JOHANNESBURG – Instead of LA, Miami, Brooklyn or Philly, it’s Milwaukee and Phoenix in the finals of the NBA.
It’s not the sexiest set of teams to contest a finals series.
But there are very attractive elements in both teams, which will make for an enticing series. The two time MVP, Giannis Antetokounmpo is one; veteran Suns point guard, Chris Paul is the other.
Antetokounmpo – aka the ‘Greek freak’ – grew up on the streets of Athens, the child of political refugees from Nigeria. He sold watches, handbags and sunglasses, to help put food on the table. He began playing basketball almost by accident, but once he took to it, a journey into the NBA was obvious.
He was named MVP of the league twice, in 2019 and 2020, but missing from his CV is an NBA championship. Coming into this finals, Antetokounmpo is under an injury cloud after hyperflexing his left knee in the conference finals against the Atlanta Hawks. He did not play the last two games of that series, and his status 24 hours ahead of tip off in Phoenix, is still doubtful.
It’s not a stretch to suggest that Antetokounmpo’s fitness will determine the outcome of the series. That’s not to say that the others on the Bucks team can’t play without him - Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday showed against Atlanta that they were capable of carrying the team for a couple of games. But a series? That’s a different matter. Antetokounmpo is the difference between a very good Bucks team, and a great one - possibly a championship winning one.
The Phoenix Suns have a sort of spiritual motivation in the form of Paul, a 16-year veteran in the league, who has seen it all, except for the Finals themselves. In Phoenix he found a Suns team that was young, hungry for success and most importantly, devoid of egos, unlike his stints with the LA Clippers and Houston Rockets.
That group, with Devin Booker the undoubted star, have been happy to let the ‘old man’ guide them on the floor. Paul has revelled in the responsibility, finding a balance with coach Monty Williams that has seen the Suns build on the momentum gained while playing in the Disney World ‘bio bubble,’ last year to elevate themselves into the no.2 spot in the Western Conference. They dealt with Lebron and the Lakers in the first round of the play-offs, this year’s MVP, Nikola Jokic and the Nuggets in the conference semi-finals and then Paul George and the LA Clippers in the conference finals.
They have home court advantage for the Finals, which coupled with Antetokounmpo’s fitness concerns makes them marginal favourites. But this is truly a finals series that could go either way. The regular season saw the Suns win both games, but each by just one point, with the game in Milwaukee going to overtime.
Besides Giannis and his brother Thanasis, there is a strong African connection, with Guinea’s Mamadi Diakite also on the Bucks roster while Suns forward Abdel Nader, become just the second Egyptian to play in an NBA finals.
The first game tips off at 3am SA time on Wednesday.
SCHEDULE (All times SA, 3am unless stated)
Game 1: July 7
Game 2: - July 9
Game 3: - July 12 (2am)
Game 4: - July 15
Game 5*: - July 18
Game 6*: - July 21
Game 7*: - July 23
*Games to be played if necessary