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The Bucks and Suns Suddenly Face Daunting Roads Back to the Finals

Injuries to Khris Middleton and Devin Booker have thrown wrenches in Milwaukee and Phoenix’s first-round plans. Which team faces the tougher gauntlet back to the championship round?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Sometimes, all it takes is one false step for everything to shift—for something you’d taken for granted to suddenly be thrown into upheaval. The Suns and Bucks, who squared off in the 2021 NBA Finals and who rank among the likeliest contenders to appear in this year’s championship round too, both find themselves reeling from unfortunate footfalls right now.

Phoenix’s came Tuesday, when All-Star guard Devin Booker—in the midst of a shot-making master class, scoring 31 points in 25 minutes in Game 2 against the Pelicans—tried to chase down a streaking Jaxson Hayes, only to land awkwardly on his left foot.

Milwaukee’s happened the next night, when All-Star forward Khris Middleton—who’d scored or assisted on four straight baskets as the Bucks tried to come back on the Bulls in Game 2—drove on Chicago stopper Alex Caruso and tried to spin into the lane, only to have his feet slip out from under him, sending him sprawling and buckling his leg.

Booker checked out immediately; Middleton gave it a go for a few more possessions before exiting. Neither would return, unable to help their teams turn the tide in upset losses that evened their best-of-seven opening-round matchups. Having conceded home-court advantage, the no. 1–seeded Suns and no. 3–seeded Bucks must now not only break back on the road, but do it with one of their best players on the shelf … and maybe not coming back any time soon.

The Suns haven’t said much about the extent of Booker’s injury, simply terming it a “mild right hamstring strain” without establishing a timetable for his return. ESPN’s Brian Windhorst, though, reports that Book suffered a Grade 1 strain that’s likely to keep him out of games 3 and 4 in New Orleans. And that’s just at a minimum: According to Jeff Stotts of In Street Clothes, the average time lost this season for “nondescript hamstring strains” was 12 days, which would put Phoenix’s leading scorer on ice into the first week of May—and, as a result, into the start of Round 2. Provided, of course, the Suns withstand an awfully feisty Pelicans team, which now looks like a much tougher task than anticipated.

Yes, the Pelicans finished the regular season ninth in the West with just 36 wins, needing two victories in the play-in tournament to advance to the postseason proper. But their full-season numbers are weighted down by a disastrous 3-16 start; these days, they’re no standard sad sack. New Orleans is 17-15 since adding CJ McCollum at the trade deadline, and 12-7 when both McCollum and Brandon Ingram are in the lineup. The Pels have outscored opponents by 5.3 points per 100 possessions with both perimeter weapons on the floor—a net rating closer to powerhouses like the Warriors and Grizzlies than a sub-.500 also-ran—and have rounded into a deeper, more balanced, and more dangerous team.

Booker’s injury was the biggest story of Game 2, and for good reason. It’s worth remembering, though, that the Pels had gone toe-to-toe with the Suns before he exited—New Orleans was up by three when Book went down—and that, when it came time to match Clutch God Chris Paul down the stretch, they scored on 11 of their final 14 possessions, executing with persistent precision to keep the no. 1 seed at bay.

Despite how well New Orleans head coach Willie Green has his team playing right now, the Suns should still have enough to take out the Pelicans. As head coach Monty Williams told reporters on Thursday, the Suns this season developed “experience in the uncomfortable” situation of being without one vital cog or another; every member of Phoenix’s top eight, save for iron man Mikal Bridges, missed at least 13 games this season. That includes Booker, in whose absence Phoenix went 8-6 during the regular season. (Three of the six L’s came in the final week, when the Suns had already sewn up the no. 1 seed.)

The Suns can still rely on Paul, who led the NBA in assists this season and exploded for 30 points on 12-for-16 shooting in Game 1, to keep their offense humming without Booker. Phoenix has blitzed opponents by nearly 10 points-per-100 in minutes with CP3 and without Booker this season, with the future Hall of Famer increasing his usage and cranking up his per-minute scoring to help mitigate Booker’s loss. Phoenix also has the luxury of tapping Cam Johnson to slide into Booker’s starting spot. The Sixth Man of the Year finalist shined in 16 starts this season, averaging 16.3 points, 4.9 rebounds, 1.9 assists, and 1.1 steals in 32.7 minutes per start on 49/42/91 shooting splits.

Johnson’s nowhere near Booker’s equal in shot creation and playmaking creativity, but the 6-foot-8 210-pounder can make plays off the bounce while bringing elite 3-point shooting off the catch; the Suns crushed opponents by 32 points in 40 minutes with Johnson alongside starters Paul, Bridges, Deandre Ayton, and Jae Crowder. He also gives Williams another long, active perimeter defender in the starting five to team with Bridges and Crowder in the hopes of tamping down on the tandem of Ingram (averaging 27.5 points, eight rebounds, and 6.5 assists on 50 percent from the floor shooting through two games) and McCollum (24-8-7.5, 50 percent from 3-point land).

Of greater concern in any extended Book-less stretch is how Phoenix will fare when Paul takes a seat. The Suns have outscored opponents by nearly three points-per-100 this season with neither of its All-NBA-caliber guards on the court, but that mark’s almost entirely due to stingy defense; this would be an exceedingly good time for Cameron Payne, whose shooting numbers fell off a cliff this season, to rediscover the form he found last postseason. If he can, and if Williams can find a way to interrupt New Orleans’s offensive rhythm, the Suns should still have enough firepower to advance past the Pels. Past that, though, danger could loom.

I’m guessing Phoenix wouldn’t sweat a second-round matchup with a Jazz team from whom it has taken six out of seven since Paul arrived in the Valley, even if Utah didn’t appear to be in the death-rattle throes of the Mitchell-Gobert era. A matchup with Dallas, though, could be spicy—especially if Booker’s recovery takes longer than that 12-day average (hamstrings are notoriously fickle) and especially if Luka Doncic is able to return at something like 100 percent after sitting out the start of Round 1 with a calf strain. Survive a meeting with one of the most dangerous and now fully unleashed forces in the sport, and the Suns’ prize would be a Western Conference finals showdown with a Golden State squad that’s looking whole and absolutely dominant, or a Grizzlies team that took two of three from Phoenix this season, and that has the size, athleticism, depth, and belief to make any series into a dogfight.

The Suns can run that gauntlet—The Ringer’s NBA Odds Machine still has them neck-and-neck with the Warriors as the teams most likely to represent the West in the Finals—but they’ll need a full-strength Booker to do it. To have any hope of getting that later, they’ll have to hold down the fort for now.

While the Suns haven’t yet ruled out the possibility of Booker’s hamstring healing up in time for a Round 1 return, the Bucks aren’t holding out hope for Middleton, whom they’ve ruled out for the rest of the series after an MRI revealed a sprained left MCL. The only timeline Milwaukee’s working with right now is a plan to reevaluate Middleton in two weeks, and that update is unlikely to yield immediate results: According to Stotts, the average time lost to MCL sprains this season ranged from 17 days to 41 days, depending on the grade of the sprain, which, in Middleton’s case, hasn’t been publicly reported.

To the extent that there’s a silver lining in losing a three-time All-Star, it’s that Milwaukee still has the other two members of its championship-winning Big Three. The Bucks stayed afloat just fine during the regular season in non-Middleton minutes when Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jrue Holiday were on the court, outscoring opponents by 7.1 points-per-100. Having two tentpoles as sturdy as Giannis and Jrue to hold up the team construct—plus Brook Lopez, who’s looked pretty good in recent weeks after missing nearly five months with a back injury—should allow Mike Budenholzer to get away with extending the minutes of complementary wing pieces like Grayson Allen, Pat Connaughton, and Jevon Carter to try to approximate Middleton’s production in the aggregate.

The problem with that: Middleton kind of produces a lot. He’s one of just 10 players this season to put up 20-5-5 on above-league-average true shooting. He finishes more possessions as a pick-and-roll ball handler than any Buck but Holiday. He’s developed beautiful chemistry with Antetokounmpo in the two-man game, using his size and touch to hunt weaker defenders in isolation or the post. And he’s also a good defender across multiple positions, standing as the only big wing on Milwaukee’s roster with the length, strength, and experience to hold his own against elite wing scorers. That seems pretty important, considering the Bucks are currently facing DeMar DeRozan and Zach LaVine, and would need to face some combination of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, Kevin Durant, Jimmy Butler, and/or James Harden for the Bucks to defend their Eastern Conference crown and advance to the Finals for just the fourth time in franchise history.

It’s going to take a lot from Connaughton and Allen—currently shooting a combined 3-for-19 from the field and 2-for-16 from 3-point range—to produce a reasonable facsimile of Middleton, and to make Chicago pay for aggressively packing the paint on defense to try to take away driving lanes for Antetokounmpo and Holiday. Both Connaughton and Allen seem like sound bets to bounce back, considering they both shot better than 39 percent from deep on nearly eight attempts per 36 minutes of floor time during the regular season. But while Connaughton’s got the size and physicality to stand a chance of holding up defensively against tough wings, the slighter and less tenacious Allen presents a vulnerable target for DeRozan, LaVine, and Co. to hunt when they want to find an easy bucket. We’ve seen one-dimensional players get ushered off the floor in the playoffs time and again in recent years; if Bud does ratchet up Allen’s minutes, he’s going to have to catch fire from deep and defend with more activity and attentiveness to make them count.

That’s the beauty of Middleton: His game might lack pizzazz, but he gives Bud 36-to-42 minutes of “I don’t have to worry about that” on both ends of the floor. The Bucks already have more to worry about than they likely anticipated in their opening-round bout with the Bulls, thanks largely to DeRozan continuing a season for the ages by dropping 41 points in Game 2. And while having Giannis and Jrue should still be enough to push Milwaukee past Chicago, the Bucks will have to put more miles on their odometer in the early going of what they hope will be a long playoff run—which could come back to bite them with sterner tests awaiting.

Middleton’s not even going to be reevaluated until the start of Round 2; if he needs to sit out for another week or two, he might be unavailable for part or all of a series against the ducking-no-smoke Celtics or a back-from-the-brink-and-furiously-surging Nets team. If it’s the C’s, the Bucks wouldn’t have home-court advantage, meaning they’d have to take one on the road against what’s been the East’s best team for nearly four months—and do it without noted Celtic killer Middleton, and possibly against a version of Boston that is welcoming back defensive monster Robert Williams III after his knee injury. Do that, and you’re in line to deal with either the Heat or the Sixers, both of whom have started the postseason looking dominant, and have the kind of offensive arsenal and defensive snarl that the Bucks would need Middleton’s presence to combat.

Those are tomorrow’s problems, though; for now, the Bucks would do well to concern themselves with figuring out how to take better care of the ball against a swarming Bulls defense and generate enough offense to take back home-court advantage. Get this series under control, and you can start to think about the bigger picture, where Middleton fits into it, and who else might fit into his space until he’s ready to return. It’s daunting, but not impossible: Milwaukee weathered the loss of starter Donte DiVincenzo in 2021’s first round and, famously, survived Giannis hyperextending his knee during Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Hawks, before getting right in time to win the whole friggin’ thing—thanks, in part, to Middleton averaging 29-8.5-7.5 to close out Atlanta and give Giannis the chance to get well enough to come back against the Suns.

For history to repeat itself, Holiday will have to step up his shot creation and shot making. Milwaukee’s smaller wings will have to play like they’re three inches taller. And Giannis, like Middleton last season, will have to bear an even heavier burden without buckling to keep the Bucks’ title defense on track.