NBA playoffs: Suns, Bucks both in trouble with injured stars, but which title contender’s in greater danger?

When the 2022 NBA playoffs began, the odds suggested we were headed for a Finals rematch. The Phoenix Suns were heavily favored at the Western Conference, and while there was quite a bit of congestion in the East, the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks were favored by most books as well. Both sides defended those odds when they won their playoff openers. And then, disaster struck.

Devin Booker hurt his hamstring as the Suns lost their second game against the Pelicans. One night later, Khris Middleton hurt his knee as the Bucks lost their second game against the Bulls. Suddenly, both defending conference champions had surrendered home-court advantage in the first round and faced the reality that to advance, they’d have to come up with a way to win without one of their best players.

This begs an interesting question: Of the two pre-postseason conference favorites, which is in more trouble? Let’s take a closer look at what the Suns and Bucks are dealing with to figure that out.

Who can scale up more easily?

The Suns and Bucks are built very differently offensively. Milwaukee has designed a system to supplement a single star: Giannis Antetokounmpo. That meant prioritizing shooting above all else offensively. It works brilliantly when they’re healthy, but it means Milwaukee is somewhat limited when it comes to supplementary ball-handling. Grayson Allen, George Hill, Pat Connaughton, these are all wonderful supporting pieces, but not players who are particularly well suited to scaling into a bigger role when necessary.

Where Middleton’s absence is going to be felt most offensively is at the end of games. He was Milwaukee’s crunch-time offense last postseason, scoring nearly 41 percent of their clutch points and setting up many more through his pick-and-roll game with Antetokounmpo. With Middleton out, Giannis is going to have to shift into more of a full-time ball-handler late in games. He’s more than capable of doing that, especially in this matchup, but Antetokounmpo screening for Middleton is their best late-game play, and with it off of the table and Jrue Holiday being as inconsistent offensively as he tends to be in the postseason, the onus now falls almost entirely on Giannis.

The Suns are designed to play more egalitarian basketball. Booker took roughly 21 shots per game in the regular season, but after him, nobody topped 12. That doesn’t mean they couldn’t. When Booker missed time in January, for interest, Cam Johnson averaged nearly 15 points per game. Mikal Bridges had a 12-game stretch in which he averaged 19.5 points per game that largely overlapped with the absence of DeAndre Ayton. The Suns, ironically, don’t orbit around a single star.

That is, until crunch time. Chris Paul gave us a glimpse of what he’s still capable of in the fourth quarter of Game 1, when he quickly scored 13 points to put the game away in a matter of minutes. That’s where the biggest scaling can come here. Paul could afford to practically jog through most of the season because of Booker, conserving energy for late-game situations when they were needed. Now, the Suns need him to play that way for greater portions of the game. That’s not sustainable for four rounds, but for a first-round escape? It’s more than possible. He attempted 15 or more shots just 10 times in the regular season… but made 57 percent of his attempts in those games. Maintaining efficiency over greater volume is a reasonable ask of Paul here.

Who’s facing the more dangerous opponent?

For most of the season, the answer here would have been the Bucks. Now? That’s not so certain. Consider the following:

  • On Nov. 11, the Bulls were 8-3 with the No. 1 seed in the East and the Pelicans were 1-11 with the No. 15 seed in the West. Since then? The Bulls are 39-34 and the Pelicans, including the play-in round, are 38-36.
  • Even including those early struggles, the Pelicans very nearly closed the net rating gap on the Bulls over the full season. Chicago finished 20th at minus-0.5, the Pelicans finished 21st at minus-0.8.
  • The post-trade deadline Pelicans had a plus-3.8 net rating. The Bulls are minus-3.6 since Lonzo Ball went down in January (though they had other injuries).

Chicago has more roster talent, assuming you exclude Zion Williamson, but at this point there’s a meaningful enough sample to suggest that there’s not much of a difference between the Bulls and Pelicans in terms of quality. In fact, since CJ McCollum got to New Orleans, there hasn’t even been a pronounced difference between them in the late-game situations in which the Bulls have thrived. New Orleans has a plus-9.1 net rating in fourth quarters since the deadline, which beats the Bulls both in that period and over the full season.

So in terms of raw team quality, right now, there’s not much separation here. What the Bulls do have over the Pelicans, or more appropriately, the Bucks, are a few distinct matchup advantages. Nikola Vucevic has attempted 18 3s in two games because Milwaukee’s drop coverage intentionally sacrifices those shots to centers. Vucevic can make them. The Bucks have one elite perimeter stopper in Holiday. The Bulls have two elite perimeter scorers in DeMar DeRozan and Zach LaVine. The Bucks have tinkered with Antetokounmpo on DeRozan, but that sacrifices the structural integrity of their defensive scheme as a whole. In that sense, the Bucks have more work to do when it comes to figuring out their specific opponent.

Who has more to fear in the rounds to come?

In Round 2, the answer is undeniably Milwaukee. Likely awaiting the Bucks should they escape Chicago is a Boston Celtics team that has lost just seven times since January. If Boston doesn’t advance, that means Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving managed to squeak into the second round with a suddenly healthy Ben Simmons. Milwaukee, at close to full strength, came one shoe size away from losing to Durant by himself a year ago. The Bucks intentionally ducked the Nets this time around. They don’t want to face either of these teams without Middleton.

Phoenix has a bit more leeway here. Coming up next for the Suns will either be a Dallas Mavericks team that doesn’t currently have a healthy Luka Doncic, or the Utah Jazz group that is struggling to take advantage of Doncic’s absence. Neither would be particularly easy matchups, but they aren’t as fearsome as Boston or Brooklyn. The Suns could conceivably survive long enough to get Booker back in that scenario. If the Bucks go into a series with the Nets or Celtics without Middleton, there’s a good chance they’re eliminated before he can return.

Looming over everything, though, is Golden State’s ascension. The Warriors look impossible to defend, and Phoenix, by virtue of sharing their conference, would have to face Golden State a round earlier than Milwaukee might. Meanwhile, if the Bucks could make it past Boston or Brooklyn, their Eastern Conference finals opponent would likely be slightly less daunting. That’s no slightest to Miami or Philadelphia, both worthy Finals contenders, but Boston has been the East’s best team for most of the season and Brooklyn has the conference’s most talent. Getting past them would make the Bucks heavy Eastern Conference favorites.

So who’s in more danger?

For now, the answer is probably the Bucks. They’re playing against a slightly more dangerous opponent in a slightly more dangerous conference with a slightly less malleable roster. In this subjective argument, though, it’s worth pointing out that the Bucks have an MVP and the Suns don’t. No matter how dangerous the Bulls might be, Giannis Antetokounmpo is absolutely good enough to win a series by himself. Paul was at his peak. Asking him to do it now, in his late 30s, is probably unfair. He can swing games. He’s not going to average 30-35 points per game as Antetokounmpo could.

The larger point here is that both of last season’s finalists are vulnerable. The sportsbooks that once favored them are now leaning on Boston and Golden State as our likeliest finalists. Both of these teams will have something to say about it before all is said and done, but for the first time all season, it truly looks as though we’re headed for a brand new set of teams in the NBA Finals.

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