EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Phoenix Suns’ tremendous shorthanded effort nearly enough to upset Bucks

Mar 6, 2022, 6:03 PM

Is it possible for a team with 50 wins to have its best effort in a loss?

I’m open to hearing the argument after the Phoenix Suns came up short in Milwaukee against the Bucks 132-122 on Sunday, leading for the majority of the game despite not having Chris Paul (right thumb avulsion fracture), Devin Booker (health and safety protocols) or Cam Johnson (right quad contusion).

“The fight that we show night in and night out no matter who plays is something that I’m proud of,” head coach Monty Williams said.

The Suns got great contributions from all nine players that suited up.

Deandre Ayton scored a season-high 30 points, shooting 14-of-19 from the field while finding his sweet spots for floaters and jumpers in the midrange.

“A lot of teams are used to me rolling but I’m just finding the open spaces on the court and just taking advantage of them the best way I can but quick,” he said, noting the short roll is “really working” for him right now.

Phoenix as a team had 33 assists and Cam Payne dished out a team-high eight, running the offense well in place of Paul for the third straight game and putting up 23 points as well. Jae Crowder contributed seven of his own assists with 19 points as well, and it was Landry Shamet’s best game of the year with 17 points and five assists.

Mikal Bridges was the fourth Suns starter with at least five assists, amounting to six to go with 14 points he scored all of in the second half. Aaron Holiday produced eight points, four assists, three rebounds and two steals off the bench and Bismack Biyombo’s sound pick-and-roll defense resulted in two steals for him. JaVale McGee’s five points, and six more from Torrey Craig, was an additional boost provided by the reserves.

“That’s who we are,” Williams said of the effort. “Who steps up or whose got a uniform on, it does matter, but the style of play is always there and the grit and toughness is there.”

All of this sounds like more than enough to get a victory. And it was. The Suns shot 53.8% from the field and knocked down 14 3s, but the Bucks were hot too, slightly topping Phoenix with 54.0% efficiency and 15 long balls.

There were two areas where the Bucks won the game.

The first was rebounding, where Milwaukee got a +21 advantage and snagged 14 on the offensive glass alone.

“They outrebounded us,” Crowder said. “Same thing that happened in the Finals. We gotta learn from this and get better.”

That helped the Bucks get even more of an edge at the foul line, where they were 23-of-29 versus the Suns’ 8-for-11 mark.

The Suns were getting the short end of the stick on a few calls, something they felt in the Finals last year too, and Williams didn’t appreciate it Sunday considering how hard his team played.

“Our guys fought their tails off and the pattern we’re having to deal with from a free-throw perspective — it’s just getting old,” he said. “29-11. And six games in the Finals, Giannis (Antetokounmpo) had 85 free throws. We had one more shot than them in the paint.

“So that’s where the frustration for me (is). I’m telling our guys to continue to go to the paint and play physical basketball. That’s something that’s a struggle.”

Williams in a separate answer to an unrelated question got back to that discrepancy, noting how it’s “hard to take that same pill every time we play against this team” before saying his group needs to overcome that in areas like rebounding and clutch plays late in the game without Booker and Paul.

Crowder brought up that sometimes you don’t get the benefit of the doubt from officials and it is what it is. Ayton said it’s out of their control and they are not focused on it.

“Can’t put it on the refs, man,” Payne said. “We out there playing the game. We gotta find ways to win the game. It don’t matter how the game is getting called. We just gotta figure it out.

“I mean, we on the road. That’s how it is sometimes. But hey, we gave ourselves (an) opportunity at the end. That’s all we could ask for.”

Phoenix was on the front foot for the majority of the day. It showed little to no slippage, but despite that, the Bucks did an excellent job of just hanging around. Even when the Suns’ lead got as high as 10 points, the Bucks kept the game within a possession or two throughout.

The Bucks effectively maintained that by closing out quarters. They had a 9-2 run in the last 86 seconds of the first half and then a 5-0 spurt to end the remaining 96 seconds in the third quarter. Most teams would have trailed by 15+ but Milwaukee is not most teams.

With the fourth quarter arriving, a tidal wave takeover from the Bucks felt inevitable. That wave did come, but it was actually from the Suns. It was Milwaukee flying down the current and trying to grab onto anything they could.

For five minutes from the 10:47 mark on, the Suns scored on eight of their 11 possessions. Every time they scored, however, the Bucks either got a stop or scored themselves. And when the Suns got stops, the Bucks did too.

A Jordan Nwora 3 for Milwaukee with 5:11 to go ended that incredible back-and-forth battle to put the Bucks up two until it ramped up again.

Mikal Bridges got a basket inside for the Suns before Milwaukee’s Jrue Holiday drilled a step-back 3. Crowder nailed his own the next time down and then Milwaukee’s Middleton powered his way to the basket for two.

Four minutes of this tennis match occurred while Antetokounmpo was on the bench with five fouls. And the Finals MVP, in fact, contributed just two of his 19 points in the second half.

Crowder then hit another trey ball at 3:13 remaining, and after Nwora missed one for hismelf, Antetokounmpo secured it and that led to Nwora’s 18-footer.

After the Suns were entrenched in that see-saw slugfest for over nine minutes of the fourth quarter, they somehow weren’t putting a Bucks team away that kept on converting difficult shots Phoenix was defending well. The Suns trailed by one after entering the quarter at that same deficit.

At that point, the rug was at long last pulled from underneath the Suns. Payne once again had a great game but also had some key mistakes late. He turned over the ball at 2:35 remaining, Jrue Holiday got free throws for Milwaukee on the other end and then a Payne drive was blocked at the rim by Antetokounmpo.

Antetokounmpo drew a foul for more free tosses on Milwaukee’s next offensive possession and Bridges’ turnover allowed Middleton to get in transition and get two points at the foul line. That sequence of events put the Bucks in prime position, leading by six at 1:25 on the clock.

Middleton was the man in the fourth, having 18 of his 44 points in the quarter. He closed up shop with a midrange jumper at 51 seconds and his fifth triple the next time the Bucks had the ball.

Holiday added 17 fourth-quarter points for his 24 on the day, meaning that Middleton and Holiday combined for 35 of the Bucks’ 41 points in the fourth quarter. Milwaukee hit six 3s in the final frame.

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