What was the most impressive play we saw during the NBA Finals?
Ryan: Giannis Antetokounmpo’s block on Deandre Ayton in Game 4. The degree of difficulty on display 一 guarding the pick and roll while covering the lower block 一 made it one of the best blocks in NBA Finals history. And the timing was everything; up by two points with 1:15 left to go, Antetokounmpo’s play provided the momentum shift that his team needed to ultimately win the game and the rest of the series.
Ethan: I may be off my rocker, but I wasn’t awestruck by Antetokounmpo’s now-iconic block in Game 4. Devin Booker’s pass looked errant to me, so I didn’t expect Ayton to put the ball in the basket even without the Greek Freak there. What did get me out of my seat, however, was Antetokounmpo’s game-clinching alley-oop jam over Chris Paul in the closing moments of the following contest. It was spectacular, and it set the tone for Game 6.
Kabir: Giannis’ superhuman defensive switch, recovery and block on Ayton in Game 4. That play encapsulated Antetokounmpo’s versatility and highlighted why he claimed the 2020 Defensive Player of the Year award. Add in a fantastic call from Mike Breen, the Deer District rocking Fiserv Forum, the implications of the Bucks storming back to tie the series at two games apiece and that clutch, high-stakes play was immortalized into an all-time NBA Finals moment.
Ben: Jrue Holiday’s game-winning steal on Booker and the subsequent alley-oop to Giannis in Game 5 is what swung the course of the series. In the most timely situation, Holiday stepped up to shut down the Suns’ best player before brilliantly capitalizing off the turnover. This incredible play was exactly what the Bucks needed to steal that elusive road win and take control of the finals.
With a new Finals MVP and NBA championship, where does Antetokounmpo rank on the list of all-time best NBA players at his position?
R: If we’re counting Antetokounmpo’s main position as power forward, I would rank him number four behind only Tim Duncan, Karl Malone and Kevin Garnett. As a two-time MVP, five-time NBA All-Star and Defensive Player of the Year, he already had one of the best all-time resumes for a 26-year-old NBA player before the Finals. But a championship ring has precipitously catapulted him above all but one Hall of Fame power forward who could never quite lift the coveted Larry O’Brien Trophy and two of the NBA’s greatest champions.
E: Antetokounmpo just jumped into the top three among power forwards from the past 35 years (I won’t pretend to know anything about Elvin Hayes or Bob Pettit), but I’m not ready to put him above Malone or Duncan. Yes, the Greek Freak now has a championship and Malone never will, but Malone’s career totals keep him in the two spot. Many would consider Duncan untouchable, but Antetokounmpo is dominating like few ever have and may be able to snatch the throne.
K: With an NBA title now under his belt, Antetokounmpo sits at the No. 5 all-time power forward spot in my eyes. I’d place him right above Charles Barkley and under Dirk Nowitzki, Garnett, Malone and Duncan. However, the Greek Freak is adding to his resume at an impressive rate, winning his first ring before LeBron James and Michael Jordan did in their respective careers. If he continues to progress, Antetokounmpo’s meteoric rise will likely end with him sitting atop this list.
B: He’s already cemented himself as a top-five power forward, but perhaps what’s most impressive is that he’s done it all as a 26-year-old. When you consider where he’s come from and the legacy he’s already built with a small-market team, I believe that if Antetokounmpo continues on his current trajectory, he could go down as the best power forward to ever play and a top-10 player of all time.
With this being Paul’s first and only NBA Finals appearance, does this loss tarnish his legacy?
R: In the grand scheme of his 16-year NBA career, no. Leading a young team like Phoenix all the way to the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference and NBA Finals is an incredible feat in and of itself. But Paul’s performance in the Finals doesn’t exactly help his career legacy — it actually hurts it. Though he had virtually the same stats in the rest of the playoffs as he did in the Finals, Paul was expected to take over the series in Hall of Fame fashion. Instead, he collected the most turnovers of any player, averaged fewer assists than he did in the regular season and was the only Suns starter with a negative plus-minus rating.
E: Yes, it does, but less because Paul’s team lost and more because he was uncharacteristically turnover-prone in the series. Whether it should tarnish his legacy is a different question; the Point God is 36 years old and was plagued by injury throughout the playoffs, so to have expected more from him may have been unfair. But given his costly turnovers — particularly in Game 4 — and otherwise unsurprising stat line, the loss will tarnish Paul’s legacy despite his age, injuries and the Suns’ dark horse status.
K: No. The fact that Paul made it to the NBA Finals at age 36 is an impressive feat in and of itself. Surely some will label CP3 a “choker” for his disappointing showings on the biggest stage, but that’s just the nature of NBA Twitter these days. When it is all said and done, we should remember how Paul lifted a young team on his back through these playoffs despite battling injuries — and how he had the best game of his career with a trip to the Finals on the line.
B: Falling just short isn’t going to hurt his legacy; it was an incredible run, even though he wasn’t able to step up in the finals. What will hurt him more is the missed opportunity — for the 36-year-old Paul, this truly felt like the best and perhaps last chance for him to bring home that all-important ring. If he does end up retiring without a ring, this will be the series that will leave us wondering what if.
For next season, how likely will both these teams be favored to rematch in the 2021-22 NBA Finals?
R: Not likely at all. Because of a combination of factors — including Chris Paul’s questionable long-term commitment to Phoenix and NBA superstars coming back from injuries next season — I’d be surprised to see this Finals matchup again in the near future. With that being said, don’t count out the Bucks. Given their championship experience, they know what it takes to win and are much more likely to come out of the East than Phoenix is to make it out of the West next year.
E: There’s zero chance of this being next year’s Finals matchup. If even two out of the Nets’ three stars can stay healthy, then the Bucks aren’t making it out of the East in 2022. And I hope you enjoyed seeing Booker and Ayton fighting for a ring because they won’t be back anytime soon. The Suns’ run was — I hate to say it — a fluke. Phoenix had a great regular season, yes, but like Milwaukee, it benefited from facing superior teams at less-than-full strength in the playoffs.
K: It feels really unlikely. I can see Milwaukee, riding the confidence and experience gained from a championship run, playing again next June. But it is much harder to imagine Phoenix escaping the wild West two years in a row. Teams such as the Lakers, Clippers and Warriors will be returning to health and are all rumored to be retooling in major ways this offseason. The Suns’ title window may have opened in 2021, but it seems to already be shut.
B: With the loaded Western Conference, this year really felt like the Suns’ best opportunity to win a championship. Without some significant moves in the offseason, it’ll be difficult for Phoenix to get back. Milwaukee, on the other hand, should return the same core and definitely has a chance to repeat. Its biggest challenge out East will be a healthy Brooklyn Nets team; the battles we might see between those two squads in the coming years could be legendary.