Wild finish in Milwaukee gets Suns latest win in playoff-like environment
While much of the focus around the Phoenix Suns in the last month of the regular season will be on their positioning in the Western Conference standings, there are more important matters to attend to.
A new group that’s never been to the postseason with each other before needs more high-quality games to grow and improve, as opposed to freebie blowout wins against bad teams.
This East Coast road trip should provide them a few, and Monday’s 128-127 overtime win in Milwaukee over the Bucks is as close to the real thing as they are going to get.
“It was everything that the playoffs are,” Suns head coach Monty Williams said of the environment. “Emotion, physical, players making plays, late-game situations — it was all of that. The resiliency and relentless attitude that we showed down the stretch on the road in overtime says a lot about the character of the guys in our locker room.”
We got a lot to get to in the closing stretch of this game so let’s breeze through the first three quarters.
The opening two were strange. It was a game that was physical, and the refs were allowing it even beyond the whistle to expect in the playoffs. The Suns didn’t take their first free throws until the mid-second quarter despite getting to the basket and finding contact often enough. Williams said he was proud of his team for sticking with it through a bad free-throw disadvantage that “was a bit of a frustration point.”
Another potential one was the play of back-to-back MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, who kept getting buckets and to the line through great defense, mostly by Deandre Ayton.
Antetokounmpo struggled to score on Ayton 1-on-1 in the first quarter, so Milwaukee coach Mike Budenholzer adjusted and had Antetokounmpo serve more as a screen setter and player coming off screens as opposed to a traditional ball-handling and isolating number one option.
That was a success and it was just about all night. He had 33 points on 12-of-22 shooting.
“I don’t know what else he can do,” Williams said of a superb effort by Ayton. “Giannis made some tough shots … I thought DA did a really good job and I thought the biggest thing was he didn’t get frustrated. He didn’t cry to the refs or any of that stuff. He just stayed with it.”
As did the team.
Williams was clearly approaching this one like a playoff game in his own right, as he came back to a stagger of making sure Chris Paul or Devin Booker were on the court at all times.
Despite that and the Suns staying the course, they were down eight with a little over eight minutes left. The Bucks were riding a great Antetokounmpo game and a monstrous two-way performance from guard Jrue Holiday, who had 25 points, four rebounds, eight assists, two steals and a block.
Resilient has been the top adjective for Williams to describe his group, and they showed it at that point and through the whole game.
Still facing a seven-point deficit at the 4:49 mark after making a good push to get within three, the Suns kept pushing back.
A faceup jumper for Ayton was followed by a quick outlet from him off a Bucks miss to find Paul. He located a streaking Booker in transition for his 10,142nd career assist to pass Magic Johnson for fifth all-time.
After three straight misses, Paul recovered a loose ball in the key and immediately rifled it to Mikal Bridges in the corner, who drilled the game-tying 3 at 2:55 remaining.
On Milwaukee’s next possession, they went to Antetokounmpo. There must have been a hiccup in the space-time continuum, because he drove on Ayton, and upon spinning into the big fella, Ayton didn’t move an inch. Antetokounmpo, for a brief moment, looked mortal, having to force a shot from there that was blocked by Ayton for a jump ball.
Ayton won the jump ball, and nine seconds later, Jae Crowder converted on a corner 3 via Paul that improbably had the Suns now leading by three.
I’m actually now sure of that hiccup in the space-time continuum being more of a split because the next 15 real-time minutes were bonkers.
After Holiday and Ayton traded baskets, Booker went up to contest a Khris Middleton finish in transition that drew a foul call with 1:18 left. The first replay made it appear Booker didn’t foul Middleton, bringing on Williams to challenge, but more replays confirmed that Booker got a slight piece of Middleton’s left hand while getting the ball.
Williams lost the challenge and was down to one timeout, which would instantly come into play.
Middleton hit both free throws to put Phoenix up only one.
In the Suns’ following possession, Paul had 10 seconds left on the shot clock as he was trapped and made the right pass to an open Ayton rolling. Ayton stopped to brace for contact from the help defender, and that contact caused him to hurt his left shoulder.
Ayton got the ball stripped, fought through it to recover and kick the ball out to Crowder, who found Paul. Paul missed a 3 as the shot clock expired, and Ayton spent all that time holding his left shoulder in pain.
Off the scramble in semi-transition for the Bucks, Holiday got a handoff from Antetokounmpo and was trapped by Crowder and Ayton near the rim. Holiday found a wide-open Middleton and he nailed a 3 to put Milwaukee back up two with 40 seconds left.
With Ayton still laboring and wincing with visible discomfort, Willaims made the decision to not call a timeout.
The Suns ran their set to get Booker a chance to pull up going to his left from the midrange. It worked, he got there and he made the shot to tie the game.
The Bucks, with a timeout left, wisely kept playing with Ayton hurt and him being the primary defender on Antetokounmpo.
Antetokounmpo dribbled out the clock with 25 seconds left and isolated Ayton.
With one arm, Ayton handled Antetokounmpo’s drive perfectly as he had all night. Antetokounmpo tried to get the jump on Ayton so bad that he tripped over himself, debatably a travel depending on if you think he still had the ball as he landed.
Trying to make a play still, Antetokounmpo passed the ball towards two Bucks as the Milwaukee bench called for timeout. Inexplicably, the refs granted the Bucks the stoppage of play even though no Milwaukee player had possession of the ball.
Watch the official in front of the Bucks bench raise his hand as no one has the ball.
The Suns were, rightfully so, irate.
On the Bucks’ look off the phantom timeout, there was a shot-clock violation with 1.5 seconds left, and wouldn’t you know it, Williams had that timeout left still!
“That was the only way that it would have worked out,” Williams said while laughing.
“Those are the moments where I have to trust our guys,” he added. “Having one timeout, you have to score and you have to get stops.”
The timeout set up Booker for a difficult look from 30 feet, one he missed to send us to overtime, which Ayton would play in.
In that overtime, Antetokounmpo blocked Booker’s shot with four minutes left and noticeably came up limping. He hobbled his way to the Bucks bench for a timeout before going to the ground, dealing with cramps. Budenholzer decided to sit Antetokounmpo from there, saying postgame he didn’t want to risk it given Antetokounmpo has had some knee issues this season.
The Suns scored six straight off that, including a nasty bank shot by Booker on his old dance partner in practice, P.J. Tucker.
The basketball gods were not done with us yet, though.
The Bucks hit two straight 3s to tie the game up, and with a minute left, Paul made the most ridiculous shot of the game, ducking under a Middleton contest and releasing the ball with one hand to put Phoenix back ahead.
— Kellan Olson (@KellanOlson) April 20, 2021
Middleton answered with his own midrange conversion and then Bridges put home his second humongous shot of the game, another one in the corner.
This one was from Booker, and Ayton set a screen on the help.
But for the second time, Middleton had the counter, his own 3 running around screens and fresh off the inbounds pass to tie it again at 22 seconds remaining.
Booker would get his second chance to end the game, and would, albeit not in the fanciest fashion.
Phoenix ran a play to get Booker going through switches for a more favorable matchup. Holiday, however, one of the best defenders on planet Earth, wasn’t having it.
He stayed glued to Booker and the All-Star guard had nowhere to go.
“I was just trying to get the last shot,” Booker said. “Obviously, we were trying to get a switch late, but the time was going down and I just tried to get to a spot and get one up.”
He did, and fortunately, a slight slip from Holiday likely made Tucker overhelp and foul Booker as time expired.
Milwaukee protested the call that was reviewed and later determined as correct. There was a question in real-time too of if Booker got fouled before the clock went to zero, but that was also caught by the review that put 0.3 seconds on the clock.
Budenholzer said postgame he didn’t agree with the call, but Williams said he was right there and heard the slap on Booker’s arm. And that was actually from Holiday before Tucker’s contact, so technically Bucks fans, the call was wrong!
“It was a smack across the wrist that was very loud and the ref made the right call,” Booker said.
Booker made one free throw, missed the second on purpose and the Suns could finally rest with a victory after an incredibly eventful ending.
Paul had 22 points, seven rebounds and 13 assists on 10-of-20 shooting. He joined Booker (24 points), Ayton (20) and Bridges (21) as the Suns’ four 20-point scorers for the game. Ayton added 13 rebounds, and while Booker’s 9-of-24 mark on field goals continued his recent struggles with efficiency, he was busting his tail all night long and made several key energy plays on both ends.
All of that in the last nine minutes of the game was important to hammer home, because, well, these are words designed to tell you the relevant information from the game, and it was.
But besides that, it reinforces big play after big play happening as Williams said, and how much each of the Suns’ five most important players contributed to the wildest win of the season.
“Jae hit the big 3 in the corner, [Mikal] hit the big 3, DA — his fight,” Paul said. “Everybody plays a part when we win games.”