Five things we learned from the Phoenix Suns’ 118-108 victory against the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 2 of The 2021 NBA Finals Thursday in Phoenix:
1. Mikal Bridges is older than Devin Booker
OK, that might seem like a mindless bit of trivia on this stage. But in context, it shows how accomplished Booker has been as a buckets-getter for Phoenix for all six seasons he’s been in the NBA, really, compared to a teammate who – exactly two months older – had his coming-out moment Thursday night.
That’s the difference three years at Villanova vs. one year at Kentucky at spell.
Booker, born on Oct. 30, 1996, led the Suns with 31 points and had five rebounds and six assists. He has done the 30-5-5 thing four times in this postseason run to get within one such stats line of Charles Barkley’s franchise total. And with his seven 3-pointers (five after halftime), Booker joined just 10 other players to sink that many in a Finals game.
Bridges, born Aug. 30, 1996, scored 27 points in a role-player uprising that really spelled d-o-o-m for Milwaukee. Typically, Bridges does hit job on any given night if he bothers the other guys’ most potent scoring threat into a sub-par performance while hitting a few shots of his own. But this night, Bridges – found open so often by point guard Chris Paul and teammates – hit three threes in the first half, was perfect from the line (8 of 8) and missed only one of his six 2-pointers.
The Suns are 11-1 in these playoffs when the third-year wing merely scores in double figures. When he nearly triples that, it’s a giddy night in the Valley.
Fittingly, Booker and Bridges did their postgame media session in tandem and had fun when asked to talk about each other’s Game 2 performance.
“I’ll start,” Bridges said, to which Booker teased, “I’ll start.”
“They’re making a little run, every time Book hit a three or [did] something, you could just tell it just melted them down. Like, ‘Dang, we was right there.’ And I’m just like, I’m amazed too.”
Said Booker of Bridges, “He takes a lot of pressure off of everybody. And the most impressive part is he’s always guarding the most dynamic scorer on the other team. [Khris] Middleton is not an easy matchup, and that’s his matchup every night.”
Bridges wasn’t nearly as effective offensively in the Western Conference finals against the Clippers, making only 6 of 19 3-pointers and averaging 8.7 points in the six games (compared to 13.5 points per game on 42.5 3-point accuracy in the regular season). But Phoenix coach Monty Williams let him work his way out of the slump.
“This time of the year, the last thing I want to do is crowd anybody’s mind,” Williams said. “I don’t want them thinking about their shots or whatever may be deemed as a struggle. When you put the work in the way these guys have and we have trusted them all season long, when a guy struggles in the playoffs, I don’t want to get in his head.”
2. Imagine this series if Giannis had missed it
Actually, let’s not. None of us in the building or who tuned in, and certainly not ABC/ESPN, wants to envision this Milwaukee team playing these Finals without their two-time MVP. Even a Suns sweep would feel, er, hyperextended if that were the scenario.
To say the Bucks superstar gave a valiant effort in defeat Thursday would be an understatement on par with calling Phoenix “a little toasty in July.” Antetokounmpo the only reliable contributor Milwaukee had, really, and he did it on a left knee so creaky that every leap, every landing, every cut and every bit of contact seems like it might be his last.
Basketball mavens can say what they want about the limitations in Antetokounmpo’s game (believe me, we have). His hoisting of 3-pointers plays right into the hands of his opponents – they might give him a breather on the offensive end, but they provide both physical and comic relief to the other team (he was 1-of-5 in Game 2). His struggles at the foul line have cemented him as one of the league’s “hack-a-players,” foes happier to let him labor from 15 feet unguarded than to deal with him at or near the rim in full ferocity.
But none of his teammates every plays harder, longer, on a more nightly basis. Antetokounmpo looked lonely in the second half – he scored 30 points after halftime, the other four starters totaled 21. He wound up with 42 points on 15-of-22 scoring, along with 12 rebounds, four assists and three blocked shots. His points total topped the great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for most ever in a Finals game by a Bucks player (the Captain had held the top six spots, with a high of 37).
Antetokounmpo also put himself on an all-time Finals list with absolutely no flukes.
42 points and 12 rebounds in an #NBAFinals game:
— Basketball Reference (@bball_ref) July 9, 2021
And this is the one that will sting Bucks fans, and should sting the Greek Freak’s teammates: So far in the series, Milwaukee is plus-4 when Antetokounmpo is on the court, minus-27 in the 20 minutes or so he has sat. Extrapolate that to the full 96. Ugh.
3. Milwaukee gets its 3-point script flipped
Phoenix shot fewer 3-pointers than Milwaukee this season. It made fewer and did so at a lower rate of accuracy (.378 to .389). But you wouldn’t know it from Game 2, which not only put the Suns on top of the Bucks in those categories but was the difference several times over.
By shooting a heady 20-of-40 from the arc Thursday, the Suns outscored the Bucks (9 of 31) by 33 from deep. They won the game by 10, so… To this point, in need of only two more victories, Phoenix has nailed 41.9% of its 3-pointers.
That includes hitting eight of its 14 in the first quarter of Game 2 to withstand an early Bucks onslaught. Milwaukee did what it had to do in response to Game 1, forcing the action inside and scoring 20 of its 29 points in the quarter from the lane. Yet it only led by three against a Suns team that had 0 inside and went 1-of-8 on twos.
“The first quarter was a storm of aggression from them attacking the paint, offensive rebounding,” Williams said. “We talked about it all morning. We studied Game 2 vs. Atlanta and that was their way to attack … after a loss, was to just get to the paint.”
But Williams added: “We have a let-it-fly mentality. Our guys shoot a ton of shots every day.”
The Bucks and, for that matter, every other NBA teams does, too. What Phoenix did so well – and where Milwaukee contributed to its own demise – was getting off 17 corner threes, the “easiest” ones. Its shooters hit 10 of those, half the Suns’ total and more than the Bucks hit from anywhere around the arc all night.
4. Giannis’ helpers need help
Game 3 on Sunday will be Milwaukee’s 92nd game since the start of the regular season. You would think that over the course of the first 90 or so, a fellow and his team would know who they could rely on night in, night out as their secondary and tertiary scoring sources. You might even assume that, if those guys are seasoned veterans, they would be able to provide that offensive help without too many hiccups, given how much defensive attention their club’s primary threat attracts.
You would be wrong. Jrue Holiday and Middleton have found themselves in up-and-down cycles repeatedly this season and postseason. Holiday is in the midst of a downturn now, averaging just 13.5 points through the first two Finals games while shooting 11 of 35. Middleton might be heading into that way, backing up his 29-point showing in Game 1 with a dismal 5-of-16 for 11 points in Game 2.
You think about this being the same Bucks team that beat Atlanta twice to take the East finals without Antetokounmpo involved at all, and marvel that it could even happen.
It seems pretty clear that Phoenix’s defensive strategy against Milwaukee goes like this: Foul Antetokounmpo whenever possible once he gets to the rim. With Bridges as lead defender, crowd and cover Middleton, the Bucks’ most versatile scorer but one who needs to get good looks to heat up. And count on Holiday to expend so much energy defensively trying to contain Chris Paul’s scoring, passing and general floor guile that he doesn’t have the spring or fuel on the offensive end to do much damage.
Of holding down Middleton, Suns forward Jae Crowder said: “We talked about it, we just wanted to give a lot of different looks to him, not let him see the same coverages over and over.”
The Bucks need to be the ones changing things up, and soon. In their playoff careers, both Middleton and Holiday are most successful when they’re scoring. Milwaukee has gone 20-12 through the years when Middleton gets at least 20 points, vs. 14-17 when he does not. Holiday’s teams have a 12-4 postseason record when he scores 20 or more, 13-20 when he doesn’t.
And if you think Brook Lopez and the dominance he can bring near the basket – especially if Phoenix’s frontcourt players like Crowder and Deandre Ayton are using their fouls on Antetokounmpo – might be better utilized than the 10 shots (including tips) he got in Game 2, join the club.
5. It’s a good time for a series reset
So The Finals shift to Milwaukee, with the Bucks getting home games in the championship round for the first time since Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson roamed the hardwood at the old Milwaukee Arena (two buildings ago).
This stat is a bit misleading, but it’s real and thus worth including: Teams that fall behind 0-2 in The Finals have lost 31 of 35 times in league history. Phoenix has won five games in a row against the Bucks, dating back to last winter.
Keep an eye on the injuries. With a travel day Friday and a practice day Saturday, this will give players such as Antetokounmpo, Suns forward Torrey Craig and anyone else playing through pain and limitations to mend and rest. It won’t help Milwaukee’s Donte DiVincenzo or Phoenix’s Dario Saric, though, both of whom are done till next season.
The change of venue, inside and notably outside Fiserv Forum with the crazed Deer District throngs following the action on a big screen, might spark better results from the Bucks. But if they’re counting on the Suns to shrink in that atmosphere, forget it. Phoenix had the best road record in the NBA this season – 24-12, only two games off the Bucks’ home record (26-10) – and was 6-2 in away games through the first three rounds.
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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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