NBA Finals Game 6 preview: Suns’ last stand comes down to fixing offense
MILWAUKEE — “Coach has said all season long everything you want is on the other side of the hard. And it doesn’t get any harder than this.”
Phoenix Suns point guard Chris Paul adding his own twist to one of head coach Monty Williams’ sayings before practice on Monday embodies the position his team finds itself in, down 3-2 in the NBA Finals to the Milwaukee Bucks.
The way in which play has unfolded on the court over the last three games, all Suns losses, puts them in a hole that’s deeper than any they’ve been in this season.
There are times when Milwaukee’s offense plays with the confidence that it has figured out Phoenix’s defense. The Bucks in the middle portion of the series smashed the Suns in the margins, hustle and smarts categories like second-chance points and points off turnovers that Phoenix rarely concedes to such a high degree.
Most of all, the Suns have lost their main source of mojo, the signature spice that takes them from a great team to an excellent one: ball movement.
Phoenix averaged 50.1 potential assists per game in the regular season, meaning assists plus all the missed shots that would have added more. That was second in the NBA, and the Suns’ 43.9 through the first three rounds of the playoffs ranked third, according to NBA Stats.
But in the last three games of the Finals, the Suns are at 36 a game, including only 29 in the Game 5 loss on Saturday.
Where that has decimated Phoenix the most is three-point attempts.
“I think we just got to figure out a way to generate more threes,” Suns guard Chris Paul said before practice Monday. “If that’s penetrating — it doesn’t have to be me and Devin (Booker). That’s the way we have played all season long, is penetrating the gaps, finding [Mikal Bridges], [Cam Johnson], [Jae Crowder], all the different guys on our team for threes.
“And obviously, when you lose a game and you look at it, you analyze it, you’re like, ‘Oh, I should have shot more threes.’ You know it’s a lot of what they call Monday-morning quarterbacks. But we have had a way that we have played all season long, and we’re going to try to play that way Game 6.”
The Suns attempted just 19 triples on Saturday, their lowest output for any regular season or playoff game this season. That was after 23 in Game 4.
That’s not going to cut it if they want to be champions, and the solution is not on the easy side of Williams’ metaphor.
The Bucks’ Big Three of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday are simultaneously all ascending and shooting across the sky en route to the Larry O’ Brien Trophy thanks to a phenomenal joint performance in Game 5.
Those three are rolling. While Holiday and Middleton struggled in the series’s initial two games and the Suns capitalized on that window, it has now been slammed shut.
But to at least make things a tad easier on themselves, the Suns will need to conjure up a defensive effort similar to the first quarter of Game 5.
Williams’ players have echoed him all year in that their defense is their best way to produce offense. It is painstakingly clear when watching them play and it’s even more of a requirement in Game 6 because stops will allow Phoenix to get out and run more.
That’s where the ball will zip more naturally. Even better if the Suns are able to do it off turnovers, where they racked up 11 points in the first quarter of Game 5.
That cannot be relied upon, however. Phoenix has to win the battle of halfcourt offenses as well, and more importantly, keep Milwaukee’s there.
Per Cleaning the Glass, the Suns’ 106.5 points per 100 possessions in the halfcourt trounces the Bucks’ putrid 96.9 mark in the Finals. And yet, the overall offensive numbers give the Bucks an edge at 118.7 to 117.0 because of other factors like transition, controllable factors for the Suns.
If that box is checked, it’ll be familiar territory for the Suns where they’ll be in a position to control the game, something they have previously done so well.
Paul is not right, which makes that aforementioned task a whole lot tougher when the conductor, orchestrator, quarterback, whatever you want to call him, is not playing to his fullest abilities.
He says he’s fine, but one of the best passers this galaxy has ever seen was making errant tosses to his teammates like this:
Seriously, have you ever seen Paul huck a pass to the weak-side corner that was slightly off, let alone high and wide?
Paul made a smart adjustment on ball screens in Game 5 of swapping out finding the proper tempo for outright increasing the pace, a way for him to still directly impact the game offensively. With Holiday continuing to press him all 94 feet, sometimes he didn’t even need the screen.
His goal most of the time looked like just getting into the paint and seeing what happened from there, as opposed to the more methodical approach of weaving around the midrange area. It looked good at the start of the game before he got away from it later on.
That last clip, Paul’s floater, is the best example where you can really see him trying to go downhill. He must consistently be this guy if his normal All-World caliber of point guard play isn’t coming out.
The extra giddy-up in the Point God’s step can go a long way in helping the Suns create more threes.
He came back after his first shift trying to do the same, but Crowder and Torrey Craig couldn’t knock down open triples before the Bucks’ comeback really got pumping.
And the gravity of those openings usually comes via Paul and Deandre Ayton’s two-man game, which is where we’ll go on a quick tangent.
Ayton cannot lumber his way through dives and go missing as a presence on the offensive glass like he did in Game 5. He stepped up his game tremendously in the postseason, but for that to go missing when the Suns need it the most would be a killer sting into the side of a tremendous season.
Alright, back on track.
If those two get that part of their play going, a tweak from the franchise kid, Booker, will have the Suns cooking.
As any inexperienced player would, Booker is going through a learning experience in his first postseason, mostly in the Finals. The Bucks have been A-OK with Booker getting his own in isolation situations, primarily on pull-up jumpers. And that’s where Milwaukee will take the victory even if the shot goes in, because the ball is sticking.
The 24-year-old did what he had to do in the second half of Game 5. He sat on the bench in the first half of the second quarter, watched his team miss nine of its first 10 shots, saw Paul and his teammates didn’t have it, so he took over. And he did it expertly, to the tune of back-to-back 40 point nights.
But the lesson for Booker was how he can do that while not only scoring but propelling his teammates by getting them involved with easy looks off his dominance. While Booker is more than capable as a passer and reader of the floor, that is a level of mastery in the game of basketball that few achieve. LeBron James is at the top of the list for active players that can do that on a consistent basis, and there’s an argument to be made that he’s alone on it.
Can Booker do it in spurts, though, like his triple-double in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals? For a stretch or two of the Suns’ most important game of the season?
He got that thing hummin’ around a bit more in the fourth quarter on Saturday for two Phoenix buckets that fueled its last push.
It’s no coincidence those two makes were threes.
“I think with the team and the capabilities of the shooters that we have on this team that we need to generate more threes,” Booker said. “Obviously, they’re switching a lot and staying home on shooters. So there’s just a way of figuring it out. Putting pressure, causing gravity to open up opportunities, easier opportunities for everybody on this team, because we have a lot of really good shooters on this team.”
It’s something the Suns are aware of and are trying to fix. That was the case with the offensive rebounding in Milwaukee, which took an extra game to correct before Game 5 saw the Suns hold the Bucks to 11 after 30 combined in the previous two games.
Perhaps Phoenix being a game late can come with the threes too, and if that’s the case, it will greatly help the Suns’ chances of keeping their season alive.