EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

NBA Finals preview, Pt. 1: Matchups make Suns’ Devin Booker the X-factor

Jul 4, 2021, 1:32 PM | Updated: Jul 5, 2021, 5:46 pm
Phoenix Suns' Devin Booker, center, is fouled as he shoots between Milwaukee Bucks' Jrue Holiday, r...

Phoenix Suns' Devin Booker, center, is fouled as he shoots between Milwaukee Bucks' Jrue Holiday, right, and Giannis Antetokounmpo, left, during the first half of an NBA basketball game Monday, April 19, 2021, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Aaron Gash)

(AP Photo/Aaron Gash)

In the NBA’s age of high-paced offense and escalating three-point shooting numbers, the league’s two best defensive teams in the postseason reigned supreme.

The NBA Finals will feature the Milwaukee Bucks and Phoenix Suns, the top two teams in defensive rating for the playoffs.

That already adds some extra intrigue to the matchup, but the goodies are really inside how the teams’ personnel stacks up against each other. Even with how often they are expected to switch, the different 1-on-1 clashes we’ll see over the course of the series will be terrific.

And there’s a bit of mystery there. Besides the fact that the teams produced two awesome, highly competitive games, we have little to take away from the regular-season meetings in terms of individual matchups.

Milwaukee’s Jrue Holiday was out for the outing in Phoenix and the Bucks didn’t have starter P.J. Tucker yet, a trade acquisition in mid-March. Torrey Craig also played 15 minutes in that game, for Milwaukee, who traded him to Phoenix in that Tucker deal.

After the Suns started Frank Kaminsky in that game, they went with Dario Saric for the second. For that one, however, Milwaukee had a healthy Donte DiVincenzo, who is out for the season due to an ankle injury.

And for this series, there are still some unknowns on Giannis Antetokounmpo’s status with a hyperextended left knee. He missed the last two games of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Atlanta Hawks, but for the sake of previewing the Finals, we’ll operate under the expectation he’s going to be playing.

Where the matchups begin is who Milwaukee head coach Mike Budenholzer sticks Holiday on.

There are four premier offensive players in this series: Phoenix’s backcourt of Devin Booker and Chris Paul and the Bucks’ wing pair of Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton.

That makes Holiday’s value in this series off the charts since he can defend both of the Suns’ top weapons. He’s one of the best perimeter defenders in basketball, and when it comes to who the players think is number one among guards, Damian Lillard and Kevin Durant have said in the past that it’s him.

To preview how both sides go at each other, let’s tackle how the Bucks guard the Suns first.

In the April 19 meeting with DiVincenzo in the lineup, the Bucks opened with Holiday on Paul, Middleton on Booker and DiVincenzo on Mikal Bridges.

Tucker starting in place of DiVincenzo is a notable wrinkle, as he and a younger Booker battled practice after practice from 2015-17. But with how the Suns use Booker off the ball, it seems safe to predict an older, slower Tucker doesn’t defend Booker all that much.

Regardless, Holiday will spend time on both Paul and Booker, as he did in that Suns win.

Suns fans might read Middleton on Booker and think that’s an advantageous position for Booker, but Middleton is an underrated defender and held his own on that assignment this season. He’s quicker than you’d think, plus has a good feel for navigating screens and a scorer’s tempo.

That’s another way of saying what the Los Angeles Clippers’ Patrick Beverley had success with in the Western Conference Finals on Booker. He was in Booker’s bubble, getting a half-step closer than most guys and putting up good contests on most of his looks.

Booker hit a lot of tough shots in his home fixture with Middleton on him.

In the next go, Middleton fared better, but Booker still looked comfortable enough to drain some difficult buckets.

Sometimes, that comfort level matters more than anything, so we’ll see.

Either way, with Middleton, Holiday and Tucker to throw at Booker, the Bucks have the best collection of individual defenders that Booker has seen this postseason.

The other two spots should be Antetokounmpo on Crowder and Brook Lopez defending Deandre Ayton.

Antetokounmpo, the 2019-20 Defensive Player of the Year, will be able to play free safety a bit off Crowder and provide extra help where he sees fit. With his health status up in the air, that’s the easiest job for him as well. That’s also where the Suns could look to attack him, as they did with a hobbled LeBron James of the Los Angeles Lakers, so keep an eye out there.

Lopez on Ayton is an interesting point to pivot, because their roles are somewhat similar, which is where both teams could perhaps try different defenders on them. Both are asked to rebound, finish on dives, set screens and hit open shots. Despite the two being good individual offensive players in their own right, neither’s post games are a part of their respective offenses. Lopez’s floor spacing as a three-point shooter is the only real difference.

And that’s why it should be easy enough for the Suns to stick Crowder on him and have Ayton on Antetokounmpo, although Suns head coach Monty Williams did say Sunday he noticed Lopez being used more on dives lately by the Bucks. Lopez’s offensive usage by Milwaukee is a variable worth monitoring.

There will be more to come on the Ayton-Antetokounmpo matchup in other previews, including Crowder’s time guarding the two-time MVP. But when Crowder and Ayton did share the floor against those two in the mid-April meeting, Ayton did stay locked in on Antetokounmpo.

The Bucks being without their star man as they closed out the Hawks saw Middleton, Holiday and Lopez all flourish to win two straight.

Middleton is flat-out one of the best scorers in basketball. Bridges has the length and agility to keep up with Middleton and make life hard on him, and it might be the most fun matchup out of all the ones we’ll highlight. Williams in prior meetings has tossed Crowder on Middleton too, as well as Craig and Cam Johnson.

In fact, Booker has spent time marking Middleton as well, and that’s where what Williams decides off the rip will be the most interesting.

Tucker will be mostly uninvolved in the offense, a spot where Williams can hide either Booker or Paul, and it will likely be Paul.

Booker began the April 19 game on Holiday, a matchup he has the best mix of strength and size for out of him, Paul and Bridges. His 6:38 of time squaring up Holiday in that get-together far outweighed Paul and Bridges, per NBA.com’s tracking data.

Holiday, a skilled and efficient bucket-getter over his career, posted 25 and 27 points in the Bucks’ two games without Antetokounmpo. Twenty-nine of those points came either in the paint or at the foul line, where Holiday used his smooth touch and bulky frame to score.

He did on the Suns as well, a 25-point outing for him.

When breaking down the series in this way, it actually makes Booker far more of an X-factor in unexpected ways. It’ll be big tests for the 24-year-old on both ends.

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NBA Finals preview, Pt. 1: Matchups make Suns’ Devin Booker the X-factor