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After an NBA season like no other, it’s time for the Finals, and a match-up that few would have expected at the start of the year.

Following 10 consecutive seasons of finishing in the lottery, the Phoenix Suns returned to the playoffs in style in 2021 and are now so close to winning an unlikely title.

Led by veteran point guard Chris Paul, elite shooting guard Devin Booker and emerging big man DeAndre Ayton, the Suns put together a 51-21 record in the regular season to finish second in the Western Conference.

They beat the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers in the first round of the postseason before vanquishing the Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Clippers on the way to their third Finals appearance in franchise history.

Standing in the way of Phoenix’s first title are the Milwaukee Bucks, who finally made it to the Finals in their fifth straight year in the playoffs.

The Bucks topped the Eastern Conference standings in 2019 and 2020 but failed to go all the way, although that previous postseason experience has been crucial this year.

After sweeping the Miami Heat in the first round, Milwaukee beat the No. 2 seed Brooklyn Nets in round two before beating the Hawks 4-2 in the Eastern Conference Finals.

However, an injury to two-time league MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo means the Bucks are underdogs in the Finals.

The Suns, meanwhile, are to bring the Larry O’Brien Trophy to Phoenix for the first time ever.

Can the Suns start fast again?

The Suns have been incredibly impressive throughout this run to the NBA Finals, and their success has been predicated upon taking the lead early in each series.

They took Game 1 against the Lakers in the first round and were then 2-0 up against both the Nuggets and Clippers.

The Bucks, meanwhile, have not started well in the last two rounds. They were down 2-0 to the Nets in round two – and may not have come back had James Harden and Kyrie Irving not suffered injuries – and then dropped Game 1 at home to the Hawks in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Milwaukee showed tremendous fight to come back in both series and make it this far, but home teams have always been dominant in the Finals and they can’t afford to give the Suns an early advantage in Phoenix.

Historically, home teams are 100-42 in Game 1 and Game 2 of the Finals (70 per cent), and the Bucks will find themselves in a hole if they can’t upset the odds and snatch home advantage.

Will Giannis return?

By far the biggest question hanging over the NBA Finals surrounds the health of Antetokounmpo, who went down with a knee injury in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals.

It looked at the time as if the Bucks would be without the former MVP for the remainder of the postseason, but a scan revealed no structural damage and he is currently listed as “day-to-day”.

The Bucks managed to close out the series against the Hawks as Khris Middleton stepped into a starring role, but beating the Suns without the ‘Greek Freak’ represents a much tougher task.

As good as Middleton was in Antetokounmpo’s absence, he’s been inconsistent throughout the playoffs to date. He’s been red-hot on four occasions, scoring 35, 38, 38 and 32, but has also scored under 20 points in seven of the 17 games so far.

There are some suggestions that Antetokounmpo might have been able to play in Game 7 against the Hawks had the series gone that far, but at present it looks likely that he’s going to miss at least the first game of the Finals, and possibly a lot more.

Middleton is a gritty veteran who won’t shy away from the added responsibility of leading the Bucks, but if he struggles to find his shot early in the series – as he did against the Hawks – then Milwaukee may be in trouble.

Can the Bucks slow down CP3?

After 16 seasons in the NBA, Chris Paul is finally on the brink of winning a championship.

Following one of the best regular seasons of his career, the 36-year-old has averaged 18.1 points and 8.7 assists per game in the playoffs while guiding this young Phoenix team on a Finals run that few could have predicted at the start of the year.

Aside from a couple of games against the Lakers when he suffered a shoulder injury, CP3 has been in complete control during the postseason.

In this series, however, he’ll be matched up against Jrue Holiday – one of the best defensive guards in the NBA.

Holiday was acquired by the Bucks last November and received a First Team All-Defense selection in his first year in Milwaukee.

He’s been a major part of their playoff run, and his relentless on-ball pressure caused problems for the Hawks in the last round as they actively tried to avoid him while bringing the ball up the court.

To stop Phoenix, you have to stop CP3, and the Bucks have one of the few players in the league who is equipped to do so.

If Holiday can unsettle the ‘Point God’ and take the Suns out of their rhythm, then Milwaukee has a chance.

Prediction: Suns in six

With Antetokounmpo’s status up in the air and Milwaukee opening with two road games, it’s hard to look past the Suns here.

This has been a gruelling season that has seen numerous star players go down with injuries in the playoffs, but Phoenix has so far managed to stay healthy and has looked stronger and stronger throughout the year.

A 4-0 sweep of the Nuggets made it clear that this Suns team is good enough to go all the way, and they saw off a tough, experienced Clippers team in six games in the Western Conference Finals.

Yes, the Clippers were missing their best player, but so are the Bucks. The same result looks likely here.