NBA

NBA Finals 2021: Suns duo Ayton and Paul shine as Middleton helps keep Bucks going

By Sports Desk July 05, 2021

Both the Phoenix Suns and the Milwaukee Bucks have had to wait a while to get back to the NBA Finals.

Milwaukee have not made it this far since 1974, when a team containing Oscar Robertson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar lost out to the Boston Celtics in Game 7.

The Bucks had been champions three years earlier, but Phoenix have never been crowned. The franchise fell at the last hurdle in both 1976 and 1993, when their campaign ended in a 4-2 series defeat to Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls.

So, will it be third time lucky for the Suns, or can the Bucks reign once again?

Ahead of the best-of-seven battle getting underway, Stats Perform looks at the players who have risen to the occasion during the playoffs this year for both franchises, as well as a candidate from each who could make a greater impact.

MILWAUKEE BUCKS

Khris Middleton

Milwaukee made it out of the Eastern Conference despite being without Giannis Antetokounmpo for the end of the series against the Atlanta Hawks. His hyperextended knee remains the biggest talking point ahead of Game 1 on Tuesday, but at least his colleagues have demonstrated they can prosper without him.

Middleton certainly stepped up. After 26 points in Game 5 at home, he followed up with 32 on the road in Atlanta to help his team seal a 4-2 series triumph. The two-time All-Star lifted his playoff average to 23.4 points per game, in comparison to 20.4 during the regular season. He has also upped his rebounds (8.0 from 6.0) and is landing 2.6 three-pointers per outing.

Brook Lopez

While not perhaps too surprising for a center, Lopez came up big for the Bucks in Game 5 last week. His 33-point haul saw him successful with 77.8 per cent of his shots, as well as deliver four blocks and two steals. He is the only NBA player to reach all of those numbers in a playoff game since blocks and steals became official stats in 1973-74 (Milwaukee's last trip to the NBA Finals, of course).

Lopez's extended minutes helped the 10th overall pick in the 2008 draft rise to 13.5 points per game in these playoffs (he finished at 12.3 in the regular season), as well as seeing him claim a greater number of rebounds (6.0 per game). His upcoming battle with Deandre Ayton should be fascinating, too, as they both aim to make a sizeable impact.

Bryn Forbes

A useful contributor on the roster, Forbes averaged 10.0 points while shooting 45.2 per cent from deep during a regular season that saw the Bucks finish as the third seeds in the East, behind the Philadelphia 76ers and the Brooklyn Nets, who they then knocked out in the second round of the playoffs.

However, the guard – who previously played for the San Antonio Spurs after going undrafted – has not had the same impact in limited opportunities of late, landing 30 of his 80 attempts from deep for a shooting percentage of 37.5 from beyond the arc. Forbes twice had 22-point outings during the first-round series against the Miami Heat, but he has reached double figures in just two outings since.

PHOENIX SUNS

Deandre Ayton

It has been quite the first playoff experience for Deandre Ayton, the center selected by the Suns with the top pick in 2018. His dramatic dunk in the last second to beat the Los Angeles Clippers in Game 2 will be replayed for years to come, as he slammed the ball in from an inbound pass right at the death to clinch victory.

Ayton heads into the Milwaukee series on a 10-game streak of reaching double figures for points, while he had double-double outings in four of the six games against the Clippers. He averaged 10.5 rebounds in the regular season but has raised the bar in the postseason, going up to 11.8 per outing.

Chris Paul

Devin Booker leads the way in terms of scoring for the Suns – he is averaging 27.0 points a game in the postseason – but Paul is unquestionably the leader of this Phoenix team. The veteran point guard finally gets to play in an NBA Finals at the age of 36. Father Time is not slowing him down, though health and safety protocols amid the coronavirus pandemic did briefly pause his efforts.

However, the 11-time All-Star made up for lost time after missing the opening two games of the Clippers series, scoring a combined total of 96 points in the next four outings, including 41 in Game 6 as Phoenix were crowned in the West.

Dario Saric

Saric played a part in helping the Suns rise to the top of the conference in the regular season, finishing it with an average of 8.7 points per game. The Croatian's impact on the offensive end has been reduced since, as have his minutes. Having attempted 342 shots prior to the playoffs, he has managed just 44 in his past 13 outings, while he did not feature at all in three games.

Yet the need to give valuable rest to Ayton – and the possibility of Giannis returning at some stage during the series – could increase the need to play Saric, who is averaging 4.8 points and 2.6 rebounds per game in the postseason so far.

Related items

  • Brady becomes first quarterback to throw 600 TD passes Brady becomes first quarterback to throw 600 TD passes

    Another week, another piece of history for Tom Brady, who became the first player in NFL history to throw 600 touchdown passes in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' clash with the Chicago Bears.

    Brady went into the Week 7 contest needing two touchdown throws to reach this latest milestone in his remarkable career.

    Just before the end of the first quarter, the seven-time Super Bowl champion had the record on Sunday.

    Having moved to 599 on a four-yard toss to Bucs team-mate Chris Godwin, Brady connected with Mike Evans for a nine-yard score, although the latter was clearly unaware of the historical significance of the play.

    Evans gave the ball to a fan in the crowd, leading to a member of Tampa's equipment staff negotiating with the spectator to ensure its return, with the ball likely headed to the Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.

    Brady will also one day have a place in Canton but, for now, the 44-year-old superstar is engaged in the process of yet more legacy padding.

    He found Evans for two more touchdown throws before half-time to give Tampa Bay a 35-3 lead at the break, defending Super Bowl champions the Buccaneers looking near-certainties to move to 6-1 as Brady seeks his eighth Lombardi Trophy.

  • I am getting close to what we want at Man Utd – Solskjaer 'believes in himself' despite Liverpool drubbing I am getting close to what we want at Man Utd – Solskjaer 'believes in himself' despite Liverpool drubbing

    Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer insists he retains the backing of the board and believes he is "close" to getting the club where they want to be despite a demoralising 5-0 defeat to rivals Liverpool.

    Mohamed Salah became the first Premier League player to score an away hat-trick at Old Trafford after setting Naby Keita up for the opener, with Diogo Jota making it 2-0 inside 13 minutes as United slumped to their heaviest-ever home defeat in this fixture.

    United have lost three and drawn one of their last four Premier League fixtures, slipping to seventh in the table – eight points behind league leaders Chelsea after nine games.

    However, Solskjaer remains confident in his position and in his ability to bring glory back to United, but accepted responsibility for the result.

    "I have heard nothing else [other than having the backing of the board]," Solskjaer said in a news conference. "I am still thinking about tomorrow’s work. Of course, they are all low.

    "I have never felt any worse than this. This is the lowest I have been. I accept the responsibility. That is mine today and it is mine going forward.

    "It is the worst feeling. The feeling that we are getting to where we want to be has been there. Last few weeks we have hit a brick wall. We have conceded too many easy goals. That is a concern. This is the lowest I have been. I accept the responsibility. That is mine today.

    "I do believe in myself and I am getting close to what we want at the club. The results lately haven't been good enough. Hands up. Next week is Tottenham away. Then Atalanta. Then Man City. We have to go into this with the right frame of mind.

    "The time is now. United have had difficult times before and we have always bounced back. We have started this season badly. We have hit a brick wall. We need to start building results – and get clean sheets.

    "I am sad, disappointed, angry of course. My emotion doesn't matter apart from what do we do to improve and make sure it doesn't happen [again]. This could go either way, we could sulk or we could come together."

    Leaky defence Solskjaer's downfall?

    Solskjaer has the second-worst goals against per game ratio of any head coach to have taken charge of United in the Premier League.

    In 106 league games under the Norwegian, the Red Devils have shipped 120 goals – an average of 1.13 per match.

    Only under David Moyes (1.18 per game) was United's defence more porous, with no other manager averaging a goal conceded per game or more.

    Solskjaer's points per game stands at 1.83, with his United recording 55 wins, 29 draws and 22 defeats. 

    United's goal difference in the league under Solskjaer does stand at 71, which ranks third in the division since he took over in December 2018. However, that is some way behind the totals of Liverpool (134) and City (168).

    Solskjaer has also overseen two of United's five heaviest defeats in the Premier League, Sunday's game (which was United's joint-worst home loss in terms of the margin of defeat) and last season's 6-1 loss to Tottenham.

  • 'The last few laps were fun', says Verstappen after edging out Hamilton in Austin 'The last few laps were fun', says Verstappen after edging out Hamilton in Austin

    Formula One championship leader Max Verstappen enjoyed his head-to-head battle with Lewis Hamilton at the United States Grand Prix.

    Verstappen came out on top in an enthralling race, pipping his title rival by 1.333 seconds in Austin.

    It marked Verstappen's first race win in the United States, with Red Bull's decision to pit early in Sunday's race paying off.

    Mercedes told Hamilton it was "all about the final three laps" and, though the reigning world champion came close, he just did not have enough to overcome Verstappen, who takes a 12-point lead into the final five races.

    Verstappen has now won eight races in 2021. Only in 2016, when Hamilton lost out to Nico Rosberg despite winning 10 grands prix, has a driver who has collected at least eight victories failed to win the championship.

    Red Bull did not have it all their own way, with Hamilton coming from second on the grid to nip ahead of Verstappen with a brilliant start, but the Dutchman regained the lead and held his nerve.

    "We lost some time at the start, so we had to try and do something else," Verstappen said. "The tyre wear is quite high around this track, so we had to go aggressive but I wasn't sure if it was going to work.

    "The last few laps were fun. A bit sideways through the high-speed corners, but super happy to hang on."

    Hamilton was left frustrated by Mercedes' decision to pit late during the Turkish Grand Prix two weeks ago, but on this occasion, the Briton – who has won a record six times in the United States – had no such complaints.

    "Congratulations to Max, he did such a good job today," Hamilton said. "It was such a tough race, had a good start, gave it absolutely everything but at the end of the day [Red Bull] just had the upper hand this weekend.

    "I couldn't have asked for more, a big thank you to my team for great pit stops, great work throughout the weekend."

    Both Verstappen and Hamilton also hailed the 140,000-strong crowd at the Circuit of the Americas, with F1 returning to Austin for the first time since 2019 due to the coronavirus pandemic.

    "What an amazing crowd, to perform in front of you guys is such an honour," Hamilton added. "I think this is definitely our acceptance into the US.

    "What a place to be, I hope we have more races out here, hope the sport continues to grow because you can see how great the fans are."

    Verstappen echoed the sentiment, saying: "[The fans] have been incredible. It's amazing to be here and to see so many of you around the track."

    Red Bull had a great day all-round, with Sergio Perez coming in third to seal the team's 200th F1 podium.

    Perez's efforts were made even more outstanding by the fact the water system in the Mexican's car had a malfunction, leaving him unable to take on any fluid in scorching track conditions in Texas.

    "Struggled massively. You know, since lap one, I ran out of water. I couldn't drink at all," he said.

    "I think by the middle of my second stint it was starting to get pretty difficult, you know, losing strength. I think my toughest race ever, physically."

© 2020 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.