Momentum building for NBA Finals
The Phoenix Suns are the JustBet favourites at $1.73 to be crowned championsFriday, July 02, 2021
BY MARK ARCHER
The 2021 National Basketball Association (NBA) play-offs have produced enticing action and exposed some immense, young talent. It is guaranteed that last year's finalists will not repeat, after the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers and the 'runner-up' Miami Heat were both eliminated in their respective first-round series.
The Western Conference finals features two teams who have never won a championship, as the Phoenix Suns (who last played in the NBA Finals in 1993) battle the Los Angeles Clippers (who are in their first-ever conference finals). In the Eastern Conference finals, the arriviste Atlanta Hawks, who last won a title in 1958 when they called St Louis home, tackle the Milwaukee Bucks, who are trying to end a 50-year title drought of their own.
The Suns had (arguably) the easiest path to the conference finals, having disposed of the Lakers in six games then moved on to sweep the Denver Nuggets. It could be argued that the Lakers were without Anthony Davis (and featured LeBron James playing at less than 100 per cent) and the Nuggets were without Jamal Murray, but one can only play the cards one is dealt. The Clippers encountered a more tumultuous task as they faced a 2-0 deficit in every series (including the conference finals) and were forced to dispose of the Dallas Mavericks in seven games then endured a six-game bout against the top seeded Utah Jazz.
The Bucks and Hawks had fairly easy first-round series against the Miami Heat and New York Knicks, respectively, but each survived hard-fought, seven-game campaigns in the second round. Milwaukee managed to beat an undermanned, injury-plagued Brooklyn Nets team, and Atlanta pulled off a shocking upset of the top-seeded Philadelphia 76ers.
The Western Conference finals began on Sunday, June 20 with a six-point win for the Suns. This was followed up by a nail-biting Game 2 on Tuesday, January 22 that came down to a last-minute, one-point Phoenix victory. With the Clippers in a two-game hole (again) and the all-star talent of Kawhi Leonard unavailable due to a knee injury, Game 3 last week Thursday (June 24) required an all-out team effort to ensure that Los Angels was not dealt a death blow. The end result was a 106-92 Clippers win to keep their ambitions of a Finals berth alive.
However, in a low-scoring Game 4 last Saturday (June 26), Devin Booker and the Suns did just enough to secure a narrow 84-80 victory on their opponent's floor. Despite outscoring Phoenix 30-19 in the third quarter, the Clippers added only 14 in the fourth and couldn't overcome the dominance of Deandre Ayton, who ended with 19 points, 22 rebounds, four blocks and three assists.
In Game 5 on Monday (June 28) and their season on the line, Paul George produced the game of his career to pull the Clippers from the edge of elimination with a 116-104 victory. In a game that was expected to be the coronation of Chris Paul, with his opportunity to reach the Finals for the first time and do so in front of his home fans, George stole the limelight with his first 40-point play-off performance (41 Points, 13 rebounds, six assists, three steals) including three of six from three-point range and eight for eight from the free throw line.
In a performance that extended the series, George becomes the first player in NBA-history to score 40+ points on at least 75 per cent field goals, 50 per cent three-pointers and 100 per cent free throws in a postseason game. Additionally, George has scored 20+ points in the 18 games he's played in this postseason — the only other players in NBA history to score at least 20 in their first 18 games of a single NBA Playoffs are Michael Jordan (1992, 1997, 1998), Kobe Bryant (2008) and Kevin Durant (2012, 2018). Elite company indeed.
The Eastern Conference Finals commenced on Wednesday, June 23 with an unexpected 116-113 Atlanta victory, however, Milwaukee appeared to right the ship two days later in Game 2 with a dominant 125-91 (34-point) victory to even the series. With home-court advantage wrestled out of their grasp, the Bucks travelled to Atlanta and immediately restored series control with a 113-102 win to lead the series 2-1. But even bigger than the defeat was Atlanta's loss of their talisman, Trae Young late in the third quarter due to a foot injury, putting his status for Game 4 in limbo.
Game 4 was played in Atlanta on Tuesday (June 29) without Young and with the expectation that Milwaukee would waltz out of State Farm Arena with a commanding 3-1 series lead – the Hawks had other ideas. With two-time NBA Most Valuable Player (MVP) Giannis Antetokounmpo hobbled with reported calf tightness, the Hawks put together an all-out team effort to outplay the Bucks in every statistical category and register a 110-88 (22-point) statement win to tie the series 2-2.
Antetokounmpo was ineffective, scoring only 14 points after averaging 30+ for the play-offs (including this series), before leaving the game after hyperextending his left knee midway through the third quarter and Khris Middleton brutally underperformed – scoring only 16 points after scoring a playoff career-high 38 points in Game 3 (including 20 points in the fourth quarter). The Bucks were out-hustled and out-muscled in Game 4 to set up a very enticing finish to a series that, by all expectations, was anticipated to be short-lived.
The NBA Finals are slated to begin next Thursday (July 8) but the buildup has been worth the price of admission. With 'crowds' being allowed to attend games, the feel of the playoffs have attained a sense of normalcy and will make for an enhanced experience once the Finals are underway.
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Phoenix Suns 1.73
Milwaukee Bucks 4.10
Atlanta Hawks 7.00
Los Angeles Clippers 7.00
*Odds are subject to change