July 5 (Reuters) - The Bucks' hopes of bringing the Larry O'Brien trophy back to Milwaukee for the first time in half a century could hinge on whether Giannis Antetokounmpo can return to full strength after suffering a hyperextended left knee in the conference finals.
The two-time league MVP missed the final two games of the series against Atlanta that ended on Saturday, July 3, and Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said the injury was "a day-to-day thing."
Antetokounmpo, who was animated on the sidelines during the games he sat out, has struggled from the three point and free throw lines but is lethal when attacking the basket and is the leader of the Bucks' stingy defense.
Without Antetokounmpo, the Bucks will need big games from sharpshooting forward Khris Middleton, ball handler Jrue Holiday and power forward Bobby Portis Jr., who started in Antetokounmpo's place the final two games of the series.
Even if Antetokounmpo is able to go, the Bucks will have their work cut out when they take on the Phoenix Suns, a complete team that mixes veterans Chris Paul and Jae Crowder with rising stars Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton.
Antetokounmpo's injury continues a pattern for the Suns, who have benefited from the bad luck of their opponents all playoffs long.
In the first round they faced a Lakers squad that was mostly without forward Anthony Davis, and in the conference finals, squared off against a Clippers team that was missing Kawhi Leonard.
But the Suns have not been entirely immune to injuries themselves.
Booker suffered a broken nose after colliding with the Clippers' Patrick Beverley, and Paul had to fight through hand and shoulder injuries and missed two games in the conference finals due to COVID-19 protocols.
The Suns, who last played on June 30, come in more rested than the Bucks, who have a quick turnaround.
Phoenix also has home court advantage, with games one and two being held on Tuesday, July 6, and Thursday, July 8, in front of their rowdy fans in the Valley of the Sun.
Those fans will hope to see the team finally put an end to the title drought for the franchise, which began as an expansion team in 1968.
The Suns have come close before, having reached the finals in 1976 and 1993, but both times failed to finish the job.
If they finally get over the hump, a lot of credit will go to Paul, arguably the best point guard of his generation who is playing in his 16th season while still searching for his first championship ring.
(Reporting by Rory Carroll in Los Angeles, editing by Ed Osmond)