Didn’t Giannis Antetokounmpo suffer a knee injury in the Eastern Conference Finals? And it kept him out of the final two games of that series? Is that right? It is? Okay. I guess that’s why his nickname is the “Greek Freak”.
Not many franchise’s can say they’ve won back-to-back titles. The Tampa Bay Lightning can now claim that with their second consecutive championship season.
3. Milwaukee Bucks vs. 2. Phoenix Suns
This is what was expected of the Bucks for the last three seasons now. Getting to the Finals. Now that they’ve made it they must prove their worth. Giannis Antetokounmpo has been stellar for them, but has had moments where you wonder where he went in the playoffs this year. Unfortunately he suffered a knee sprain during the Conference Finals and might not be available for most of the Finals. This leaves Khris Middleton as the go-to scorer for the Bucks. He wasn’t afraid to take charge when Giannis went down and that needs to continue. Jrue Holiday has been exactly what the Bucks needed in the backcourt. A staunch defender and a solid facilitator on offense. Brook Lopez stepped up in the frontcourt to help get Milwaukee out of the Eastern Conference. If the likes of Bobby Portis and P.J. Tucker step up into a more prominent role this could be the Bucks first title since 1971 with the likes of Lou Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar).
Phoenix was close to clinching a spot in the playoffs last year playing in the bubble in Orlando. It should be no surprise that they are at this point. Aside from acquiring Chris Paul, this is the same team from last year. With Paul aboard it left room for Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton to blossom into superstars before our eyes. No one has figured out how to shutdown or even slowdown Booker yet. Ayton hasn’t had a real challenge in the paint. Mikal Bridges has become a reliable scoring option when Booker and Ayton need a break. Paul getting to his first Finals appearance is well deserved and if he should win it would be a fitting notch to his Hall of Fame career. Cameron Johnson and Cameron Payne have been valuable parts of a deep rotation in the desert. If Jae Crowder doesn’t have to worry about guarding Giannis much, this would help the Suns immensely. This could be the year they finally cash in after a tremendous season.
Players to Watch: F Khris Middleton and G Devin Booker
Who Wins: Bucks in 6 games
4. Montreal Canadiens vs. 3. Tampa Bay Lightning
They got past the Toronto Maple Leafs being down 3-1 in the series. They easily swept the Winnipeg Jets. Then when it seemed they were outmatched, they took care of the Vegas Golden Knights in 6 games. The Montreal Canadiens won’t go away. Goaltender Carey Price is following some large footsteps in Habs history. Jacques Plante, Ken Dryden and Patrick Roy. All were dominant goalies in their time in Montreal. Price will look to add the Stanley Cup to his resume. Cole Caufield, Nick Suzuki and Jesperi Kotkaniemi are part of a young core of forwards that have played huge roles in this playoff run. Tyler Toffoli, Corey Perry and Eric Staal have played their part as veterans who contribute nightly and have previously won a Stanley Cup. Captain Shea Weber and Jeff Petry have anchored this defense for many years now, but Joel Edmundson who won the Cup with St. Louis in 2019, has led their defensemen with 6 points (all by way of an assist). If they want to win their first title since 1993 (also the last time any Canadian team has won), they need to play damn near perfect for every single game against the defending champions in Tampa Bay.
The defending champions Tampa Bay Lightning are proving why they are the team to beat in the playoffs. They easily took care of business in the first two rounds against Florida and Carolina. The New York Islanders took them to the brink in 7 games, but Tampa Bay beat the Islanders at their own game in the finale with a 1-0 victory. If they didn’t have a healthy Nikita Kucherov I’d be willing to bet they would still be here, but it would have been tougher I admit. With him this team is down right scary good. Their captain Steven Stamkos is healthy as well and just as productive as Kucherov. Brayden Point looks to be the favorite to win the Conn Smythe going into the Finals. Victor Hedman will probably win another Norris trophy as the best defensemen in the game. Andrei Vasilevskiy will probably win the Vezina as the best goalie and could be a Conn Smythe contender depending on how this Final plays out. There is just so much talent here that it is pretty much unfair. However, we’ve seen many times before that the best team falls flat at this point in the playoffs.
Players to Watch: G Carey Price and G Andrei Vasilevskiy
Who Wins: Lightning in 6 games
3. Milwaukee Bucks vs. 5. Atlanta Hawks
Players to Watch: F Khris Middleton and G Trae Young
Who Wins: Bucks in 7 games
2. Phoenix Suns vs. 4. Los Angeles Clippers
Players to Watch: G Devin Booker and F Paul George
Who Wins: Suns in 6 games