EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Suns’ team effort bests Giannis-powered Bucks in Game 2 of Finals

Jul 8, 2021, 11:38 PM | Updated: Jul 9, 2021, 9:54 am
Phoenix Suns forward Mikal Bridges (25) celebrates with guard Chris Paul (3) after the Suns defeate...

Phoenix Suns forward Mikal Bridges (25) celebrates with guard Chris Paul (3) after the Suns defeated the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 2 of basketball's NBA Finals, Thursday, July 8, 2021, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

(AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

PHOENIX — Some teams bring the best out of each other in the final series of the NBA season, but every now and then, some teams bring the weird out of each other.

It looks like a rare case of the latter with the Phoenix Suns and Milwaukee Bucks in the NBA Finals.

After a Game 1 that saw both teams get away from core identities of how they got there, Thursday’s Game 2 had some of those elements return in a 118-108 Suns win that put them ahead 2-0 in the series.

The Suns registered 26 assists after just 18 on Tuesday. The Bucks had 23 second-chance points after just three on Tuesday and doubled their offensive rebounding number from nine to 18.

But the game was still loopy.

Phoenix’s Chris Paul had six turnovers, three of which came in a fourth quarter he shot 2-of-8 in. It was the second fourth quarter in the 125 of his playoff career that he had at least three turnovers in, per Stathead.

Milwaukee’s Khris Middleton, one of the best bucket-getters on planet Earth who always looks to be in rhythm, couldn’t create good looks for himself and was forcing the issue. That resulted in a 5-of-16 shooting performance, and that 31.2 FG% makes Thursday the sixth playoff game of Middleton’s 63 in his career where he’s shot under 33% with more than 15 field goal attempts.

Even with awesome hustle by Milwaukee all night, Phoenix was only minus-three on the glass (46-43) and minus-four on second-chance points (23-19). Points off turnovers were just 16-15 Bucks as well — even if the eye test told you that the Suns were the sloppier of the two teams.

After the Suns scored their first 16 points in the paint for Game 1, all 15 of the team’s initial points for Game 2 were via three-point field goals. They attempted only 16 shots at the rim all game, per Cleaning the Glass.

But the one constant for Phoenix was high-level production from its backcourt, even with Paul’s, “Wait seriously who is that playing in his jersey” type of fourth quarter.

Devin Booker has to be in the lead for Finals MVP through two games. He recorded 31 points, five rebounds and six assists, shooting 12-of-25 from the floor.

“He just stays in attack mode all game long,” Paul said. “And that’s what I love about him. I think me and him together, we’ve just built so much trust.”

Paul was still 10-for-20 despite his ugly fourth and had 23 points, four rebounds and eight assists.

Their 113 points through two games are the most by a starting backcourt in Finals history since those numbers were tracked in 1971, per ESPN Stats & Info.

As expected, the Bucks threw new coverages their way. The help defenders were far more inclined to “stunt,” meaning take an extra step or two in the guards’ direction with a quick swipe at the ball before recovering.

Here’s an example of Paul manipulating that to give you a better picture of what that looks like. Middleton’s job is to briefly get in there as help from the corner, and Paul knows that, so he takes his time.

With the quality of passers Booker and Paul are, that meant the 3-pointers were going to start raining down, and boy did they ever.

Eleven of the Suns’ first 17 shot attempts were 3s. They made eight alone in the first quarter.

That massively helped suppress a great first quarter from the Bucks, one Suns head coach Monty Williams described as a “storm of aggression.”

Milwaukee played with far more intent offensively, getting into the key consistently, where they had 54 points in the paint overall.

The Suns were only down three entering the second quarter, and in it, Williams saw a “tremendous” defensive effort to limit the Bucks to only 16 points. On the other end, the backcourt kept making things happen, particularly for its teammates.

Mikal Bridges scored a team-high 13 points in the first half and ended the night with a new playoff-career-high of 27. He was 5-of-6 on his 2-pointers, taking advantage of a recovering Bucks defense that was chasing him off the 3-point line.

“Sometimes I get so focused on wanting to hit that 3, if I haven’t touched it in a while and I just want to get one up, I think it’s always, ‘Let me hit this 3 and get myself going,'” Bridges said. “I have my teammates and I’ll give E’Twaun [Moore] a shoutout, he’s the one that talks to me.

“I know especially in that Clippers series when I wasn’t getting it going, he was just like, ‘Mix it up, try and get to the rim.’ And I’m like, ‘Damn, that’s what I was doing and I just forgot. I was trying to just hit a 3.’ And once I started doing that, it just opens up my game just playing off my jump shot and getting into the paint and trying to have everything for sure.”

Said Booker: “People will still try to label him as a 3-and-D guy, and I’ve told you guys multiple times that’s not even close to his game.”

The Bucks’ scheme challenged the Suns to play more as a team, and if you’ve watched them at all this year, you know they are game for that.

Seven of the Suns’ eight players recorded a field goal in the second quarter, and Bridges was the highest scorer with seven points. Nothing embodied that more than the team’s best offensive possession of the season, one in which there 11 passes made in 20 seconds.

“We actually talked about that play right after the game, me and Mikal,” Booker said. “And he was like, ‘I think that was the most pumped I’ve ever been after a play.’ And I was like, ‘Me too.'”

Phoenix’s 30 points overall in the quarter brought on an 11-point halftime lead.

From there, the Suns maintained a lead of at least five points, even after a phenomenal third quarter from two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Greek Freak scored or assisted 26 of the Bucks’ 33 points he was on the floor for in that quarter, bum knee and all.

That was where Phoenix’s stars realized the opposing one was making a push, so Booker (12 points) and Paul (10) combined for 22 points to keep the Bucks at bay.

Antetokounmpo contributed 10 points in the fourth quarter after 20 in the third, but again, it was the Suns’ balance. All five starters had a field goal in the final period, and Deandre Ayton bounced back in the middle of that.

He played a strong 12 minutes after some old problems, like holding onto the ball and such, reared their heads in a non-impactful three quarters. Ayton had four points, four rebounds, two assists, a block and two steals in the fourth quarter.

This game was yet another that showed what the Suns are all about, and Ayton was a part of that in the biggest moment of it.

With ball movement a check for the signature possession of the first half, the second half brought us a sequence that was all about work, where Bridges also made plays on all three possessions.

At a little over four minutes remaining and the Suns up six, Bridges scrambled to tip out a Paul miss, Ayton grabbed the Booker miss that came after that and then Paul drilled a corner 3.

Following the Bucks bringing the ball down, Ayton blocked a Middleton drive that Bridges saved. A few seconds later, Bridges attacked a closeout again to score.

Just like that, it was an 11-point Suns lead to put them in the driver’s seat, and most of it was via just grinding.

Even if it was an uneven performance, Ayton showed up when it really mattered late.

“He’s so mad at how he played and whatnot, but I tell him if he doesn’t get that offensive rebound and find me there in the corner, that’s probably the biggest play of the game,” Paul said. “So, it just shows you how we all have to stay the course.”

The Suns finished 20-of-40 (50.0%) from deep.

Antetokounmpo just didn’t have enough help to overcome that. His 42 points, 12 rebounds and four assists were for naught because of that rough Middleton night and another bad Jrue Holiday performance of 7-of-21 shooting for 17 points, five rebounds and seven assists. Reserve wing Pat Connaughton’s 14 points made him the fourth and final Buck in double figures.

The Suns’ Jae Crowder recovered after a poor shooting night in Game 1, recording 11 points on 4-of-8 from the field, plus an important 10 rebounds.

After Dario Saric tore his ACL on Tuesday, his replacement as the backup center, Torrey Craig, did not return after sustaining a right knee contusion while taking a charge on an Antetokounmpo drive. Craig stayed down on the floor before being helped to the locker room, not putting weight on one of his legs.

Phoenix takes a 2-0 lead in the Finals, now two wins away from the franchise’s first championship. The two games in Milwaukee upcoming will require a level head and the Suns not letting the title that’s close enough to smell get to them.

With the way the team has operated this year, they’ve shown they’re prepared to be calm, cool and collected.

“We talked about it being a 0-0 series,” Williams said. “That’s our mentality. That’s what we talked about this morning. We have to approach every game with a level of desperation and we can’t look at the series numbers. But human nature forces you to do that, but our mentality is to play every game as if we’re coming off of a loss.

“I think that’s served us well throughout the playoffs. And we know that when we don’t play with the force that is necessary to win, we’re not as good as we can be.”

“Got to treat it like it’s Game 1,” Bridges added. “We talk about it in the locker room and our next game is the most important game. That’s in the regular season, that’s in the playoffs, the Finals no matter what, our next game is our most important game.”

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