Mike Budenholzer says Giannis Antetokounmpo deserves great credit for playing in the NBA Finals opener and expects the Milwaukee Bucks superstar to make a bigger impact in Game 2.

Antetokounmpo revealed he initially feared he would be out for a year after suffering a left knee injury during Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Atlanta Hawks last week.

Yet the two-time MVP was back in action for a 118-105 Game 1 loss to the Phoenix Suns on Tuesday.

Antetokounmpo scored 20 points and claimed 17 rebounds in his 35 minutes on court and Budenholzer praised the Greek forward for making such a swift return.

Asked how Antetokounmpo had gone from being doubtful to starting, the Bucks head coach replied: "He had a good workout before the game. I think you've got to listen to Giannis first. He felt good.

"The sports performance group felt good, he had been checking boxes the last couple days and making progress and so he was cleared, and he wanted to go and everybody was on the same page.

"it's just a credit to him. And we talked, just the work he puts in, the work the sports performance group puts in, for him to be back playing in Game 1, it's really impressive what he did."

 

Budenholzer was encouraged by Antetokounmpo and is looking forward to seeing what he can do in Game 2 at Phoenix Suns Arena on Thursday.

He said: "I think there were a lot of good things, considering five days and what he's been through these last five, six, seven days.

"I think 17 rebounds, 20 points, some great playmaking, passing, defending the rim, he's just like everybody else. I'm sure we'll find some things where he could be better.

"I think it usually takes him playing - he's a rhythm guy. So, I'm excited about how he'll improve from Game 1 to Game 2. We'll see how he feels. But I think play-wise, he always gets better when he plays."

Chris Paul – making the first Finals appearance of his stellar career – posted 32 points and nine assists, while Devin Booker added 27 points and Deandre Ayton finished with 22 points and 19 rebounds in a strong start for the Suns.

Veteran Paul became the third player ever aged 36 or older to score 30-plus points in a Finals game, after Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Tim Duncan.

Chris Paul called the tune in Game 1 of the NBA Finals on Tuesday, with the Phoenix Suns point guard orchestrating a 118-105 triumph over the Milwaukee Bucks.

Making his first finals appearance in year 16 of his stellar career, Paul led the way for the Suns with 32 points as they capitalised on home advantage to take an early lead in the best-of-seven series.

Devin Booker contributed 27 and Deandre Ayton produced yet another playoff double-double, the center collecting 19 rebounds to go alongside his 22-point haul.

However, in a contest that saw Giannis Antetokounmpo make his return from injury for the Bucks, it was Paul who stole the show - including making six of his seven attempts in a third-quarter push.

"When it's going like that, you just want to space the floor well and let him orchestrate," Suns head coach Monty Williams said about Paul's third-quarter performance, which also included a trio of successful three-pointers.

"I thought he was making the right plays. They were switching a ton, and we have to offer that space and play faster if he gets off of the ball.

"But he was making shots and when he's in that mode, we just feed off of that.

"I don't have a marker or a segment in the game where I'm like, here he goes. It just happens. Our guys feed off of those moments in the game."

The Suns - back in the NBA Finals for the first time since 1993 - had benefited from some extra rest ahead of the series, having clinched the Western Conference title with a 4-2 triumph over the Los Angeles Clippers at the end of June.

In contrast, the Bucks' battle with the Atlanta Hawks only came to a conclusion on Saturday.

"It's the formula for any team. You want to win every game, but especially the first game it gives you a level of confidence," Williams told the media. 

"Our starts over the course of the playoffs, when we start well, it tends to build confidence for our team.

"I think about Game 5 against the Clippers when we had that below-average start. We were digging ourselves out of a hole. And it wasn't just the offense. It was just having the energy and the juice that we typically play with. So I do think it's important.

"I think our guys understand that and we need to do it every time we step on the floor."

Back in action after hurting his left knee in Game 4 against the Hawks, Antetokounmpo had 20 points and 17 rebounds for Milwaukee in a losing cause. 

Khris Middleton led the way for the Bucks with 29 points, but for a third straight series Mike Budenholzer's team have lost Game 1.

Chris Paul, Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton led the way as the Phoenix Suns defeated the Milwaukee Bucks 118-105 in Game 1 of the NBA Finals.

The Bucks welcomed back superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo from a knee injury after the two-time MVP had been sidelined since Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals, missing the final two contests of that series.

However, Antetokounmpo's presence on the floor and double-double was not enough as the Suns – eyeing a first championship – drew first blood in the Finals opener on Tuesday.

Paul – making the first Finals appearance of his stellar career – posted 32 points, nine assists and four three-pointers, while Booker added 27 points of his own as Ayton finished with 22 points and 19 rebounds at home.

Veteran Paul became the third player ever aged 36 or older to score 30-plus points in a Finals game, after Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Tim Duncan.

It was Ayton's 12th double-double in his first playoff series, second most in the franchise's postseason history – only Charles Barkley has more (22 in four playoffs).

Meanwhile, the Suns – who used a 35-27 third quarter to move clear – were almost impeccable from the free-throw line, missing just one of their 26 attempts.

The Bucks had been outscoring teams by 12.1 points per game in the paint this postseason, but they only edged the Suns 44-42 in Tuesday's encounter.

Antetokounmpo had 20 points, 17 rebounds, four assists and two blocks for the Bucks, who are eyeing their first championship since 1971, while Khris Middleton registered a team-high 29 points.

 

Bucks at Suns

The Bucks and Suns will do it all again in Thursday's Game 2 at Phoenix Suns Arena.

Milwaukee Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo has been cleared to return and will start Game 1 of the NBA Finals against the Phoenix Suns after overcoming a knee injury.

Antetokounmpo was initially doubtful for the series opener due to a hyperextended knee, which the two-time NBA MVP suffered during the third quarter of Game 4 in the Eastern Conference Finals against the Atlanta Hawks.

But after watching back-to-back games from the sidelines, Antetokounmpo has proven his fitness as the Bucks face the second-seeded Suns on the road on Tuesday.

Antetokounmpo averaged 28.1 points, 11.0 rebounds and a joint career-high 5.9 assists in the regular season, while he has been averaging a career-best 28.2 points, 12.7 rebounds and 5.2 assists per game in the playoffs.

The third-seeded Bucks – eyeing their first championship since 1971 – are featuring in the NBA Finals for the first time since 1974.

Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday are on pace to be the first trio of team-mates in NBA history to each average 15.0-plus points, 5.0-plus rebounds and 5.0-plus assists per game in the same postseason.

The Bucks are outscoring their opponents by 12.1 points per game in the paint this postseason, on pace to be the best differential by any team in a single playoff campaign (minimum 10 games) since the Los Angeles Lakers were plus-12.6 on their way to the title in 2001.

Giannis Antetokounmpo's left knee is the major talking point as the Milwaukee Bucks prepare to potentially play Game 1 of the NBA Finals against the Phoenix Suns without the two-time MVP.

Antetokounmpo was hurt after attempting to make a block during the third quarter of Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Atlanta Hawks, a contest his team lost to leave the series level at 2-2.

The diagnosis was confirmed as a hyperextended knee, forcing the Greek to watch on from the sidelines. Such a blow could easily have derailed Milwaukee at a key time in the postseason, but instead they shared the burden of covering for their superstar, finding a way to win two games on the spin and emerge from the East.

Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer declared Antetokounmpo to be making "good progress" on Monday, though he is listed as doubtful for the series opener in Phoenix.

Without him this season, the Bucks have shot 40.3 per cent from deep, compared to 37.0 per cent when he has played. They also saw a rise in steals (9.4 compared to 7.8 with him), albeit in a small sample size. And while the numbers may suggest his absence is not a huge issue, the presence of the 26-year-old undoubtedly makes them a tougher proposition for the Suns to deal with.

The last time Milwaukee made it this far in the playoffs, the legendary Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was on the roster. Back in 1974 they lost in seven to the Boston Celtics, though they had at least been crowned champions three years earlier.

In contrast, the Suns have never won a title. Their most recent of two finals appearances came in 1993, when Michael Jordan scuppered the hopes of Charles Barkley and the rest of the Phoenix roster.

They had not even made it to the playoffs since 2009-10 before this season, yet have beaten both teams from Los Angeles – in the process ending the Lakers' hopes of repeating – and also swept aside the Denver Nuggets.

While their opponents were fighting hard to overcome the Hawks, Phoenix were able to rest up. They have not played since clinching the Western Conference crown on June 30, a welcome break during an arduous season that, despite the continued impact of the coronavirus pandemic, is heading towards a thrilling conclusion.

 

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Milwaukee Bucks - Khris Middleton

With Giannis ruled out, Middleton stepped up for Milwaukee. The two-time All-Star had 58 combined points as the Bucks won back-to-back games against Atlanta.

His Game 6 performance included 23 points in the third quarter alone, helping make sure Milwaukee made it through to the finals for the first time in 47 years, Middleton has been inconsistent at times with his shooting, though he also come up big to help his team rally from the brink to oust the Brooklyn Nets.

Phoenix Suns - Chris Paul

Paul finally gets his long-awaited chance to appear in an NBA Finals, 16 years into his outstanding career. His signing by the Suns was a masterstroke in roster management, providing the old head to help guide young talents like Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton.

The veteran point guard has averaged 18.1 points per game in this postseason and is shooting 40.5 per cent on three-point attempts, his highest success rate from beyond the arc since the 2015 playoffs, back when he was a member of the Clippers. Phoenix is his third team since then, but can they help him secure that elusive ring at last?

The Milwaukee Bucks have had better regular seasons recently.

This season's .639 winning percentage (46-26) pales in comparison to last year's .767 (56-17) or even the .732 (60-22) from 2018-19.

Yet it is this vintage of the Bucks that will be playing in the NBA Finals for the first time since 1974. While some will dismiss this year's champions as a beneficiary of a strange season and a postseason full of devastating injuries, the Bucks and Phoenix Suns will not be apologising for having beaten every team in front them so far.

It is also quite possible that, despite having a less accomplished regular season, this Bucks squad is better equipped to win in the playoffs, using the first 72 games on the schedule to learn how to best focus its strengths.

Milwaukee coach Mike Budenholzer has developed a reputation as a stubborn tactician, clinging to his preferred strategy regardless of the opponent, especially on the defensive end.

Budenholzer has traditionally asked his players to guard their position and to fight through screens without switching assignments. This structure has allowed Milwaukee to utilise its size and has been formidable in the regular season with the Bucks allowing 101.9 points per 100 possessions across the 2018-19 and 2019-20 seasons, best in the NBA.

But Milwaukee's defense faltered in decisive playoff series in each of the previous two seasons, with a defensive rating that rose to 106.9 in 2019 against the Toronto Raptors and ballooned to 112.1 last year against the Miami Heat.

Budenholzer responded by using the 2020-21 regular season to experiment with a more varied defensive approach. The results were not always the best, allowing opponents to score 109.1 points per 100 possessions.

That experience, however, has given Milwaukee the tools to employ a more diverse defense in the playoffs, with the Bucks boasting a 103.5 defensive rating this postseason.

Milwaukee still holds on to its big lineups and objects to switching all five defenders like some teams do while playing trendy small ball, but the growing pains have added another tool to the toolbox. Even if the switching itself proves not to be a strategic advantage, the Bucks are at least better prepared to throw different looks at Chris Paul, Devin Booker and the rest of the Suns.

Of course, scheme alone can only take a team so far, but this year's Bucks team appears to have improved personnel, as well.

Giannis Antetokounmpo is a two-way monster who obviously takes top billing, but perhaps this postseason has shown that the Bucks are at their best when the two-time MVP takes a slightly reduced role on offense.

Antetokounmpo is averaging a playoff career-high 28.2 points this postseason, but the Bucks have lost three of his five highest-scoring games. When he has five or more assists, however, Milwaukee are 6-1.

His team has also fared much better when Antetokounmpo aggressively attacks the basket, going 6-0 this postseason when he attempts nine or more free throws, even though he is shooting just 53.7 percent from the line.

Perhaps the biggest question facing Antetokounmpo, however, is his health. After leaving Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals with a hyper-extended left knee, he was held out of the next two games of the series, both Milwaukee victories.

Although imaging has revealed no significant structural damage to his knee, Antetokounmpo is listed as doubtful to play in Tuesday’s NBA Finals opener. And while the Bucks were able to close out an Atlanta Hawks team that was missing Trae Young, they will likely need an impactful contribution from Antetokounmpo to beat a healthy and confident Suns team.

The Bucks and their supporters can take heart, however, in the supporting cast appearing to be much better than in previous playoff runs.

Last offseason, Milwaukee paid a heavy price to replace Eric Bledsoe with Jrue Holiday, trading away three first-round draft picks in a blockbuster four-team deal. And while the upgrade could appear trivial on paper – going from Bledsoe’s 14.9 points per game last season to Holiday's 17.7 this season – this postseason has revealed why Holiday was such a coveted piece on the trade market.

In the 2019 and 2020 playoffs, Bledsoe averaged 12.9 points, 4.0 rebounds and 4.9 assists for the Bucks while shooting 40.3 percent from the field and 24.0 percent from 3-point range.

During Milwaukee's run to the Finals, Holiday has averaged 17.6 points, 5.6 rebounds and 8.4 assists, all while playing two of his best career playoff games to close out the Hawks while Antetokounmpo was sidelined.

Holiday leads the Bucks this postseason in plus-minus per game at +7.2, and the team is 4-1 when he attempts at least 20 shots.

Perhaps the key to the 2021 Finals is the performance of unsung star Khris Middleton, who will be the crunch-time focal point for the Bucks.

With Antetokounmpo's struggles from the free throw line, Milwaukee is forced to look elsewhere to create offense in the waning minutes of close games. Middleton has attempted a team-high 14 shots in the last three minutes of the fourth quarter during this playoff run and is 10 for 10 from the free throw line in clutch situations. Antetokounmpo is just 7 for 15.

Middleton has also shown the ability to carry the team when Antetokounmpo is off the floor, a valuable stopgap if the Bucks are forced to play a game or more without Antetokounmpo.

He has averaged 29.0 points, 8.5 rebounds and 7.5 assists in the final two games of the East finals, all while shooting above his playoff career average from the floor.

Middleton has done some of his best work this postseason while Antetokounmpo has been on the bench, either due to injury or routine substitution. Not only has Middleton scored more when Milwaukee’s Greek superstar is off the floor – 37.9 points per 100 possessions compared to 25.1 with Antetokounmpo on the floor – his efficiency also improves when he is the primary option.

With Middleton shooting 47.8 percent from the field and 35.0 percent from 3-point range when Antetokounmpo is off the court this postseason, that compares to 41.1 percent overall and 33.3 percent from deep when he plays alongside the two-time MVP.

The Suns will undoubtedly present an enormous challenge for the Bucks in an NBA Finals between two teams desperate for a championship parade. And the Bucks, just like the Suns, have benefitted from some measure of good luck this postseason, facing an injury-riddled Brooklyn squad and avoiding East top seed Philadelphia.

But this Milwaukee team is also better equipped to lift the Larry O'Brien Trophy than in the previous two seasons, despite a less impressive regular season.

With some added schematic versatility and a better supporting cast, the Bucks might only need a bit of healing in Antetokounmpo's left knee to be crowned NBA champions for the first time since 1971.

Two years ago, the Phoenix Suns compiled the second-worst record in franchise history behind only the 1968-69 expansion team.

A year later, they were the darling of the NBA's restart – going a perfect 8-0 at the Walt Disney Complex in Florida amid the coronavirus pandemic, yet still missing out on the playoffs.

And now, a mere 11 months later, they are just four wins away from capturing the franchise's first NBA title.

Led by a future Hall of Famer running the point, a dynamic scorer and one of the most explosive young bigs in the league, Phoenix have the chance to join the 2007-08 Boston Celtics and last season's Los Angeles Lakers as the only teams in the last 40 years to win the NBA title after missing the playoffs in the previous season.

The last stage of their incredible turnaround begins at home to the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 1 of the NBA Finals on Tuesday.

The Suns reached their first NBA Finals since losing to Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls in 1993 after dispatching defending champions the Lakers in five games in the first round, sweeping the Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference semi-finals and ousting the Los Angeles Clippers in six in the Conference Finals.

All of those teams were a bit banged-up – the Lakers without Anthony Davis, the Nuggets minus Jamal Murray and a Kawhi Leonard-less Clippers squad – but the Suns themselves had to overcome their own setbacks. Chris Paul injured his shoulder against the Lakers and then missed two games following a positive COVID-19 test, Devin Booker played through a broken nose and Cameron Johnson was sidelined with an illness.

Despite their issues, Phoenix have taken care of business against the league's best just like it did all season – their .711 winning percentage (27-11) against teams .500 or better in the regular season ranked first in the NBA – with an offense running through Paul and Booker.

In the Finals for the first time in his 16-year-career, the 36-year-old Paul is one of the most captivating storylines of this series and with good reason – he is playing with a rejuvenated fervour and is the engine that runs Phoenix's high-powered offense.

Paul has tallied at least 15 points and five assists in each of his last eight games – the longest streak by any player 36 years or older in postseason history – and he punctuated the Suns' Finals berth with a playoff career-high-tying 41 points on seven-of-eight shooting on three-pointers and eight assists in last Wednesday's 130-103 Game 6 win over the Clippers. It marked just the fourth time in playoff history a player had 40 or more points with at least seven three-pointers while shooting 80 per cent or better from three-point range. (Booker had one in Phoenix's ouster against the Lakers on June 3 and Paul had another one for the Houston Rockets in 2018.)

Although he got hot from three-point range the last time the Suns took the court, inside the perimeter has been Paul, as well as Booker's, calling card this season.

Paul and Booker were first and second in mid-range field goals made in the regular season with 211 and 188, respectively, as Phoenix shot a league-leading 47.2 per cent from mid-range.

Including the postseason, Paul is shooting 50.4 per cent on baseline jumpers (60 of 119) and 52.2 per cent on shots from the elbow (194 of 372), while Booker is shooting 47.6 per cent (81 of 170) and 47.5 per cent (154 of 324) on such shots. Paul's 163 made hoops from the elbow in the regular season were the most in the NBA, while Booker ranked third with 119.

The mid-range game has somewhat fallen by the wayside as teams focus more on the increased weight of the three-pointer, and although Phoenix is finding success from mid-range, they have not forgotten about the importance of the three.

While 19.1 per cent of the Suns' shots in the regular season were from mid-range compared to the league average of 13.6 per cent, Phoenix's 39.2 per cent of shots from three-point range was the exact league average. The Suns attempted fewer shots in the paint – 41.7 per cent compared to the NBA average of 47.2 per cent – but when they do feed the ball down low, they are converting baskets at a higher rate than anyone.

Including the postseason, Phoenix are shooting 60.3 per cent in the paint and 65.9 per cent in the restricted area – both ranking first in the league.

Deandre Ayton has been the driving force behind the Suns' proficiency in the paint and has upped his game in the playoffs.

After shooting 75.2 per cent from the restricted area in the regular season to rank sixth in the league (min. 150 FGA) and 68.3 per cent in the paint to rank ninth (200 FGA), the 22-year-old is shooting 79.4 per cent in the restricted area (85 of 107) and 74.7 per cent in the paint (112 of 150) in the playoffs.

The top pick of the 2018 draft put together a phenomenal series against the Clippers, highlighted by an alley-oop dunk at the buzzer in an exhilarating 114-113 win in Game 2. Ayton averaged 17.8 points and 13.7 rebounds while shooting 69.3 per cent to become just the fourth player since 1983-84 to average at least 17 points and 13 rebounds while shooting 65 per cent or better in a single postseason series.

Johnson was also instrumental to Phoenix's success against the Clippers and is fit to play in the Finals after missing Wednesday's closeout win with a non-COVID illness.

After averaging 6.7 points on 37.8 per cent shooting and 41.2 per cent from beyond the arc (14 of 34) in the first two rounds, Johnson averaged 10.8 points on 70.0 per cent shooting and 52.9 per cent on three-pointers (9 of 17) in the Clippers series.

While Johnson finally found his shooting touch in the last round to help the Suns advance, much of their success this postseason hinges on shoulders of veteran three-point specialist Jae Crowder.

Phoenix are 7-0 in the playoffs when Crowder scores at least 10 points and 5-4 when he fails to reach double figures. His scoring success boils down to how well he is shooting from deep, as he is knocking down 51.9 per cent of his three-pointers (27 of 52) in those seven double-digit scoring games compared to just 21.6 per cent (11 of 51) in those other nine contests.

He has been a bit more effective from the corner in the playoffs, shooting 48.1 per cent from there (13 of 27) after making 38.8 per cent of his corner threes in the regular season (40 of 103). Booker, meanwhile, has been steady from the corner all season, connecting on 51.2 per cent of his 41 attempts from there.

Cameron Payne was one of the league's most effective shooters on wing three-pointers during the regular season, connecting on 46.2 per cent of his 119 shots – the third-highest field goal percentage in the NBA among those with at least 100 attempts. He has not been quite as deadly in the postseason, shooting 38.1 per cent on his 42 shots from the wing, but Paul has been more accurate from there since the playoffs began, shooting 51.9 per cent (14 of 27) after shooting 37.4 per cent from the wing in the regular season (58 of 155).

Although Phoenix's strength all season has been their high-powered offense – their 114.9 offensive rating in the regular season was tied with the Portland Trail Blazers for fourth – the Suns are proving they are able to grind out wins in the playoffs even when their offense is not firing on all cylinders. Phoenix are averaging 108.9 points in the playoffs – down 6.4 points from their regular-season average – but are 4-4 when scoring 105 or fewer after going 3-9 in such games in the regular season.

Behind Paul, Booker and company, the Suns have come a long way in a relatively short amount of time, joining the 2007-08 Celtics as the only teams in the last 40 seasons to go from having one of the NBA's two worst records to one of its two best in a two-year span. In fact, over the past five seasons from 2015-16 to 2019-20, Phoenix's .302 winning percentage was the worst in the NBA.

Their run to the playoffs was unprecedented – their 51-21 regular-season record was the best in NBA history among teams that entered a season with a postseason drought of at least 10 seasons – and after all the years of disappointment in the desert, a championship is now within reach.

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.

Giannis Antetokounmpo was as active as he could be during the Milwaukee Bucks' decisive Game 6 win over the Atlanta Hawks. 

Missing a second consecutive game after hyperextending his left knee, the Greek star paced the sidelines throughout the game, exhorting his team-mates on while wearing a mask on his face and a sleeve on his knee. 

Now that the Bucks have advanced to the NBA Finals for the first time since 1974, the key question will be whether Antetokounmpo will be in the lineup for Tuesday's series opener at the Phoenix Suns. 

Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer had no interest in exploring that topic following the win, saying only that it would be an ongoing conversation with the team's medical staff over the next few days. 

"You have to listen to the player and then you have to listen to the sports performance group, and at some point [general manager] Jon Horst and myself are part of the conversations, but it's just a day-to-day thing," Budenholzer told reporters. 

"We'll update it when appropriate. The conversations between he and myself and he and the sports performance group, it's kind of private and we'll see where he is each day."

Despite the ongoing questions about Antetokounmpo's availability in the Finals, Budenholzer took time to appreciate his star's enthusiasm even when he is unable to take the court. 

"He's coming off the bench, he's halfway on the court, talking to Bobby [Portis], talking to Brook [Lopez], talking to different players; to see that kind of leadership, that kind of connection, that kind of commitment from a player you know would be dying to be out there and playing," Budenholzer said.

"I just loved his energy on the bench. I loved his just togetherness that he brings to our group.

"And there's a bittersweetness to him not being able to play these last two games, but I think he understands that there's a way we want to play basketball and there's a kind of team and organisation that we want to be able to play and just play ball, and he's a big part of that.

"But if he were to miss a game or if he's on the bench for whatever reason, we need to be able to play and we need to have guys that have confidence and we need to be able to get stops and do all the things that go into winning.

"While he's incredibly important to us, I think he appreciates what his teammates can do. And we certainly do as an organisation appreciate what he did, and then what everybody else was able to do tonight and the other night without him."

Saturday night, it was Khris Middleton's 32 points and Jrue Holiday's 27 that ensured Antetokounmpo would at least have a chance to return. 

Even if Antetokounmpo is not ready to open the series against the Suns, his team-mates appreciated the effort he gave on the sidelines tin Game 6.

"This is probably the most I've seen Giannis talk, like the whole game," Holiday said. "I know usually when he's on the court and he's running, racing through five people and blocking shots, you're tired. He's tired and he's playing.

"But man, he's motivating everybody, he's motivating me, telling me to push the pace, telling me to keep being aggressive and telling me to lock people up.

"I feel what he brought to the game today and how he led us - again, he is pretty quiet, but how talkative he's been has been awesome for us and very, very encouraging."

There was disappointment but no regret for the Los Angeles Clippers after their season came to an end Wednesday.

Though head coach Tyronn Lue acknowledged there was a sense of "shock" in his locker room following a 130-103 loss to the Phoenix Suns in Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals, he and his players were proud of what they accomplished. 

After rallying from 0-2 deficits to win their first two series against the Dallas Mavericks and the Utah Jazz, the Clippers could not do the same against the Suns with injured star Kawhi Leonard sitting out the entire series. 

Despite falling short of winning their first championship, they took solace in completing the franchise's deepest postseason run. 

"I'm proud of our guys," Lue told reporters. "We've been through a lot this season, a lot of ups and downs, a lot of injuries, but our guys stayed the course. 

"We did something special this year. Even though we didn't complete what we wanted to complete, I thought we did a great job of doing something special, doing something this franchise has never done before.

"Like I told those guys in the locker room, I love those guys and I'd go to war with them any time. I'm just proud of them. Even though we came up short, it was a great run, despite everything we had to go through."

Atop that list in the playoffs was the loss of Leonard, the two-time NBA champion who was averaging 30.4 points per game in the playoffs when he went down with a knee injury in Game 4 of the Jazz series. 

Leonard missed all eight of the Clippers' remaining games, leaving the burden of carrying the team to Paul George. 

"I thought this team squeezed everything we could out of what we had," George said. "We squeezed everything out of one another and I thought we got stronger and better as the season went on." 

Proud as George was, the 31-year-old once again missed out on making his first trip to the NBA Finals. 

"It is what it is -- I came up short again," he said.

"I wasn't out to prove nothing to nobody, but to show up as a leader for this team, put us in a position to get to where we got to. Came up short. Our good wasn't enough." 

Though the odds certainly were stacked against them late given Leonard's absence, Lue said there was an air of disbelief their their season was actually finished. 

"I think it's a shock to a lot of guys in that locker room, and that tells you a lot about the team," he said.

"No matter who's playing, we still feel like every night we have a chance to win. I thought we ran out of gas."

Chris Paul says he never stopped believing he would make the NBA Finals after finally achieving the feat with the Phoenix Suns in his 13th playoffs campaign.

The Suns will play for the NBA title after sealing a 4-2 Western Conference Finals series win over the Los Angeles Clippers with a 130-103 road victory on Wednesday.

Paul scored a playoffs career-high 41 points for the Suns, including a run of 14 of his side's 16 points after the Clippers closed within seven late in the third quarter.

The 36-year-old point guard will now realise his long-held dream of playing in the NBA Finals after previously narrowly missing out with the Clippers and the Houston Rockets, the latter when his side were 3-2 up in the Conference finals and he went down injured.

"No, I ain't built like that," Paul said when asked at the post-game news conference if he ever thought making the NBA Finals would not happen for him.

"It's just, 'get to work'. In Game 3, I found out I'd tore some ligaments in my hand and I thought 'here we go'... I've got an unbelievable team around me."

Paul missed the first two games of the Clippers series after entering into the league's health and safety protocol having tested positive to COVID-19.

The veteran also battled a shoulder complaint in the Suns' first-round playoffs series against the Los Angeles Lakers and he revealed he had undergone an MRI on his wrist on Tuesday ahead of Game 6.

"It's been a lot," he said. "I was getting an MRI yesterday on my wrist. I've had all these surgeries over the years.

"I remember in Houston, we were up 3-2 and we had the T-shirt and hat and I never got a chance to get it. I'll never forget that."

He added: "I've been on the other end of so many losses. I know what that feels like."

Paul shot seven-from-eight three-pointers among his 41 points, while he also had four rebounds, eight assists and three steals in a memorable playoffs performance.

Paul's 31 second-half points are a career-high, while it was tied for third-most second-half points in a series-clinching win since 1996-97 behind Stephen Curry and Anthony Davis.  

He also moved up to 11th on the all-time NBA playoffs assists list but preferred to focus on his team.

"I was just happy and proud of our team," he said. "Mont [Suns coach Monty Williams], not winning coach of the year, but we know who he is.

"I experienced COVID, just a week ago. I was at home and couldn’t be there with my teammates. That's what you call next man up. They won two games in the series without me. It just shows you how crazy it is.

"In the first series, I got this nerve thing. Won the second series and end up with the COVID. It's been a lot. I want it, not just for myself, but for everyone in that locker room."

The Phoenix Suns and Chris Paul have ended their respective long waits for NBA Finals appearances after a 130-103 win over the Los Angeles Clippers sealed their spot on Wednesday.

The Suns clinched the Western Conference Finals series 4-2, rounding out the triumph with an outstanding road win, with Phoenix back in the NBA Finals for the first time in 28 years.

Suns' 36-year-old point guard Paul was exceptional with 41 points as he progresses to the NBA Finals for the first time in his career, after 13 playoffs campaigns.

Paul hit seven-from-eight three-pointers in a masterful shooting display, going at 66.7 per cent from the field, as well as eight assists, four rebounds and three steals with no turnovers.

Devin Booker contributed with 22 points, four assists and seven rebounds, Deandre Ayton had 17 rebounds along with 16 points, while Jae Crowder hit five three-pointers in his 19 points.

Phoenix are crowned Western Conference champions having gone 12-4 in the postseason, including 6-2 on the road, clinching all three series away.

The Suns become the first team in history to reach the NBA Finals having not made the playoffs in 10 or more years prior.

The Clippers could not muster one more memorable comeback after some dramatic performances this postseason, closing within seven points late in the third before Paul showed irrepressible poise.

Paul George managed 21 points with nine rebounds for the Clippers, while Marcus Morris Sr scored 26 points and had nine rebounds.

Patrick Beverley was ejected in the fourth quarter for a push on Paul as reality set in for LA, who were behind for the most part of Wednesday's Game 6.

Paul's shooting was clearly on early as the Suns opened up a 10-point half-time lead, with Phoenix shooting at 58.8 per cent from beyond the arc in the first half.

The Clippers had a 10-0 run to close within seven points late in the third quarter as the home crowd erupted after Nicolas Batum's three-pointer.

But Paul steadied for Phoenix with a long-range bucket immediately after the timeout, opening it up to 14 points at the final change and they would not relent, with the Suns veteran adding 17 fourth-quarter points.

 

Hawks at Bucks

Star pair Trae Young and Giannis Antetokounmpo are both likely to be out for the crucial Game 5 as the Milwaukee Bucks host the Atlanta Hawks with the series at 2-2.

Paul George says he "can't worry" about critics after his masterful Game 5 display against the Phoenix Suns kept the Los Angeles Clippers in the NBA playoffs.

George was the star of the show in a resounding 116-102 victory at Phoenix Suns Arena on Monday.

The seven-time NBA All-Star scored a career postseason-high 41 points, including 30 in the second half, to reduce the Suns' lead to 3-2 in the Western Conference Finals.

George became the first player in NBA history to score 40 points or more with at least 75 per cent field goals, 50 per cent three-pointers and a perfect record with free-throws.

The shooting guard feels he has been harshly singled out, but will pay little attention to those who continue to point the finger at him.

Asked if he feels he has been criticised more than other NBA stars, he said: "I do. And it's the honest truth. It's a fact.

"But I can't worry about that. It comes with the job, I guess. I still try to go and dominate and so I'm beyond that, you know what I mean. I am who I am. I wish I could shoot 80 per cent, 75 per cent, on a nightly basis, but it's not realistic."

He added: "What I can do is do everything else. They can judge me on what they want to. That part don't matter to me. I'm going to go out there and hoop and give it everything I got."

 

George has put up at least 20 points in all 18 games he has played during this postseason. The only other players in NBA history to score at 20 or more points in their first 18 games of a single NBA playoffs are Michael Jordan (1992, 1997, 1998), Kobe Bryant (2008) and Kevin Durant (2012, 2018).

George becomes the third player since the 1996-97 season to score 30-plus points on 80 per cent shooting or better in the second half of a postseason game, joining Anthony Davis (2020) and Dwyane Wade (2010).

Clippers coach Ty Lue has been baffled by criticism of George.

"PG has been great for us all year and I just don't understand why it's magnified so much when he doesn't play well,” said Lue.

Los Angeles Clippers head coach Tyronn Lue does not understand the criticism of Paul George after the star helped the team avoid elimination from the NBA playoffs with a 116-102 win over the Phoenix Suns.

George scored a career postseason-high 41 points, including 30 in the second half, in Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals as the Clippers stayed alive in the postseason series on Monday.

The 31-year-old stepped up when the Clippers were challenged in the third quarter, with second-seeded Phoenix hitting the lead briefly, as George hit back with 20 third-quarter points.

George became the first player in Clippers history to record 40-plus points, 10-plus rebounds and five-plus assists in a postseason game, while also becoming the first player in NBA history to have 40-plus points on at least 75 per cent field-goal shooting, 50 per cent three-point shooting and 100 free-throw shooting in a playoff contest.

HE is also the third player since the 1996-97 since to score 30-plus points on 80 per cent shooting or better in the second half of a postseason game, joining Anthony Davis (2020) and Dwyane Wade (2010).

George has been criticised in the past and has missed some key free-throws against the Suns, but he has been the Clippers' top scorer in all five games this series in the absence of Kawhi Leonard (knee), while he led all three categories – points, rebounds and assists, for the second successive game for the fourth seeds.

"I just don't understand why it's magnified so much when he has a bad game, when he doesn't play well," Lue said during his post-game news conference.

"A lot of people play bad. Like I said, I'm just happy he came back, played a great game, we needed every bit of it."

George has put up at least 20 points in all 18 games he has played this season. The only other players in NBA history to have at least 20 points in their first 18 games of a single playoff campaign are Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant.

Lue added: "That's what great players do. You always bounce back, if you have a rough game.

"Our team needed it… We fed off Marcus' [Morris Snr] momentum in the first half. Every time they made a run, we responded."

The Clippers have already come from behind to win two series this postseason, triumphing 4-3 over the Dallas Mavericks after trailing 2-0, while they won four straight games against the top-seeded Utah Jazz, having been down 2-0.

Lue and the Clippers would need to win three straight games to overcome the Suns, having trailed 3-1 but they can level the series in Los Angeles on Wednesday.

A championship-winning coach with the Cleveland Cavaliers, Lue moved to a 10-2 coaching record when his side is facing elimination, but preferred to focus on his players who he labelled "resilient".

"It's been all season long," Lue said. "Guys have been out, different guys are stepping up and playing well.

"I keep saying the same word resilient but this group is. We got a gritty win without three starters, we gotta do it again two more times."

He added: "It is fun. I was just talking to our team about not winning three games but winning each quarter. The journey is too long if you think about three games, six days. I thought our guys came out with that mindset, we won three of four quarters."

Paul George posted a playoff career-high 41 points as the Los Angeles Clippers avoided elimination with a 116-102 win over the Phoenix Suns in Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals.

George flexed his muscles away from home on Monday and in the absence of star team-mate Kawhi Leonard, scoring 30 second-half points to keep the series alive against the second-seeded Suns.

The win means the Clippers, who have come from behind to triumph in their past two playoffs series, trail the Suns 3-2 in the matchup ahead of Game 6 back in Los Angeles on Wednesday.

George and the Clippers had led at half-time for the first time in the series, up 59-52, but the Suns earned a 62-61 lead before the visitors launched a 10-0 run and never looked back.

Clippers star George entered the must-win game as the fourth player in NBA history to score 20-plus points in each of his first 17 games of a single postseason, joining Michael Jordan (1991, 1992, 1997, 1998), Kobe Bryant (2008) and Kevin Durant (2012 and 2018).

George also had 13 rebounds and six assists, dominating for the fourth-seeded Clippers, who were without injured pair Leonard and Ivica Zubac.

The Clippers continued their resilient playoff campaign, having trailed 2-0 against the Dallas Mavericks in the first round before winning 4-3, while they won four games in a row against the top-seeded Utah Jazz in the Western Conference semi-finals, having fallen 2-0 behind.

The Suns refused to surrender, with Devin Booker scoring 31 points and Chris Paul contributing 22 of his own, but the Clippers always had an answer to silence the home crowd.

George, who shot 15-from-20 from the field for the game, had good support from Reggie Jackson (23 points, including four three-pointers), while Marcus Morris Sr. finished with 22 points after scoring 20 in the first half.

The Clippers dominated with 34-8 first-half points in the paint and 58-32 for the game.

Suns center Deandre Ayton could not capitalise on Zubac's absence, only managing 10 points and 11 rebounds.

Paul missed all six three-point attempts for Phoenix, while he had eight assists.

 

Bucks at Hawks

The Milwaukee Bucks can claim a 3-1 lead over the Atlanta Hawks when they visit State Farm Arena for Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals on Tuesday.

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