An all-time great NBA Finals is unfolding in front of our eyes.
Who could have seen it coming?
Coming into this series, we knew this would be unlike the Finals of years past. For the first time in 10 years, there was no LeBron James or Stephen Curry, but instead, the matchup between the Phoenix Suns and Milwaukee Bucks presented fresh Finals faces - an all-time great in Chris Paul, a two-time MVP in Giannis Antetokounmpo, a newly-cemented superstar in Devin Booker, two of the league's most underrated stars in Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton, and a former No. 1 overall pick in Deandre Ayton.
All on the stage for the very first time.
The storylines were there, but would the Finals debut narrative grow redundant? Would it even translate to a series worth watching? Five games in, the answer is a resounding yes. As the Bucks have a chance to close out in Game 6, we've already enjoyed a product better than even the most optimistic fan could have predicted.
In each game, at least one of the aforementioned names has delivered signature moments and performances that add to the allure of the 2021 NBA Finals.
It starts with Antetokounmpo.
The underlying story leading into the Finals wasn't how Giannis would play, it was if he'd be able to play after the gruesome-looking hyperextension of his knee in the Eastern Conference Finals. As anticipation grew, we learned just hours before Game 1 that the two-time MVP would indeed suit up, but we had no idea if he'd even look remotely close to himself. He did.
Game 1 saw Giannis shake off the rust and play through the pain, finishing with 20 points and 17 rebounds, all while delivering a signature "How did he do that?" moment in the form of a chase down block on Mikal Bridges.
"Blocked by Antetokounmpo... WHAT A RECOVERY!" 🤯#NBAFinals on ABC pic.twitter.com/HgJw9vjA15- NBA (@NBA) July 7, 2021
While Giannis had the moment of the night, it was Paul that stole the show, scoring all 32 of his points in the final three quarters - including 21 in the second half - to move within three wins of the title that has eluded him for so long. Advantage Phoenix.
By far the highest-profile star in the series, it should come as no surprise that Antetokounmpo was again the focal point ahead of Game 2, and he rose to the occasion, turning in a performance capable of making fans forget he was even battling an injury. 42 points (20 in the third quarter), 12 rebounds, four assists and three blocks in 40 minutes quite literally is the stuff of legends.
Only it wasn't enough.
Game 2 saw Booker rise to the occasion, emerging from an early-game slump to hit tough shot after tough shot and completely disregard any shot contest from the Milwaukee defence. His 31 points, coupled with a 27-point night from Mikal Bridges, were enough to move Phoenix within two wins of its first-ever NBA title.
Giannis had the signature performance, but the Suns had the signature moments, from Booker's tough shot-making clinic to head coach Monty Williams' profound message to Ayton.
SOUND ON for this Monty Williams coaching moment with Deandre Ayton. 💯#NBAFinals on ABC pic.twitter.com/qPqD2Y4Ryd- NBA (@NBA) July 9, 2021
As the series shifted to Milwaukee, it was now or never for the Bucks, who again leaned on their star to deliver. Again, he did. This time to the tune 41 points, 13 rebounds and six assists.
It was history, as Giannis became the first player to deliver back-to-back 40 point games in the Finals in five years and the first in 21 years to have back-to-back games with 40 or more points and 10 or more rebounds.
The entire game was a signature moment for The Greek Freak, delivering the Milwaukee fans a Finals win after a 47-year drought.
🔥 Giannis TAKES OVER in Game 3! 🔥- NBA (@NBA) July 12, 2021
13-17 FTM@Giannis_An34 joins @SHAQ as the only players in #NBAFinals history with back-to-back 40+ point, 10+ rebound games, as the Bucks win Game 3! #ThatsGame
Game 4: Wed, 9 PM ET, ABC pic.twitter.com/lIazIIZbAo
Giannis' focus after was onto the next, but who knew it would be yet another classic?
Game 4 was a lot to take in. As for signature performances, the duel - though not necessarily in a traditional sense - between Booker and Middleton is, quite literally, one for the record books.
Booker, who put forth a shot-making clinic to rival that of Game 2, finished with a game-high 42 points (on 17-for-28 shooting) while dealing with foul trouble and evading disqualification. Middleton, who had been relatively quiet through three games, finished with a 40-piece of his own, adding six rebounds and four assists.
It was the first time in 20 (!) years that opposing players each scored 40 points in an NBA Finals game.
Khris Middleton (40 PTS) and Devin Booker (42 PTS) become the 4th pair of opponents to each score 40+ points in an NBA Finals game.- NBA History (@NBAHistory) July 15, 2021
The other 3:
John Havlicek, Jerry West in 1969
Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley in 1993
Allen Iverson, Shaquille O'Neal in 2001 pic.twitter.com/nmdZpiLnYS
But when we look back to Game 4 of the 2021 NBA Finals, we won't think of the duel, but rather the signature moment that came as Antetokounmpo delivered one of the best blocks in the history of the Finals. And that's definitely not hyperbole.
Giannis' HUGE BLOCK helps seal the @Bucks Game 4 win! 🔥 #ThatsGame#NBAFinals tied at 2-2.. Game 5 is Saturday at 9pm/et on ABC. pic.twitter.com/aanNuTUtlF- NBA (@NBA) July 15, 2021
Not only did the block win them the game, but it could also be a shifting force that wins the Bucks this series, as noted by Spencer Dinwiddie, a reminder that everyone who has tuned in is captivated by this series.
And a lot of people have tuned in.
According to NBA Communications, viewership for Games 1, 2 and 3 of this year's NBA Finals are way up, dispelling any notion that this new cast of Finals faces couldn't deliver in a manner similar to series in years past. Based on the frenetic finish from Game 4, it can be assumed that the viewership was up in that one, too.
I mean, could Game 5 top that? I think yes.
In a game of runs for the ages, the Suns led by as many as 16 points in the first half, only for the Bucks to come roaring back to take a three-point lead ahead of the break. By then, it appeared that we were in for a battle, only Milwaukee rode the momentum into leading by as many as 14 points in the fourth frame.
Phoenix was down, but not out.
A late-game run from the Suns made way for yet another iconic moment in the series, a high-risk, high-reward alley-oop from Holiday to the two-time MVP, helping the Bucks ice the game despite yet another 40-point game from Booker.
Could this be the defining moment of the series?
JRUE STEAL. GIANNIS DUNK!!! pic.twitter.com/O0KhiXILBV- Milwaukee Bucks (@Bucks) July 18, 2021
Up to this point, we've witnessed five 40-point performances, an MVP deliver two unforgettable blocks and an alley-oop finish for the ages, while a number of role players stepping up when their respective teams needed them the most.
Whichever way things go in this series, the legacies of many will forever be altered, whether it's Giannis becoming a first-time champ at 26 or Paul winning a title to further cement himself as one of the greatest point guards to ever do it.
The Bucks might be one win away but one thing's for certain: There are more signature moments and performances to come.
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