EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Suns get away from little things, drop Game 3 of NBA Finals to Bucks

Jul 11, 2021, 9:31 PM | Updated: Jul 12, 2021, 9:33 pm
Cameron Johnson #23 of the Phoenix Suns and Giannis Antetokounmpo #34 of the Milwaukee Bucks battle...
Cameron Johnson #23 of the Phoenix Suns and Giannis Antetokounmpo #34 of the Milwaukee Bucks battle for possession of the ball during the second half in Game Three of the NBA Finals at Fiserv Forum on July 11, 2021 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images)
(Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images)

MILWAUKEE — Chris Paul was in assassin mode. Deandre Ayton wore his Dominayton jacket to the game, and it had him doing just that.

It was the early second quarter of the NBA Finals’ Game 3 Sunday featuring the Phoenix Suns and Milwaukee Bucks. Paul was 5-of-6 from the field for 10 points and Ayton was even better, with 7-of-9 shooting for 16 points.

It felt like the Suns’ offense was cooking, showing the latest weapon in its arsenal of an aggressive Paul scoring the ball early and an increased effort to get Ayton involved.

And yet, it was only 38-35 Suns, which pointed toward something else being wrong.

More on that in a minute, but from that point, it was a 25-7 Bucks run to put the Suns down 15 at the half. Everything that was off about the Suns snowballed, and even when they stormed back to within four points in the third quarter, it was another big Bucks run to comfortably win 120-100.

“There’s a lot of ways you can spin it, but they played with a great deal of aggression for longer stretches than we did,” Suns head coach Monty Williams said of the game. “We knew it was coming. We did not respond to it well tonight, especially in the second and third quarters.”

Before we get to the intricacies of the loss, a simple approach is the Bucks’ Big 3 was really, really good through efficient scoring and sound passing.

Giannis Antetokounmpo posted 41 points, 12 rebounds and six assists, shooting 14-of-23. Khris Middleton had 18 points, five rebounds and six assists while Jrue Holiday added 21 points, five rebounds and nine assists.

Middleton (6-for-14) and Holiday (8-for-14) combined to shoot 14-for-28 (50%) after a 26-of-65 (40%) effort in the series’ opening two games.

There was a laundry list of reasons the Suns were down 15 at the half. Some pointed at Devin Booker’s 2-of-11 shooting or Ayton getting one shot attempt in the last 9:35 of the half. The team’s 2-of-14 shooting from 3 certainly didn’t help matters.

But the little things that come so naturally to the Suns because of how great they are at the team-oriented elements of basketball got away from them, and that was the game.

The defense wasn’t sharp, both individually and as a team. The focus and attention to detail were off, which spells trouble in the Finals. The Bucks put on their playmaking hats, and as a result, had 18 assists at the half. Entering Sunday, the Suns were only giving up 20.2 assists per game in the playoffs.

Second-chance points are an area where the Bucks have excelled this postseason, and they had 10 at the half. The Suns’ offense got stagnant and sloppy at times as well, and through that, Milwaukee accumulated 10 points off Phoenix’s seven turnovers.

Meanwhile, the Suns were still searching for their first point off a turnover or second chance. Fastbreak points were 9-2 Bucks too, meaning if you combine those three, it was 29-2 Bucks at the half.

That is a very easy way to lose a basketball game.

“We feel like we lost the 50/50 battle, and I feel like on the road you almost have to win that or tie it,” Suns forward Jae Crowder said. “So I think that decided the game in a way for us, and we have to be better in that aspect.”

Ayton got his third foul with 9.5 seconds left in the first half, and 95 seconds into the third quarter, he picked up his fourth. With Ayton as the only real deterrent to Antetokounmpo, that had the game trending toward Milwaukee busting through the floodgates.

But the Suns’ wings started adding some offense, particularly Crowder and Cam Johnson.

With Williams going small, Crowder hit a trio of 3s and Johnson scored 10 of his 14 points, including a nasty poster over P.J. Tucker.

On the other end, the Bucks actually got away from Antetokounmpo a bit, but Holiday was making it work with his own three-piece of trey balls, plus another.

A Johnson 3 with 5:22 left in the third quarter got the Bucks’ lead down to four, but two of those Holiday triples quickly followed and bumped it back up to nine.

Milwaukee’s Bobby Portis grabbed a Holiday miss for free throws. Two for Antetokounmpo were sandwiched by a 3 set up by Holiday and then his own for his fourth of the night.

From there, over the last 1:31 of the third quarter, Antetokounmpo went on an 8-0 run he either scored or assisted on. The Bucks were suddenly up 22, a 24-6 surge after that Johnson deep ball got ’em within four.

Those three key statistics ended in a Bucks edge of second-chance points (20-2), points off turnovers (17-10) and fastbreak points (16-6).

That added up to a 53-18 advantage, and that is how a team can emphatically lose despite even shooting numbers, with the Suns at 48.2% compared to the Bucks’ 47.8% mark.

“The second-chance points, that was a struggle for us,” Williams said. “We know that’s what they want to do. So we got to come up with the 50/50 balls. We got to box out better. That’s on us. We can’t blame anybody else for that. That’s us.”

Williams made sure to start his answer with the Suns’ own production in those categories, which was just as bad as what his team was giving up.

“It’s like a tale of two cities,” he said.

The Suns can overcome a 9-for-31 (29%) outing on three-point shooting most nights, but not with those other numbers.

Booker was not a factor in this game, shooting 3-of-14 with 10 points and two assists. He took half his shots from three-point range, where he was 1-of-7. Including the regular season and playoffs, it was only the 10th game in the last four seasons when Booker has recorded 10 or fewer points.

Perhaps the two biggest concerns for the Suns will be what came of their two starting wings.

Mikal Bridges was hesitant on offense, getting away from the aggressive 0.5 mentality Williams wants all his players to have. Bridges has had bouts with this over his short three-year NBA career thus far, and has always snapped out of it. He had four points in 27 minutes, with Williams turning to Johnson over him in certain stretches.

The other has a positive twist, but Suns fans by now are well informed on how streaky Crowder can be as a shooter, so losing the Finals game when he’s 6-of-7 from deep for 18 points is a tough one.

Williams turned to Frank Kaminsky in the mid-second quarter, and said after the game he wanted more size on the floor with the way the Bucks were handling the interior.

The Bucks finished with 28 assists, the most for a Suns opponent in a game this postseason.

The Suns will clean up the 50/50 balls and not allow a margin that severe again in the series. That’ll have to be at the top of the list for what Phoenix can do differently in Game 4.

“We’re on the road and we have to come in with the energy and effort,” Booker said. “Like you said, the 50/50 balls, the offensive rebounds, protect the paint — just the details that we talked about. But that’s what the playoffs is. That’s why it’s a series, and we have some room for improvement.”

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