NBA Finals 2021

Giannis doubtful for Game 1 as Bucks and Suns begin series

The Milwaukee Bucks could be without their superstar when they take on a Phoenix Suns team few expected to make it this far in Game 1 in Phoenix.

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NBA Finals 2021: Giannis doubtful for Game 1 as Bucks and Suns begin series in Phoenix

Giannis Antetokounmpo's left knee is the major talking point as the Milwaukee Bucks prepare to potentially play Game 1 of the NBA Finals against the Phoenix Suns without the two-time MVP.

Antetokounmpo was hurt after attempting to make a block during the third quarter of Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Atlanta Hawks, a contest his team lost to leave the series level at 2-2.

The diagnosis was confirmed as a hyperextended knee, forcing the Greek to watch on from the sidelines. Such a blow could easily have derailed Milwaukee at a key time in the postseason, but instead they shared the burden of covering for their superstar, finding a way to win two games on the spin and emerge from the East.

Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer declared Antetokounmpo to be making "good progress" on Monday, though he is listed as doubtful for the series opener in Phoenix.

Without him this season, the Bucks have shot 40.3 per cent from deep, compared to 37.0 per cent when he has played. They also saw a rise in steals (9.4 compared to 7.8 with him), albeit in a small sample size. And while the numbers may suggest his absence is not a huge issue, the presence of the 26-year-old undoubtedly makes them a tougher proposition for the Suns to deal with.

The last time Milwaukee made it this far in the playoffs, the legendary Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was on the roster. Back in 1974 they lost in seven to the Boston Celtics, though they had at least been crowned champions three years earlier.

In contrast, the Suns have never won a title. Their most recent of two finals appearances came in 1993, when Michael Jordan scuppered the hopes of Charles Barkley and the rest of the Phoenix roster.

They had not even made it to the playoffs since 2009-10 before this season, yet have beaten both teams from Los Angeles – in the process ending the Lakers' hopes of repeating – and also swept aside the Denver Nuggets.

While their opponents were fighting hard to overcome the Hawks, Phoenix were able to rest up. They have not played since clinching the Western Conference crown on June 30, a welcome break during an arduous season that, despite the continued impact of the coronavirus pandemic, is heading towards a thrilling conclusion.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Milwaukee Bucks - Khris Middleton

With Giannis ruled out, Middleton stepped up for Milwaukee. The two-time All-Star had 58 combined points as the Bucks won back-to-back games against Atlanta.

His Game 6 performance included 23 points in the third quarter alone, helping make sure Milwaukee made it through to the finals for the first time in 47 years, Middleton has been inconsistent at times with his shooting, though he also come up big to help his team rally from the brink to oust the Brooklyn Nets.

Phoenix Suns - Chris Paul

Paul finally gets his long-awaited chance to appear in an NBA Finals, 16 years into his outstanding career. His signing by the Suns was a masterstroke in roster management, providing the old head to help guide young talents like Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton.

The veteran point guard has averaged 18.1 points per game in this postseason and is shooting 40.5 per cent on three-point attempts, his highest success rate from beyond the arc since the 2015 playoffs, back when he was a member of the Clippers. Phoenix is his third team since then, but can they help him secure that elusive ring at last?