Five things we learned from the Milwaukee Bucks’ 120-100 victory over the Phoenix Suns in Game 3 of the 2021 Finals Sunday in Milwaukee:
1. Maybe Ayton is the Most Valuable Sun
Like 50 other voters for the NBA’s annual awards, I had Phoenix’s Chris Paul in the Top 5 on my ballot for Kia Most Valuable Player, so profound was his impact on the Suns this season. Likewise, no one has failed to notice the emergence of Devin Booker at age 24 as a scoring threat and cornerstone of the Western Conference champs.
But Deandre Ayton had that one category of MVP-assessment working for him in Game 3 Sunday: How does a guy’s team do without him?
To hear the Suns after their 20-point defeat, they lost some combination of Nikola Jokic and Rudy Gobert when Ayton got mired in foul trouble. The Phoenix big man contributed 18 points and nine rebounds while shooting 8-of-11, but was limited to 24:23 of court time because the Bucks targeted him and the referees adjudicated those plays accordingly.
That’s how the visitors to Fiserv Forum saw it, anyway. It’s the playoffs, after all, so somebody always has to be talking about the officiating. Or more precisely, talking about not talking about the officiating.
“I’m not going to get into the complaining publicly about fouls. Just not going to do that,” Suns coach Monty Williams said. “But you can look: we had 16 free throws tonight, one [Bucks] person had 17. … We’ve got to learn from that. We got to beat guys to the spot. He’ll grow from this.”
Asked moments later about the same thing, Williams said: “We got to figure out or define what is a legal guarding position. Because there are times where he can move his hands out of the way, but it’s hard to tell a guy what to do when somebody is running into you, you know what I mean? I don’t know what a legal guarding position is at times.”
Williams went on to acknowledge that Milwaukee was the more aggressive team this time and, by NBA conventional wisdom, the refs “reward” the aggressive team in a playoff game.
It’s true that Giannis Antetokounmpo — the “person” who shot 17 free throws, making 13 — was driving to the rim and often at Ayton “full speed like a running back,” attacking in many cases before Phoenix could build that “wall” defense so popular to thwart dynamos such as Antetokounmpo and LeBron James.
But at least two things argued against the easy analysis that the Bucks targeted Ayton and that the Phoenix center’s limited role in Game 3 determined the outcome.
Ayton’s first two fouls were not shooting fouls, not the result of getting drawn in by an aggressively focused Bucks player. Neither was his fourth, when he fouled Antetokounmpo early in the third quarter just four seconds after Paul was the victim of a Khris Middleton steal. That’s simply reacting to random play.
Then there was Ayton’s availability in the game. He logged 19:41 in the first half, more than any of his teammates, more than Antetokounmpo. He only got his third foul of the half with 9.5 seconds left. And Phoenix trailed 60-45 at halftime despite having Ayton around so much.
The third quarter was a problem. Only 1:35 had elapsed when Ayton fouled in the wake of Paul’s turnover. Williams subbed for Ayton at that point — but he sent in second-year forward Cam Johnson. What did Johnson do? He scored 10 points in the period’s final 10:25, giving the Suns a boost and helping them briefly get within four points, 74-70.
You can’t bemoan Ayton’s absence and welcome Johnson’s contributions, in what largely was an either/or situation. And while the Suns got outrebounded 12-6 in the quarter, they did outscore the Bucks in the paint, 14-10.
Ayton’s fifth foul came at 8:53 of the fourth, after he had chipped in three rebounds, two steals and two turnovers to start the period. But the Suns trailed 101-82 when Williams yanked him. The starters’ minutes in the fourth: Paul and Jae Crowder 6:40, Mikal Bridges 3:20, Ayton 3:07 and Booker none at all after shooting 3-of-14 through three.
Now, if Williams believes that Ayton’s presence on the floor generally matters so much to his team, then focusing on his comings and goings in Game 3 may have played a role. If the whistles caused Ayton to play timidly or in some seething rage that altered his effectiveness, hmm, OK.
It’s possible Williams was just doing that age-old playoff thing — grumble about the officiating in hopes of influencing the next game. Besides, it’s disingenuous to get huffy that Antetokounmpo shot 17 free throws when a defense seems quite happy to keep sending him to the line. It’s not the refs’ fault that the Greek Freak happened to make so many for a change or that there were too few Suns fans present to harass him with the “One, two, three…” countdown.
2. Fouling out your own guy isn’t helpful
Before we move on, let’s also address just why Ayton spent so much time on the bench. He never did foul out, after all. Williams just went with the unwritten rule about yanking a player based on his running foul count during a game.
You know the one: Two fouls in the first quarter, a third in the second, a fourth in the third, all of those will get most players subbed out on most nights. But Ayton never did pick up his sixth foul that would have disqualified him, did he? He lost playing time in anticipation of perhaps doing so, which seems a little silly. We’re afraid we won’t have our guy on the floor as much as we’d like, so we’ll take him off the floor before we have to.
This tactic of saving a player from himself and rationing him for late-game minutes has been debated a lot. In this age of analytics, it’s hard to make much of a case for it. First, it suggests that late minutes matter more than early minutes. Second, it’s self-imposed deprivation, without knowing whether he could play without picking up that last personal foul.
It’s been the subject of studies, with the math arguing against saving a guy for later, including here and here. Consider the conclusion of data scientist Payton Soicher, excerpted here:
The reason why coaches want their best players on the court at the end of the game is because the outcome is easier to see than at any other point, but sacrificing playing time of those players early in the game puts teams in worse position at the end of the game.
If the idea is to get the maximum number of minutes out of the best players, foul-outs should be far more common. There’s no bonus given for getting on the team bus after the game with one or more of your fouls still in your back pocket.
Granted, it’s a matter of knowing one’s player, his temperament, his ability to stay effective at both ends without fouling and — if he’s a big enough name — even challenging the officials a bit to make that next foul call knowing how pivotal it could be.
But the Bucks didn’t get Ayton out of Game 3. The refs didn’t either. Only his coach did that.
3. The pros and cons of ‘The Greek Freak’
We’re not talking about Antetokounmpo himself, his strengths, his weaknesses or so on. No, this is specifically about the nickname, which is marvelous 99% of the time but vastly undersells what the player carrying it actually does.
Freak of nature? Sure, all you have to do is look at Antetkounmpo’s height, his wingspan and the size of his hands. Freak in how he moves and plays? Yeah, being able to cover as much ground as he can in a couple dribbles, a gather and two strides seems almost like an optical illusion.
Teammate Bobby Portis invoked the nickname when asked about Antetokounmpo’s resiliency to bounce back so thoroughly from what, in Game 4 of the East finals, looked like it might be a postseason-ending and even career-altering injury, his left knee bending backwards for a video replay that still is cringey to watch.
“He’s still just going out there and playing the same way like he never did that,” Portis said. “I just think whoever gave him nickname the Greek Freak did a great job of that.”
Here’s where the moniker does him a disservice, though. It doesn’t do him justice as an impact player with increasing claims of any all-time lists. Because Antetokounmpo does so many things – often in outlandish, unusual ways — he doesn’t get the same acclaim who do just one or two of those things.
For example, he scores like Kevin Durant but isn’t talked of as a great scorer. Durant is a sniper, a marksmen, a player almost unstoppable in his ability to rise up over a contesting defender and get a clear, seemingly easy look at the rim. The Brooklyn star has a more elegant game, sure, launching from distance so often and nailing beautiful shots.
Antetokounmpo’s game is choppier, grindier and less conventional. He might resemble the Nets’ thin man in build, but he gets his points way more like Shaquille O’Neal. Two-thirds of his field goal attempts come within 10 feet of the rim, twice Durant’s rate. He is rising up in a thicket of arms and hands, poking, scratching in hopes of preventing yet another Freakish dunk.
Comparing their past four regular seasons, which one has the higher scoring average? Antetokounmpo, 28.0 to 26.0. In 15 Finals games, Durant never has scored 40 or more points in consecutive performances, which Antetokounmpo has done the past two games against Phoenix. His scoring average in the series: 34.3. Durant’s Finals average: 30.3.
The same argument could be made about Antetokounmpo’s rebounding, his passing or his defense, compared to players known specifically for each of those areas. It’s not that the Bucks or most others take his game for granted. Certainly his jump shot and range, as well as his work at the line, need to improve. It’s just that his image, spinning off that nickname, barely scratches the surface of his skills.
4. Role players are rolling
The truism about NBA role players in the postseason — you can count of them at home — seems to be done for The Finals. Reserves and stand-ins are contributing all over. For the Bucks, that means Pat Connaughton, Portis and even veteran point guard Jeff Teague, who managed to be plus-7 in otherwise inconsequential stints. Phoenix is getting strong mileage from Johnson and Cam Payne, whose career seemed over long before he got seven points, four rebounds and four assists in Game 3. Even Frank Kaminsky chipped in six points.
On the other hand, Suns on-ball defender Mikal Bridges was nearly invisible offensively — four points, minus-1 — after scoring 27 in Game 2.
One more mention here: Since when did Dario Saric become a “center?” He is out for the series with a torn ACL, but has been mentioned repeatedly as thinning Phoenix’s crew of available bigs. Granted, Saric is 6-foot-10, but let’s get it on the record that in his first four seasons, he spent more than 90% of his time at forward — including last season with the Suns.
Only in 2021 did he get used for 82% of his minutes as a center. And in doing so, he posted career lows of 3.8 rebounds and 0.1 blocks.
5. So 2-1 is lots better than 3-0
Does anyone really enjoy sweeps? Beyond the dominant team and its fans, that is? Fortunately everyone else paying attention to The Finals doesn’t have to worry about that now.
Had Phoenix won Game 3 and put itself into position to sweep the Bucks, the championship series would have faced three days of dreary inevitability. No team in NBA best-of-seven playoff history ever has recovered to win after dropping the first three games. With Game 4 on Wednesday, it would have made for some hollow coverage, a mix of worthy praise for the Suns but awkward encouragement for the Bucks. Even a Milwaukee victory to push everything back to Phoenix at 3-1 in a “gentlemen’s sweep” could have been a drag.
But the Bucks played harder and bigger. Now we have a series, with the possibility of something even snazzier. Anticipation is in order for Game 4, not gloom.
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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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