 125 points on 94 shots.

The Bucks had similar games against the seemingly over-matched Atlanta Hawks. After losing Game One at home (giving up 48 points to Trae Young), the Bucks also laid an egg in Game Four, losing 110-88. Future NBA champions should not be losing playoff games — to the number five seed — by thirty-two points. Luckily for the Bucks, and unluckily for the Hawks, Trae then sprained his ankle stepping on an official’s foot, a play I have not seen in all my years of playing, coaching and watching the game. With Trae out, the Bucks were finally able to finish off the Hawks.

Perhaps the best thing that happened in those close-out games is that the Bucks did it without Giannis Antetokounmpo, allowing all the Bucks’ starters and rotation players to get more touches and build confidence heading into the Finals. If he comes back and is able to play at or near his typically wonderful standards, they should be fine, especially on offense. In this regard, I have more concern about his ability to be 100% on defense.

On the other side, the Suns had as much opponent-injury luck as the Bucks, maybe more. The Suns were down 2-1 to the defending champion Lakers (with a hobbled Lebron James) when Anthony Davis went down. The Suns then faced the Denver Nuggets without star guard Jamaal Murray. Next, they struggled to get past a wounded Clippers squad missing Kawhi Leonard and both centers, Serge Ibaka and Ivaca Zubac. Even without those players, the Suns lost twice in that series, both times by fourteen points.

I will ask the same question about the Suns - Clippers series as I did about the Bucks: Does anyone think these Suns could have prevailed over a full-strength Clipper team? My answer may be different than my answer about the Bucks over the Nets (“Nope”). For the Suns -Clippers, my answer is “Maybe, but probably not.”

All that being said, these are the only Finals we get this year. Let’s hope they are well-played and exciting, and without endless replay reviews in the last two minutes. I am rooting for the Bucks, coached by former Pomona-Pitzer Sagehen all-conference guard Mike Budenholzer. (He was a bit slimmer when he was playing for our rival.)

Other thoughts:

  • The last time the Suns and Bucks had a match-up this important, they were flipping a coin to see which one could select Lew Alcindor as the first pick in the 1969 NBA draft. The Bucks won that coin-flip, while the Suns picked the immortal Neal Walk with the second pick. I did some research and am able to confidently state that Alcindor/Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had a better career than Walk.
  • The Suns have never won the crown, while Kareem led the Bucks to their only title in 1974. In those days, the Bucks played in the Western Conference because Milwaukee, Wisconsin used to be west of the Mississippi River. That was before a massive federal project moved the city to its present location north of Chicago. (Note to self: You may want to save this for next year’s annual April 1 column.)
  • Reggie Miller spent much of the TNT broadcast of Game Six harping on how many offensive rebounds the Hawks and Bucks were getting. As I have a tendency to do, I did a bit of checking. In that game, the Bucks had 12 offensive rebounds on 48 missed shots. 25%, which is less than the NBA average of 27%. The Hawks had 13 offensive rebounds on 54 missed shots — 24%, which is virtually the same as the Bucks, and (coincidentally) also less than the NBA average. While I won’t miss Reggie as we push forward, I will miss Marv Albert, perhaps the best NBA play-by-play announcer ever. Actually, strike the word “perhaps” from that sentence.

Marv: Many thanks for all the games you called, and your endless enthusiasm in all of them for the game you clearly loved.