EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

NBA Finals preview, Pt. 3: Key game-by-game stats to watch for Suns, Bucks

Jul 6, 2021, 11:16 AM
Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker (1) drives as Milwaukee Bucks forward Khris Middleton defends durin...

Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker (1) drives as Milwaukee Bucks forward Khris Middleton defends during the first half of an NBA basketball game Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Matt York)

(AP Photo/Matt York)

PHOENIX — One of the fun things about the NBA Finals is that we are looking at two teams that have each played over 15 games in the playoffs.

That means we’ve got a decent enough sample size to go off in terms of what’s been working for the Phoenix Suns and Milwaukee Bucks this postseason, which is what we’ll now cover with some of the team statistics to keep your eye on for each game of the series.

And proof of the importance on that is something we’ve mentioned before, the Bucks being first in defensive rating and the Suns second. With two high-level defenses like this, the margins could very well decide most of these games.

The initial one to cover is rebounding, an area where the Bucks went from average to above average in the regular season to currently elite.

Milwaukee is second this postseason in offensive rebounding percentage and third in what it allows its opposition there. That helps the Bucks be first in second chance points per game at 16.6. The Suns, meanwhile, give up just 11.9 per game and have the fifth-best opposing offensive rebounding percentage, so they’ve been game to battle there.

The Bucks do it as a team.

“Everybody they bring in the game pretty much is going to get an offensive rebound,” Suns head coach Monty Williams said Monday.

Seven players in the rotation average at least one per game: Giannis Antetokounmpo (2.3), Brook Lopez (2.2), P.J. Tucker (2.1), Bobby Portis (1.6), Jrue Holiday (1.5), Khris Middleton (1.4) and Pat Connaughton (1.1).

The most impressive part is that the Bucks have been doing this without sending too many bodies toward the glass and giving up points in transition. Their 8.4 fastbreak points allowed per game is the second-best number in the playoffs.

The Suns are 15th in offensive rebounding percentage out of the 16 playoff teams, so if that can be an area of the stat sheet they turn into more of a push, that’s a huge win.

Things can get messy after lots of switching defensively, which is where the Suns will have to be boxing out and keeping their man away from the key when a shot goes up.

But it also puts defenders in unorthodox situations as helpers that they might not be used to, which is where the Bucks can get in the paint.

Milwaukee without Antetokounmpo in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals scored 66 points in the paint, and it is averaging 50.9 per game in the playoffs, the number two mark leaguewide.

Williams mentioned on Sunday seeing that as more of an emphasis for the Bucks, and said the same on Monday.

“The pressure they put on the paint has been pretty consistent, even with Giannis [out], but you see a different way of doing it now with Jrue attacking and Lopez diving,” he said. “That’s been something that we have to respect. You have to respect them anyway with Giannis getting into the paint — in transition, in isolation, when he dives in the pick-and-roll, especially with Middleton. So without Giannis, there seems to be a different way of attacking the paint … The pressure on the paint has been pretty consistent in the playoffs.”

Lopez had 33 points in Game 6, going away from his default role as more of a floor spacer.

Instead, he was cutting and diving more as a screener while also being more of a presence on the baseline for dumpoffs, ala Deandre Ayton.

You do not need to me to tell you the Atlanta Hawks are not like the Suns defensively. But Phoenix at times this season and in the playoffs has had bouts with giving up far too much dribble penetration, and Lopez is a target Milwaukee will find if Phoenix does that.

With that in mind, the Bucks are not some slick ball-moving wizards. Their 54.0 assist percentage in the postseason ranks 11th after being at 56.9% and 25th in the regular season.

The Suns have maintained a top-10 number from the regular season north of 60% at a second-best 60.2% for the playoffs.

Speaking of where the Suns are pretty good, we all know Chris Paul and Devin Booker make their money in that midrange area.

Per Cleaning the Glass, the Bucks have sacrificed the second-most percentage of their total shots from the midrange in the playoffs. That’s after a regular-season number of 33.3% was also bottom five in the league, and on shots inside the three-point line from at least 14 feet out, Milwaukee yielded a league-high 13.2% of its total shots from that long midrange area.

Paul in the regular season took an absolutely ridiculous 38% of his attempts there, ranking in the 100th percentile on Cleaning the Glass. Booker checked in at 22%, and to really emphasize how absurd Paul’s percentage is, Booker’s still has him in the 97th percentile, even on that 16% difference.

To go back to Lopez, he’s a good defensive center, and how high Bucks head coach Mike Budenolzer chooses to deploy him in ball-screen situations will be the number one chess match to watch. They typically have Lopez drop pretty low, but that’s asking for a whole of trouble against the Suns’ All-Star backcourt.

And lastly, arguably the Suns’ biggest statistical weakness this season is shared with their opposition. Phoenix is 14th out of 16 teams this postseason in free throw rate, and one of the two teams trailing it is Milwaukee in 15th.

That’s after the Bucks were 24th in the regular season and the Suns placed 29th. Neither team is used to a huge edge on the foul stripe, so if you see that trend in either direction for a game, that team is in good shape.

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NBA Finals preview, Pt. 3: Key game-by-game stats to watch for Suns, Bucks