EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Suns drop 3rd straight in NBA Finals to Bucks, now facing elimination

Jul 17, 2021, 11:04 PM | Updated: Jul 18, 2021, 12:15 am
Giannis Antetokounmpo #34 of the Milwaukee Bucks goes after a loose ball against Mikal Bridges #25 ...
Giannis Antetokounmpo #34 of the Milwaukee Bucks goes after a loose ball against Mikal Bridges #25 of the Phoenix Suns during the second half in Game Five of the NBA Finals at Footprint Center on July 17, 2021 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
(Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

PHOENIX — The last time the Phoenix Suns lost three games in a row, they turned their season around. That response in late January following an 8-8 start to the regular season had them morph into contenders nearly six months ago.

But what they are capable of mustering up in the NBA Finals after falling in three straight for the first time since will determine if they are champions or not.

The Suns dropped Game 5 to the Milwaukee Bucks 123-119 and trail for the first time in the series since taking a 2-0 lead.

“We got to win one game to put them back on the plane,” Suns head coach Monty Williams said of the mentality going forward. “That’s it. And you have to have that determination that you’re willing to do whatever it takes to put them back on the plane. So, we can call it what we want to, mental toughness, all of that stuff, but it’s going to be needed and our guys are capable of doing it. This is our first time in this position and we can do it.”

In a game full of nuance that we’ll get to, a simple breakdown was that the Bucks’ Big 3 of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday all showed up like it was the biggest game of the NBA season. For the Suns in the second consecutive game, it was only Devin Booker.

Booker scored 40 points on 17-of-33 shooting, having to take over and stagnate the offense in the second half because of Phoenix’s ineptitude.

Antetokounmpo had 32 points, nine rebounds and six assists on 14-of-23 shooting.

He was matched by Middleton’s 29 points, five rebounds and five assists with 12-for-23 efficiency, as well as Jrue Holiday’s masterful 27 points on 12-of-20 shooting, plus four rebounds and 13 assists.

The three combined for 88 points and 24 assists, accounting for 115 of the Bucks’ 123 points through that. Two free throws for Pat Connaughton, one for Bobby Portis, a Brook Lopez three-pointer assisted by P.J. Tucker and a Portis offensive rebound putback were the other eight points.

Phoenix jumped out to a 37-21 lead in the first quarter, getting back to their brand of basketball of paint to great and playing in 0.5.

Chris Paul was at the helm of that, finding a new sense of aggression while using ball screens as a way to get to the paint as opposed to manipulating the defense.

He was getting the ball humming for three-point opportunities and also setting up Deandre Ayton, who had eight points in the opening quarter.

“He was going to the paint and DA early was going with him and so that put a lot of pressure on their rim protection,” Williams said of Paul. “The pressure against Chris has slowed us up a little bit. In the first quarter, it didn’t and we scored 37 points. So, that’s a formula for us, just get to the paint, shoot it or find guys.”

Booker was the high man in the quarter with 11 points and the Suns drained five triples. It was also the team’s best defense of the series, a reminder of how much easier the game is for them when the defense is buzzing.

But in the clearest example yet of the team’s inexperience in the postseason, they let up, and the Bucks pounced.

Milwaukee went on a 26-12 run in the first 5:36 of the second quarter, and all of it miraculously occurred with Antetokounmpo on the bench. The Bucks were down just two when he returned.

In the middle of that surge, Paul and Ayton got lost in the shuffle. Both couldn’t continue the rhythm they had found at the start of the game, with Paul not looking right again physically and Ayton back to a tentative, unimpactful form that he fell into at times the last three years.

Paul didn’t have his usual quickness defensively, where Holiday mauled him off the dribble. Ayton’s difficulties with catching the ball were back and he wasn’t capitalizing on mismatches with seals and deep post position.

Like the Suns’ 20-5 hole they hopped into at the start of the Western Conference Finals’ Game 5, that is a really easy way to lose a ballgame.

“We just made it easy for them,” Suns wing Mikal Bridges said. “We wasn’t — we took our foot off the gas and, credit to them, they stayed poised … We relaxed and that’s what hurt us.”

The Bucks got all the momentum, and to their absolute credit, ran with it through terrific shot-making, all while the Suns got stuck in the mud.

In the middle quarters, the Bucks were 32-of-45 (71.1%) from the field and Booker scored or assisted the Suns’ first 14 points in the third to avoid a rout taking place. That helped make the Suns’ biggest deficit just 13 points to that point.

“Whether it’s schematics or just outright grit and toughness during those moments, to just get a stop, we couldn’t get any consecutive stops in the second and the third,” Williams said.

While it felt like Milwaukee wasn’t going to miss, it was going to happen eventually, and how the Suns moved on those opportunities was going to be the game’s decider.

The first was at the end of the third when the Bucks only managed four points in the last 2:53 of the third quarter. The Suns had just seven, though, which was progress but not enough.

The final period was defined by those windows for the Suns and how the Bucks’ Big 3 stepped up in the other pockets of the last 12 minutes.

Antetokounmpo registered Milwaukee’s first four points in that frame before the Suns lost Middleton for an easy layup and then Holiday converted on a tough floater.

That burst got the Bucks their biggest lead of the night, 14 points, for a 108-94 scoreline with 9:08 to go.

Then came chance number two for the Suns to get back in the game. In the next 5:41, nearly half of the quarter, the Bucks picked up just six points.

It was a struggle for the Suns to counter with more, but they eventually got there to make it a 13-6 spurt that chopped the Bucks’ advantage in half to seven.

What broke that up was the shot that felt like the dagger, a ridiculous Middleton and-one to extend Milwaukee’s edge to 10 with 3:25 to go.

Phoenix would have one more opening, though.

Paul drilled a 3, Ayton hit two free throws, and even after another awesome Middleton jumper, Booker quickly answered with a drive to get it to 120-114 Bucks at 2:03 left.

Booker, who drew the Middleton assignment later in the game after Bridges needed to take Holiday for Paul, did an awesome job in the clutch and stripped Middleton’s drive the next time down. The ball went out of bounds, and a review for the call gave Williams a chance to draw up the Suns’ possession on the other end.

After it was ruled Bucks ball, Middleton missed again and Williams’ play would unfold with Phoenix down six.

Booker flew around screens off the ball with Holiday all over him, and in one motion, caught the ball, planted his feet, rose up and fired a 3 from the right wing that somehow fell to have it 120-117 Milwaukee with 1:24 remaining.

With just over a minute left, Antetokounmpo was fouled by Paul. The Greek Freak missed the first and then Williams wisely took a timeout to ice Antetokounmpo’s second and also get another play put together.

Antetokounmpo whiffed on the second as well, and Williams’ play got Paul in a favorable matchup against Connaughton in the right corner.

With all of Paul’s teammates near the top of the key and the eventual motion having Booker fly to the opposite corner through a screen at the elbow, Paul instead called an audible and drove baseline directly by Connaughton for a layup.

That cut the Bucks’ lead to one. On the ensuing possession, Middleton got trapped with five seconds left on the shot clock and called timeout at 38 seconds unfinished.

Out of the stoppage, Holiday got a bad look on an isolation and his miss was rebounded by Booker.

Williams let Booker go from there, where the series’ three key statistics would rear its ugly head all in one sequence.

Booker at the right wing drove left toward the key. Antetokounmpo ditched Ayton on the baseline and was there waiting, so Booker stopped and pivoted, and when he spun back around, there was Holiday waiting to snatch the ball up.

Holiday started the break in transition, finding Antetokounmpo for a lob Paul fouled him on that gave the Bucks a chance to have it at a four-point game.

Antetokounmpo missed his free throw, but Holiday tapped it up in the air, where of course Antetokounmpo would get a second tap back out to Middleton.

Middleton was fouled, hit one free throw, and thus, Antetokounmpo’s dunk was points off a turnover and in transition while Middleton’s one free toss was a second-chance point.

Booker had no more heroics left down four, missing a three-pointer that wrapped it all up.

Paul finished with 21 points, two rebounds and 11 assists, a better outing than Game 4 but one where his impact was still not nearly as great as it usually is.

While Ayton played good defense on Antetokounmpo and contributed 20 points and 10 rebounds, he was M.I.A. for most of the game.

In what will be the biggest concern for the Suns through the last two games, they attempted 19 three-pointers after 23 on Wednesday. That’s how a team loses while shooting 68.4% (13-of-19) from deep.

A lot of that was due to what Booker had to do individually at the expense of the offense.

“We got to move it around,” Williams said. “We know what Book can do with the ball, but the one thing we talked about was getting to the paint, finding guys on the backside. We feel like that’s a formula. There were some times tonight where it just stuck a little bit and against their defense, they don’t have to work against that. So we can score in iso ball, but to make that defense work we got to move it around and in order to beat this team that’s what you got to do.”

The margins were cleaned up for Phoenix after getting dismantled in ’em at Milwaukee. Points off turnovers (17-16) and second-chance points (14-12) both went the Suns’ way while fastbreak points (21-12) still favored the Bucks.

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