An unforgettable NBA season is over after Milwaukee Bucks clinched their first Championship in 50 years, beating Phoenix Suns in an absorbing Finals in six games. But as the sporting world (justifiably) fawns over Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks, attention already shifts to who will sit atop the NBA mountain next year.
Milwaukee did it the hard way. After sweeping Miami Heat in the First Round, the Bucks came from 2-0 down to beat injury-hit Brooklyn Nets in seven. They also lost the Eastern Conference Finals opener to Atlanta Hawks, before putting the surprise packets away in six games.
Phoenix Suns took the ascendancy in the NBA Finals with a pair of home wins, before Giannis – ably supported by Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday – went into overdrive. The Bucks became just the third team ever to prevail in the Finals in six games after losing the first two. It’s hard not to be enamoured with Antetokounmpo’s journey: the son of Nigerian immigrants, growing up in poverty in Greece, to dropping 50 points in a Championship-sealing Game 6 and ending a franchise’s half-century title drought.
"Kobe Bryant thinks I can do this… I had to do it."
Giannis on Kobe challenging him to win MVP back in 2017, and then to win an NBA Championship in 2019. pic.twitter.com/3OtTaHev3D
— NBA (@NBA) July 22, 2021
For the NBA, the season was a triumph. The league had been become staid and predictable to many fans. But the fact that it was the ‘one-man band’ Bucks and the Suns – spearheaded by a 36-year-old future Hall-of-Famer and a pair of young guns – that contested the Finals turned the NBA’s ‘superteam’ dominance on its head.
That Antetokounmpo was drafted to the Bucks in 2014 and the Suns picked up Devin Booker in 2015 and Deandre Ayton in 2018 – when both franchises were struggling – is a glowing endorsement of the NBA’s oft-maligned system.
Nevertheless, the Bucks and Suns are third and fourth in the 2022 NBA Championship market a day after completing the Finals.
"Giannis might win a championship without a Superteam. LeBron hasn't really done that, Kevin Durant hasn't really done that. That would be big for Giannis' legacy." — @Chris_Broussard pic.twitter.com/1k2KhOGuRK
— First Things First (@FTFonFS1) July 19, 2021
Star-studded rosters lead title betting
Of course, the playoffs could have played out so differently had injuries to some of the NBA’s biggest names not intervened.
The Nets were title favourites or thereabouts for most of the season, particularly after adding James Harden mid-season to a roster that already included Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. But Harden and then Irving broke down during the Semi-finals. Durant, who only managed 35 regular-season games, almost carried the Nets past the Bucks on his own back. KD’s 49-point triple-double in Game 5 was one of the great playoffs performances, while he dropped 48 points in the Game 7 overtime loss.
Brooklyn are the resounding 2021-22 Championship favourites at $3.10.
"There's no moral victories, you want to be the last team standing in the NBA Finals"
Although the Nets pushed the Bucks to 7 games in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, there's no "what ifs" that ran through Kevin Durant's mind after seeing the Bucks win the title last night pic.twitter.com/pypH5sU2ij
— Nets Videos (@SNYNets) July 21, 2021
The defending champion LA Lakers were cruelled by injuries late in the regular season to their megastar duo. LeBron James played just four of the Lakers’ last 40 regular-season games, while Anthony Davis had a 30-game layoff that ended in late-April.
After slumping to seventh in the West and featuring in the controversial play-in tournament, the Lakers led the second-seeded Suns 2-1. But AD played just 25 minutes from that point on and the Suns won in six, LeBron unable to get it done on his own.
The Lakers are tipped to return to their Western Conference pedestal next season and are on the second line of title betting at $7.50. The rumoured back-court addition of Chris Paul or Russell Westbrook would surely slice the Lakers’ odds further.
The Bucks are a $10 chance to successfully defend the NBA Championship. While no one would begrudge them their glory, the manner in which they attained the Holy Grail did not exactly scream out ‘dynasty’.
Milwaukee could be considered fortunate to have overcome depleted Brooklyn. They also had some trouble with ranked outsiders Atlanta (who lost linchpin Trae Young for two games), while the Finals were fought on a knife’s edge. But the Bucks dug deep on several occasions when they appeared on the ropes.
Two-time MVP Antetokounmpo has now unequivocally risen above any criticism levelled at him for the Bucks’ past playoffs failures. Middleton and Holiday put perceived inconsistency behind them to play heroic roles. PJ Tucker, Brook Lopez, Pat Cannaughton and Bobby Portis made important contributions at crucial junctures.
Champagne problems. 🍾 pic.twitter.com/9zrmUrp5o5
— Milwaukee Bucks (@Bucks) July 21, 2021
But can the Bucks find the requisite hunger to go back-to-back? It’s a factor that perhaps partially explains why only absolutely stacked teams (2000-02 Lakers, 2009-10 Lakers, 2012-13 Heat and 2017-18 Warriors) have won consecutive titles since Jordan’s Bulls last three-peat.
Suns setting for another run
Phoenix were agonisingly close to a maiden Championship. So consistent and composed through the regular season and in eliminating the Lakers, Nuggets and Clippers, the Suns went 2-0 up in the Finals only to get overrun by Giannis and the Bucks.
The last three games were decided by seven points or less. A couple of pivotal moments fall their way and we could have been celebrating a watershed Suns success.
The 24-year-old Booker came of age in his first playoffs, putting up 40-plus points four times – including in consecutive Finals losses. The sky is the limit for big man Ayton, just 22, who averaged 14.7 points and 12 rebounds in the Finals.
The pair will hopefully form the nucleus in Phoenix for a long time to come. But their immediate chances of contending depend on veteran talisman Chris Paul’s upcoming decision on his future. The ‘Point God’ transformed the Suns in his first season and would leave a massive hole.
“Get back to work…I ain’t retiring.”
– Chris Paul
— Hoop Central (@TheHoopCentral) July 21, 2021
The Suns are fourth favourites to win it all next season at $13.
Best of the rest
LA Clippers, Golden State Warriors and Utah Jazz round out the top five in NBA Championship betting, locked on $15 for the title.
The Clippers’ hopes this season were hampered by Kawhi Leonard’s injury absence from the Western Conference Finals. Paul George stepped up sensationally, but Leonard may be on the move during the off-season.
The Warriors’ campaign ended in the play-in tournament. But Steph Curry’s vintage season and Klay Thompson’s imminent return make them a threat. The Jazz crafted the NBA’s best regular-season record but couldn’t go with the under-strength Clippers in the Semi-finals.
Philadelphia 76ers ($17) were the East’s top seed but were rolled by the Hawks in the Semi-finals. Ben Simmons appears to have played his last game for the Sixers after a dismal playoffs, with Damian Lillard at the top of their trade wishlist in what would create a mouth-watering combination with Joel Embiid.
MVP Nikola Jokic and Denver Nuggets ($26) are still reeling from their Semi-final sweep at the hands of the Suns. But the Bucks’ success should provide the Nuggets and the Luka Donic-led Dallas Mavericks ($34) with confidence that a Championship could be around the corner without necessarily having to add another marquee man or two.
Luka Doncic is just built different 💪
Agree with Dirk? pic.twitter.com/P6nsRDUgyd
— Mavs Nation (@MavsNationCP) July 15, 2021
Atlanta Hawks are at $41 to parlay their fairytale run to the East Finals into their first Championship in more than 60 years (when they were based in St Louis) next season. Trae Young made the step to bona fide superstar during the playoffs; it’s not crazy to suggest the Hawks could have reached the NBA Finals if not for the 22-year-old former No.1 Draft pick’s two-game injury absence against the Bucks.