One week from now, we will know who is playing in the NBA
Finals. It appears it will be the Milwaukee Bucks and the Phoenix
Suns, but we should have learned by now to never count out the
resilience of the Los Angeles Clippers.
And the Atlanta Hawks? Just ask anyone from Philadelphia or New
York whether that team should be underestimated.
This is somewhat uncharted territory for Adam Silver and the
NBA, who have grown accustomed (along with all of us) to having all
eyes glued to LeBron James or Steph Curry at this point of the
Also, our NBA body clocks are saying “draft, draft, draft.” But
due to the pandemic, we've all had to readjust to this slightly
different schedule. So the end of the Finals are still quite a ways
down the road, the draft and free agency are going to happen at the
end of the July and beginning of August, respectively. The Olympics
are looking like a walkover for a loaded Team USA... but we have
seen that movie before, and the ending is not always a certainty.
FIBA competition usually takes care of that.
No matter which two teams make the Finals, though, it will be
the first time in a long time (or ever) that the Bucks, Clippers,
Suns and/or Hawks got that far.
So let’s refresh everyone’s memory. Or, let’s fill in the
younger generation on what folks in the four finalists' cities have
endured over the years.
The Suns are one victory away from making the championship round
for the first time since 1993, back when Charles Barkley was
playing against Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls. It was the
summer before Jordan decided he wanted to change professions and
become a Major League baseball player.
The Bulls won Game 1 and Game 2 in that 1993 series, and battled
in a classic Game 3 that went three overtimes before the Suns won
and chopped the series lead down to 2-1. Chicago won Game 4 at
home, but the Suns took Game 5 in Chicago (the format was 2-3-2 at
the time) and the series returned to Phoenix for Game 6 on June 20.
The Bulls were going for a three-peat under Phil Jackson with a
roster that included Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Bill Cartwright,
Horace Grant and John Paxson. Barkley was flanked by Dan Majerle,
Tom Chambers, Kevin Johnson, Cedric Ceballos and Danny Ainge.
Barkley and Jordan were friendly, but the edge in competitive
streak was in favor of Jordan. Back then, fraternization on off
days was common, and Barkley and Jordan were fewer than two years
removed from being teammates on the original Dream Team. The way
the story has been told, Jordan took Barkley out to Majerle’s bar
on the night of June 19 after everyone traveled, and the drinks
flowed freely... except the drink of choice for Jordan was
Then, on the night of June 20, the Bulls were ahead by eight
entering the fourth quarter, but then went cold. In the first 6:09
of the fourth, the Bulls didn’t score. They committed three
shot-clock violations in that span, and Phoenix was ahead 98-96
with 14 seconds left. But the Bulls had the ball, and Grant found
John Paxson open at the three-point line for a shot that Paxson
drilled. Prior to that, all nine of the Bulls’ fourth-quarter
points had been scored by Jordan. Phoenix had the final possession,
but Barkley rolled to the basket off the inbounds play and Phoenix
did not get the ball to him. Instead, Kevin Johnson attempted a
runner from the lane just before the final buzzer, and Grant
blocked it. Game over. Bulls 99, Suns 98. And Phoenix has not
hosted an NBA Finals game since.
The Bucks are up 2-1 on the Hawks now after Khris Middleton was
Mr. Everything last night in Atlanta except for being Mr. Airball,
an award that will be retired in honor of Giannis Antetokounmpo for
what he has been doing from the free-throw line the past few
seasons, but especially this postseason. These teams will be back
at it Tuesday night, and hopefully the referees will be briefed,
too, on allowing a player shooting a three-point shot to have
enough space to land without turning an ankle because an official
was too close. Are there enough ace bandages in "The A" to wrap
Trae Young tightly enough to give the Hawks a chance to even this
series? Or is Milwaukee advancing to the Finals as a fait accompli
currently maneuvering speed bumps?
Whatever the case, the Bucks are favored for good reason, and if
they make it to the Finals, it’ll be the first time it's happened
for that franchise since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s sky hook was a
lethal weapon. That was back in 1974, before Kareem decided he did
not like living in Milwaukee following a 4-3 loss to the Celtics in
the Finals and forced a trade to the Los Angeles Lakers, a maneuver
for which he was never forgiven in the city where Mike Budenholzer
now calls the shots. The Bucks last won a title in 1971, and have
not been back since despite being led at different times by Ray
Allen, Glenn Robinson and Giannis, Middleton and Malcolm Brogdon,
They dropped four straight in the Conference Finals three years
ago against the Toronto Raptors, and they went out in seven games
in 2001 against Allen Iverson and the Philadelphia 76ers. All of
the sports glory in the state of Wisconsin since then has belonged
to Aaron Rodgers and Frank Kaminsky, and all those years of losing
have been drowned out by beer, cheese, frozen custard, bratwurst
and beer. The last time the Bucks won, the team was a member of the
Western Conference and the Brewers were still adapting to the
American League following the franchise’s move from Seattle, where
they were known as the Pilots. Al McGuire and Marquette provided a
couple years of glory, but aside from the accomplishments of the
Packers, there has not been much to celebrate.
But losing is never permanent unless your favorite team is the
Minnesota Timberwolves, and the Bucks are halfway to breaking
through the organization's three-and-a-half decades of frustration.
So stay tuned.
LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS
Ahead of a win or go home scenario in Monday's Game 5, Kawhi
Leonard is once again unable able to play, and could be more
seriously hurt than the franchise has let on. There are reports out
there that he needs knee surgery and is upset with the Clippers'
medical staff; one would think the league office would order the
Clippers to provide some clarity on this matter, since Leonard is a
pretty good basketball player whose health is a determining factor
in whether Steve Ballmer’s team has a snowball’s chance in hell of
being championship material.
The Clippers have never been to the Finals, before or since
relocating to California from Buffalo, spending 1978-1984 in San
Diego. They blew 3-1 leads in the conference semifinals in 2020 (to
Denver) and 2015 (to Houston), and went out in six games against
Oklahoma City in 2014. There is only so much that Paul George can
do without his fellow superstar teammate, and if Leonard is truly
done and legitimately unhappy in L.A., the offseason
unrestricted-free-agency market just got a heck of a lot more
Before they were the Clippers, they were the Buffalo Braves and
joined the NBA as an expansion franchise in 1970 along with the
Cleveland Cavaliers and Portland Trail Blazers. Their
Hall-of-Famers included Bob McAdoo and Ernie DeGregorio, and in one
of the most interesting pieces of NBA cameo trivia, they had Moses
Malone for a grand total of two games before trading him to Houston
for a pair of first-round picks.
In 1975, the franchise made it to the conference semifinals, but
were defeated by the Washington Bullets. Since then, the Clippers
have a franchise history that everyone in the NBA outside of
Minnesota can laugh at. Except Clippers fans, of course. And those
poor folks deserve either our pity or our sympathy. But to Clippers
fans and Timberwolves fans, we can only say: “The Cubs eventually
won, okay?” Perhaps that will help.
Dominique Wilkins was a heck of a hooper and had one of the
greatest nicknames in the history of professional sports: “The
Human Highlight Film.” But he never appeared in a single NBA Finals
game, and his only championship came with Panathinaikos in 1996
when the “Greens” won the Euroleague championship.
The Hawks franchise has not won a title since 1958 when they
were based in St. Louis, and they reached the Finals in 1960 and
1961 only to lose to the Boston Celtics. The closest they came
since then was 2015, when they reached the Conference Finals but
were swept by LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
The Hawks are closer now than they have ever been, but when your
entire team gets outscored by a single player in a single quarter
(Khris Middleton had 20 points to the Hawks’ 17 in the fourth last
night), you really have to dig deep for resiliency – although we
would not put anything past Trae Young at this point. At the very
least, the Hawks have two games remaining. In the first round, they
bounced back from a Game 2 loss in New York and won the next three.
Atlanta was down 2-1 against the Sixers last round and gutted out
that series in seven games, winning three times on the road. The
team has a terrific mix of young and old, and Nate McMillan has
worked wonders with these guys.
A victory in Game 4 would turn this into a best-of-3, and we
already know that hostile arenas do not faze them. Middleton had
the hot hand in Game 3, and who is to say that Bogdan Bogdanovic or
Kevin Huerter or Danilo Gallinari cannot be that type of player for
Atlanta sometime in the coming week? Count the Hawks out at your
own peril. Knicks fans and Sixers fans will tell you not to take
We've got a big week ahead of us. Let’s hope it brings more good
stories than bad.
But the only thing we know for sure is that one of these four
franchises will eventually end a very long drought.