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MVP candidates in the 2021 NBA Finals, ranked

Who’s going to win Finals MVP? Let’s rank the candidates.

2021 NBA Finals - Game Three Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Update: The Bucks won Game 6 and Giannis Antetokounmpo was named MVP.

The Milwaukee Bucks are one win away from an NBA championship. The Bucks enter Game 6 of the 2021 NBA Finals with a 3-2 series lead over the Phoenix Suns. If the Bucks can win one of the next two games, the franchise will claim its first championship since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson powered a title run in 1971.

The Bucks shouldn’t get too comfortable as they return to their home court for Game 6. There is typically enormous pressure on the home team when it is one win away from winning the series, and that’s especially the case when it knows it’s facing Game 7 on the road. The Suns nearly stole Game 5 with a fourth quarter comeback, but Jrue Holiday’s clutch steal and alley-oop to Giannis Antetokounmpo sealed the win for the Bucks.

While some called this one of the worst Finals ever coming into the series, there’s no doubt it’s been an awesome matchup to this point with plenty of brilliant individual performances. Here’s how we’d rank Finals MVP candidates so far:

6. Deandre Ayton

Ayton is massively critical to the Suns’ success because he’s the only true big man in the rotation after Dario Saric’s series-ending injury. Ayton played 45 minutes in Phoenix’s close Game 5 loss, and it feels like he’ll need to replicate that effort over the next two games if the Suns want to steal the series.

The former No. 1 overall draft pick was limited by foul trouble in the Suns’ Game 3 loss, but has otherwise been playing great in the Finals. He enters Game 6 averaging 15.2 points, 13.2 rebounds, two assists, 1.4 blocks, and 1.4 steals per game on 56.9 percent shooting from the field.

Ayton is the only Phoenix defender who can deter Antetokounmpo even a little bit at the rim. Offensively, he’s a fearsome roller who has also flashed shot-making ability from mid-range. The Suns need Ayton to step up in the big way over the remainder of the series if they’re going to steal two consecutive wins against the Bucks.

5. Jrue Holiday

Holiday’s offense has been up and down throughout the playoffs. That trend has continued in the Finals. He scored only 27 points on 35 shots through the first two games, which both resulted in Phoenix victories. He was excellent in the Bucks’ Game 3 win, hitting 5-of-10 shots from three-point range to finish with 21 points and nine assists. Holiday then shot 4-of-20 from the field in Game 4, but bounced back in Game 5 with one of the best performances of his career: a 27-point, 13-assist effort punctuated by his clutch steal and lob in the final minute.

Where Holiday has been consistent is on the defensive end. He’s hounded Chris Paul with full court pressure throughout the series, clearly taking the veteran point guard out of his comfort zone. Holiday is a physical defender who uses his length and strength to bother smaller ball handlers, and CP3 has found out first hand how good he is defensively in this series.

Holiday’s offensive performance could be a deciding factor for the remainder of this series. If he has another great offensive game in Game 6, the Bucks will likely be raising a championship banner.

4. Chris Paul

Paul was excellent in carrying Phoenix to a Game 1 win, but he’s worn down a bit throughout the series. The Suns’ chances of coming back in this series rest on CP3 turning back the clock two more times for vintage performances.

Paul finished with 32 points and nine assists in that Game 1 win for Phoenix. That’s when Holiday got switched onto him full-time. CP3 particularly struggled in Game 4 as he appeared bothered by injuries to his wrist and fingers. While he ended Game 5 on a tear to finish with 21 points and 11 assists, it didn’t feel like he was controlling the action the way he normally does at his best.

It’s easy to see Paul as a barometer of the Suns’ success. If the Suns win the next two games and Paul plays well, it’s absolutely possible he can still end the series as Finals MVP.

3. Khris Middleton

Middleton’s performance has swung wildly from good to bad to good again throughout the playoffs. He was at his worst in Game 2 of the NBA Finals, when he finished with only 11 points on 5-of-16 shooting. The Bucks knew they needed Middleton to start cooking if they wanted to crawl out of an 0-2 hole, and he’s responded by doing exactly that.

Middleton was brilliant in Game 4, popping off for 40 points on 15-of-33 shooting. He also made some clutch buckets down the stretch in Game 5. Middleton has so much variance in his performance because he rarely finds his way into easy buckets. The 6’8 forward gets most of his baskets off difficult pull-up jumpers he creates for himself. He looks great when his shot is falling and terrible when it’s not.

The Bucks have gotten three great games out of Middleton so far in the Finals. They need one more to be champions.

2. Devin Booker

Booker has been incredible scoring the ball throughout this series save for one rough shooting night in Game 3. The 24-year-old guard went off for 42 points in Game 4 and 40 points in Game 5, but the Suns lost both games.

As Booker has taken control of the offense, the Suns’ ball movement has stagnated. Phoenix’s corner three attempts are way down in this series. That’s a credit to Milwaukee’s terrific defense, but it’s also on Booker and Paul to create easy looks for their teammates. The most concerning stat so far for Phoenix is that Booker still doesn’t have an assist during the fourth quarter of any game in this series.

It feels like the Suns’ offense has been helpless without Booker’s scoring over the last two games. He needs to continue putting the ball in the basket at a high clip for the remainder of the series, but it would help if he could set up his teammates for some open shots, too.

1. Giannis Antetokounmpo

If the Bucks win one more game to win the series, Antetokounmpo is going to be named Finals MVP. He’s the only choice for the honor.

We didn’t even know if Giannis was going to be play in the NBA Finals after suffering a scary leg injury that kept him out of the end of the Eastern Conference Finals. Instead, Antetokounmpo was in the lineup for Game 1 against Phoenix, and has been at the center of the Bucks’ success ever since. Giannis enters Game 6 averaging 32.2 points, 13 rebounds, and 5.6 assists per game on 60.5 percent shooting from the field. Yes, his free throw shooting has been rough — 56.2 percent on more than 13 attempts per game — but he’s still dominating this series on both ends.

Antetokounmpo is the best defensive player in the world, and his weak side paint protection has been critical in deterring Phoenix’s scorers away from the rim all series. Offensively, Antetokounmpo is settling for fewer jump shots and is attacking the basket hard as a roll man and in transition.

Giannis has also been in the middle of the two biggest plays in this series. He had the remarkable block on Ayton’s alley-oop at the end of Game 4, and then threw down the lob from Holiday after his steal in Game 5.

Antetokounmpo’s resume at 26 years old puts him on pace to be an all-time great. All that’s missing is a championship and a Finals MVP. He’s one win away from both honors.