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.

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