The elephant in the room for the Milwaukee Bucks is that the hyper-extended left knee of Giannis Antetokounmpo has unquestionably had an effect on the way oddsmakers are viewing the NBA Finals, which start Tuesday in the desert against the Phoenix Suns.
Some of them had expressed that if they were sure he was going to be available for the entirety of the series, Milwaukee might well be the favorite, even without the home court advantage. Instead, this is what we are looking at when it comes to the series odds at BetOnline:
Phoenix Suns -182
Milwaukee Bucks +162
Phoenix is a very good shooting team. The Suns were second in the league at 49% overall, and were also second from the free throw line at 83.4% and seventh from three-point range at 37.8%. They are not a “go-go” team that is going to run other clubs off the floor, but instead operate at a slower pace then most, ranking 26th in possessions per 48 minutes, which is in something of a contrast to Milwaukee, which was second in the NBA.
Amidst all this was a marked improvement on the defensive side of the ball. Last season the Suns were 17th in “Defensive Rating,” which measures points allowed per 100 possessions. This season they were 9th. They also outscored opponents by almost nine points per game.
What they are going to have to do here, however, is get better shooting from Devin Booker and Chris Paul than they got against the Clippers. Booker went 38.2% from the field and 28.6% from the arc against Los Angeles in the previous series, while Paul shot just 41.7%.
Admittedly there were some mitigating factors. One was that Paul had to sit out the first two games of that series while he was in the COVID protocol and was slow getting his rhythm when he came back. In the clincher, however, he scored 41 points on 16-of-24 shooting, including seven of eight from three-point territory. Booker suffered a broken nose early on and had to wear a protective mask.
And both of them had to, at various times, deal with the Clippers' pesky guard Patrick Beverley, a defensive specialist.
In that regard, they won't get a whole lot of relief out of Milwaukee, which is able to put Jrue Holiday (an All-Defensive team member) in their faces. Holiday, who averaged 22 points a game against Atlanta, is going to keep them plenty busy on the other end of the floor as well.
As far as the Suns are concerned, if they don't have to compete against Giannis for a time, it will be the third straight series in which they've been fortuitous, as they avoided Jamal Murray of Denver and Kawhi Leonard of the Clippers in previous sets.
What the Bucks, and their extremely capable coach Mike Budenholzer, have to do is present a balanced attack if they are going to face the absence of their star for a game or two. That's something they were able to do pretty well in the two games they won without him against the Hawks. Different players stepped up; we already mentioned what Holiday did, and both Brook Lopez and Khris Middleton exceeded 30 points in subsequent games. So they won't be predictable by any stretch.
Here are the odds at BetOnline for who will be the NBA Finals MVP. As you'll see, they are taking into account the possibility of Giannis not only playing, but having a major role in the best-of-seven:
Chris Paul +140
Devin Booker +220
Giannis Antetokounmpo +350
Kris Middleton +550
Jrue Holiday +900
Deandre Ayton +2800
Brook Lopez +5000
Paul may well have been the most valuable player in the NBA this season, because he provided the final, critical piece to a puzzle; indeed, the most critical piece. This story for the Suns began in the bubble last season, as they won all eight games, though they narrowly missed out on a playoff spot. Paul made the whole thing complete.
That having been said, DeAndre Ayton might be an interesting longshot pick for this. The seven-foot center, who was a #1 overall draft pick, averaged 17.8 points and 13.7 rebounds against the Clippers, and can take over a game if he has to. He shot 69% in the series, and Brook Lopez will feel a lot of pressure covering him if Giannis isn't around.
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