Sports

The NBA Finals Hinge on Giannis’s Bum Knee

The Phoenix Suns play like a team that has studied you. Where some players might cut to the basket or slide along the arc when the defense turns its attention elsewhere, the Suns’ assemblage of skilled, rangy wings will make their move a few beats earlier, before the rotation even comes. Chris Paul dribbles into every pick-and-roll with both the benefits of cramming film in the days before and the memory of that one game in February when a basic action teased apart your entire defense. You can see the scholarship even in Phoenix’s young cornerstones. Mikal Bridges is plugged into the tendencies of his mark even when he’s sprinting back in transition. Deandre Ayton increasingly knows just where and when to roll, graduating to the sort of nuance that causes a defense the greatest possible discomfort.

Yet as they prepare now for the NBA Finals, the Suns are forced to plan for two opponents: the Bucks as we last saw them when they closed out the Hawks; and the team Milwaukee would much rather be, with a healthy Giannis Antetokounmpo. As of Monday, we still don’t know if or when Giannis will play in this series. Mike Budenholzer, who isn’t exactly forthcoming with his team’s injury updates and lineup changes, called Antetokounmpo’s hyperextended knee a “day-to-day thing” when he spoke to reporters on Saturday, which was followed by a suitably ambiguous non-update on Monday. That’s either an encouraging sign for the former MVP’s ability to participate in this series or exactly what a coach would say to complicate an opponent’s game-planning.

Either way, Giannis looms. There is no way to digest the possibilities of this matchup without accounting for the fact that, at some point, Antetokounmpo might crash into the Finals with enough force to change every fact on the ground. It could be the ultimate adjustment; if the Bucks can keep competitive and maybe even steal a game in Phoenix, Giannis’s mid-series arrival could energize their efforts and turn the most predictable team left into a moving target. It’s never an advantage for a contender to wade into a series of this magnitude without its best player, but under these strange circumstances, Milwaukee does find itself on the favorable end of an intelligence divide. The Bucks will always know more about when Antetokounmpo might be available and how effective he might be, which forces an opponent that is usually elevated by its preparation to divide their focus and do twice the homework amid the uncertainty.

The Suns weren’t all that bothered by the ambiguous availability of the Lakers’ Anthony Davis in the first round or the Clippers’ Kawhi Leonard in the conference finals, but there is a material difference in the fact that the scheduling of the Finals could plausibly allow Antetokounmpo the opportunity to return. Giannis reportedly (and miraculously) suffered no structural damage in his knee. He is already a week removed from the day of his injury as the Finals begin, but thanks to the break between series and the space between games, he would be almost two weeks out if he were to return, say, for Game 3 in Milwaukee. There is a built-in incentive for the Suns to take hold of this series early. The longer it goes, the more it tilts toward a healthier Antetokounmpo having the power to change it.

On a matchup level, whether Giannis plays naturally shifts the defensive assignments of the Suns’ bigs, particularly how Phoenix chooses to guard Brook Lopez. When Milwaukee’s center plays alongside Antetokounmpo, Lopez defaults as a floor spacer who could easily—and painlessly—be guarded by Jae Crowder or Cam Johnson. Without Giannis, as we saw in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals, he can roll to the rim with enough size and power to necessitate that he be covered by Ayton instead. The ripple effects of that decision could stretch further than one might think, considering that the way those matchups shake out will dictate where the Suns’ defensive rotations come from and how reliably they arrive. Ayton wouldn’t pull down to help protect the rim as freely if he were following Lopez or Bobby Portis outside, which could mean more space for the bullying drives of Jrue Holiday. And without any true big inside, there could be more loose balls up for grabs for one of the best offensive rebounding teams of the postseason, which only makes hustle junkies like Portis and P.J. Tucker more valuable.

There’s also the broader philosophical difference in guarding Giannis and not, born of the fact that it takes custom architecture to even attempt to keep him from the basket. Can a team prepare both a substantive, team-wide resistance to Antetokounmpo’s drives and a more balanced, water-tight team defense for the rest of the Bucks with both still operating at a championship level? The way the Hawks struggled suggests it could be more challenging than it seems, particularly now that Holiday is so ruthlessly applying his own pressure off the dribble. The worst-case scenario for the Suns is that the Bucks find something in themselves while Giannis is out, something that only intensifies once he returns—not only the confidence to win high-leverage playoff games without their superstar, but the additive punch of the most dangerous versions of Antetokounmpo, Holiday, and Khris Middleton all clicking at the same time.

The Suns, of course, will do everything they can not to think that far ahead, blocking out not only how formidable the Bucks might be but also series scenarios and the chance to make immortal, all-time plays and even potential parade routes and the taste of champagne. Visualization finds its limit in the NBA Finals, where even great teams have collapsed by getting out too far over their skis. When players reheat their “one game at a time” sound bites for every round of postgame interviews, they’re not just filling air with an uncontroversial idea—they’re repeating a mantra. They’re reminding themselves of the focus it takes to win every one of these games, even when one of the best players in the world casts a long shadow from the sideline, threatening to change everything.



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