EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Phoenix Suns engulf Bucks with complete effort in Finals rematch

Feb 11, 2022, 12:40 AM | Updated: 12:44 am

PHOENIX — I challenge you to find a better three-game stretch than what the Phoenix Suns have just put together.

After ending a road trip with a sweep of a back-to-back in Chicago and Philadelphia, the Suns continued their dominance of the Eastern Conference with a 131-107 shellacking of the Milwaukee Bucks on Thursday night.

Everyone who has watched the Suns closely this year knew they were going to bring maximum intensity to this game, an NBA Finals rematch Phoenix (45-10) could use a stage of national television to prove a point with.

That mere formality made it interesting to see if Milwaukee (35-22) would be game to match that at the end of its own four-game road trip out west. Even though the Bucks were up for it in the earlygoing, Phoenix just wore them down over the course of the game while only getting better as it went on.

“C was emphasizing the whole game, ‘Don’t celebrate after your shots. Get your [expletive] back on D,'” center Deandre Ayton said. “He exhausted that the whole night. That’s just Finals and playoffs mentality where you can’t really get happy on the farm. You in the middle of war. Them guys had the upper hand on us, that happened last season. But at the same time, we gotta handle business and show the league and everybody else that we a different team.”

Suns head coach Monty Williams said the coaches sensed in shootaround how tired the team was after that back-to-back and long flight home on Tuesday night. But Phoenix proved last year it will not be outworked and that relentless attitude showed against the Bucks.

“The mental toughness that our guys showed tonight was extraordinary. … They were tired. I could see it on them,” Williams said.

Finals MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo looked mortal and the gears on the Suns’ offense were spinning at maximum output. Inside a complex game, that was essentially all that mattered.

Phoenix outscored Milwaukee 66-43 in the middle quarters after trailing by three through one frame. After the game’s first turning point and degree of separation came from the Suns in the second quarter to lead by eight, a 16-9 run to begin the second half expanded it to 17 with 5:30 remaining in the third quarter.

That’s when Antetokounmpo got as locked in as everyone donning the Valley black unis but it was too late. Despite Antetokounmpo scoring or assisting the Bucks’ remaining 14 points of the third quarter, the Bucks couldn’t get enough stops for it to matter, seeing their deficit grow from 17 to 20.

In the middle of that portion of the third quarter, Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer deployed intentional fouling on the Suns’ Bismack Biyombo and Elfrid Payton, a sign that he knew his team just didn’t have what would be required on Thursday night to get a win. It also, as Williams pointed out, allowed Phoenix to get extra rest.

That didn’t stop Phoenix one bit, as the advantage got even higher to 26 with nine minutes remaining. That was basically it because the Bucks couldn’t stop a consistent Suns offense that produced 31, 33, 33 and 34 points in the four quarters, respectively.

Milwaukee went heavy on the switching defensively, which the Suns countered by setting up center Ayton for a mismatch. In the past, Phoenix has struggled mightily with having a strong link between Ayton establishing position in the post and the Suns’ perimeter players finding the right passing angle for him.

In yet another example of this group’s continuity and improvement, that was hardly an issue on Thursday. Ayton feasted to 27 points on 12-of-14 shooting.

“He was pretty dominant in the paint,” Williams said. “His ability to seal and get to his jump hook.”

Williams spoke on that process to have Ayton and the team improve at running the offense through him when the defensive matchups warrant it.

“I think his ability to continue to grow as a player,” Williams said. “Our first year here, we didn’t see that. And now he’s starting to understand that jump hook in the paint, just powering over people is a lot better than fading away.”

“Last year that was one of the things I was not exhausting,” Ayton said. “Just constantly putting my body on them dudes when they switch and not letting them off the hook. That’s what I’m starting to realize this season.”

The Bucks’ defense seemed indecisive with what it was trying to accomplish and a step slow. And boy is that an awful setup to describe a group defending Chris Paul. He torched them for 19 assists, one more than Milwaukee had as an entire team (18).

The Suns were superior on both ends. Their defense was a fully concentrated unit, rolling through multiple schemes to limit Antetokounmpo as much as possible. From zone to Biyombo defending him, the Suns tried a lot and most of it worked. They generated 22 points off the Bucks’ 14 turnovers.

“We had to change up our coverages a number of times and it allowed us to give them some different looks,” Williams said, noting how great players will wreck a defense if the look doesn’t change throughout the game.

Ayton had a handful of huge possessions stopping Antetokounmpo as well, playing a part in the two-time league MVP going 5-of-14 from the floor for 18 points. Ayton credited his knowledge for the coverages and his teammates for communicating through them to “shrink” the court on Antetokounmpo.

“Just going out there, knowing you have people you can trust, especially when there’s superheroes you gotta guard,” Ayton said, referencing his assignment on MVP candidate Joel Embiid earlier in the week too.

Phoenix had 35 assists to just eight turnovers and everyone was contributing offensively.

The supporting cast of Mikal Bridges (18 points), Cam Johnson (15), JaVale McGee (12), Jae Crowder (10) and Biyombo (9) helped make the blowout possible despite Paul and Devin Booker amounting to just 17 points each and the Suns as a team shooting 9-of-30 (30.0%) from deep. Booker, in particular, had a bad off night shooting the ball for a 6-of-19 mark.

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