In suspense for Antetokounmpo

Tonight the 2021 NBA Finals start with all the attention on the Greek's knee. It will be the first ring for the Suns or the second for the Bucks.


In the summer of 1968, the NBA expanded the format: from twelve to fourteen franchises (in 1976 there were already 22 after the merger with the ABA) after the inclusion of two new ones, Phoenix Suns and Milwaukee Bucks. As of tonight (03:00 Spanish time), fifty-three years later, the Suns and Bucks play for the championship ring. An unforeseen final, an almost impossible bet at the start of the season, which will crown the Arizona team for the first time or the Wisconsin team for the second time.

So, in a way, this final spins forever the fate of two franchises that came to the League together and played a year later, in 1969, the number 1 in the draft by the coin toss system. The Bucks won, taking Lew Alcindor, the player who was renamed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1971 and went to the Lakers in 1975. With him and Oscar Robertson, the Bucks, then a Western Conference team, went from 27 to 66 victories in two years and were proclaimed champions in 1971. Later, they lost the 1974 final against the Celtics, the same great team ( Dave Cowens, John Havlicek, Jo Jo White ...) who left untitled two years later, in 1976, some Suns who had only returned once more to the great battle. It was in 1993, when the team led by Charles Barkley could not with the Bulls of a divine Michael Jordan (41 points, 8.5 rebounds and 6.3 assists per game).

So the Suns and Bucks only comined, on the starting grid this season, four Finals and a title. And of his current rosters, only one player (Jae Crowder: six last season with the Heat) knows what it's like to play a game in the fight for the title. But they have finally been the best of a season and a playoffs marked by injuries. From Jamal Murray to Anthony Davis and LeBron James; from Kawhi Leonard to Mike Conley and Donovan Mitchell; from Joel Embiid to James Harden and Kyrie Irving ... and, of course, from Trae Young to a Giannis Antetokounmpo who has the NBA in suspense.No word from Giannis Antetokounmpo

The Bucks franchise player, the two-time NBA MVP, suffered a hyperextension in his left knee in Game 4 of the Eastern Final. He has not played since and is doubtful for the start of the great battle against the Suns. It's about whether he plays… but also under what conditions he plays. Without him, his team beat the Atlanta Hawks, but would have it in Chinese against a rival on the level of the Suns.

Yesterday all the signs were vague, all the words ambiguous. No one outside of the Bucks' inner circle (or maybe even there) knows if Giannis will play tonight… and the next. And nobody knows how the knee of a player who lives off his (prodigious) physical explosions is, in case he sets out to do it. Bad thing to close the year, and the controversy about the compressed calendar in times of pandemic has not ceased: last season (Lakers title) ended on October 11 and this began on December 22. With 72 games per team, not the usual 82, and a strenuous pace to avoid playing in August, anathema to televisions, and link without stepping on the Olympics: a hypothetical seventh game would be played on the 22nd, a day before the ceremony inauguration. There are three players (Devin Booker, Khris Middleton, Jrue Holiday) who are in this Final and will be on the 25th in Tokyo, when the USA debuts against France.The fairy tale against exorcism

The shadow of Giannis (and his knee…) lengthens any forecast and expectation of a Finals that could be excellent with all the protagonists present and fully. A battle between second in the Conference, the first ones surrendered (Utah Jazz and Philadelphia 76ers) and the favorites that loomed from behind demolished, all crunched by injuries: Lakers, Clippers and some Nets who came to seem all-powerful. This will be a battle that will measure two ways to live a playoffs, two ways to travel from knockout to knockout, two to straighten out a project and head for the elite. The fairy tale of the Suns vs. the exorcism of the Bucks.

Because in the East they wanted to write off these Bucks already, of course too soon. The rise of the atomic Nets, the building of a muscle monolith in Philadelphia and the emergence of the Miami Heat (a flower of a day, for now) drained a team that had stopped believing, due to limitations in playoffs between his coach (Mike Budenholzer) and his star (the hyper-physical Giannis). The Bucks won just 15 games in the 2013-14 season, already on board their two all-stars, the Greek and the extraordinary guard Khris Middleton. They suffered growing pains and exploded in 2018, following the departure from the bench of the twisted Jason Kidd, who will now coach Luka Doncic at the Mavericks (we'll see how that goes). After two seasons of 60 and 56 wins and two tremendous playoff hits (against Raptors and Heat), the Bucks seemed like material with an expiration date, a team in which Budenholzer was exhausted and on which the agency hung as a divine punishment. free from Antetokounmpo.

But the Greek opted to remain at home (number 15 in the 2013 draft) without conditions (228 million for five years) and the Bucks chose to give themselves another chance with a new structure that added Jrue Holiday and was left without Bogdan Bogdanovic after a strange farce. The commitment to evolution without revolution worked, topped off by the arrival of PJ Tucker in March. It took injuries to crunch the Nets, but you always have to find a downwind. This has been the case for a team that lives in an exercise to overcome its limits, to confront its fears; in which injuries in a low key (DiVincenzo) or nuclear (Giannis) have not been an excuse and in which Middleton has exploded as a superstar (if he was not), Antetokounmpo has shown traces of his definitive evolution towards the player total that will end up being and Jrue, Tucker and Brook Lopez have shown up when needed. A resilient and ultra-physical block, which conquers the battles in which it previously raised the white flag and has the best defense of the playoffs (the second is that of the Suns) and a less dependency of the triple than in past seasons. And a coach, the highly questioned Budenholzer, who this time has dared with some swings: new defensive systems, adjustments in the playoffs, solutions for an attack with a bipolar tendency ...

That fight against the fate of the Bucks, who seemed airy when they lost 2-0 to the Nets but have been one of the top three or four teams in the NBA in the last three years, stands in stark contrast to the meteoric rise of the Phoenix Suns. The valley team had not played in the playoffs since 2010 and has the worst winning percentage (30.2%) of a finalist in the five years prior to fighting for the title. The next worst mark is, two years in a row of scare, that of the 2020 Lakers, who reached the title after six years without a playoffs.

The Suns, two news programs an example of dysfunction and chaos, had not reached 50% of victories since 2014 and have jumped this season to 70% (51-21) which is equivalent to almost 60 in a normal calendar season. They already had that valuable young core formed by forwards Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson, center DeAndre Ayton (number 1 in the 2018 draft, Luka Doncic's) and guard Devin Booker, a wonderful scorer who (24 years) has already been twice all star and is one of only six players to have scored 70 points in an NBA game (March 2017). But they came (with Booker, Ayton and Bridges) from winning 19 games in the 2018-19 season.

The new framework includes key arrivals in offices (James Jones), bench (Monty Williams) and track, where he bet heavily on Chris Paul, who went on to occupy the point guard position that Ricky Rubio had successfully filled last season, when the Suns showed signs of life and signed a promising 8-0 in their passage (without playoffs) through the Florida bubble. Paul (36 years old) is going to play his first Final after 16 years and more than 1,200 games in the NBA, 123 in the playoffs. Eleven times all star, the ticket to the fight for the title had resisted until now (Hornets, Clippers, Rockets ...) to one of the best point guards in history, who would consecrate his place in that list of chosen with a ring of champion. Better late than never.

The Suns have suffered mishaps, especially in Paul's own flesh (shoulder and hand injuries, trance with health protocols) but they have marched in all the playoffs with the wind very head-on: the injuries of the Lakers (Davis to the head), the absence of Jamal Murray and those of Kawhi Leonard and Serge Ibaka. Now, the physical state of Antetokounmpo can put on a platter a title that would be of full justice in any case: there are no asterisks. The Suns play wonderfully, they win in a thousand different ways, they have talent, toughness and young people who are well prepared despite their theoretical inexperience. They are a team with hardly any weak points that is four wins away from completing a total turnaround after years in the mud and achieving what Steve Nash, Charles Barkley, Amar'e Stoudemire, Kevin Johnsnon, Paul Westphal, Dick Van Arsdale, could not before. Alvan Adams, Tom Chambers ...

It will be the first ring in Arizona or the second, half a century later, in Wisconsin. It will, in any case, be a wonderful story and is four victories away from being written. Today the first is resolved: the NBA Finals 2021 start, from today you no longer sleep.

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