When the 2022 NBA playoffs began, the odds suggested we were headed for a Finals rematch. The Phoenix Suns were heavily favored in 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 more easily scale up?
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.