EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Physical flashback to 2021 Finals ends with narrow Suns loss to Bucks

Feb 26, 2023, 2:54 PM | Updated: Feb 27, 2023, 10:01 am

Jae Crowder #99 of the Milwaukee Bucks and Devin Booker #1 of the Phoenix Suns look on in the secon...

Jae Crowder #99 of the Milwaukee Bucks and Devin Booker #1 of the Phoenix Suns look on in the second half of the game at Fiserv Forum on February 26, 2023 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)

(Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)

Even with Jae Crowder in a different jersey, it was hard not to be reminded of the Phoenix Suns’ six-game classic in the 2021 NBA Finals against the Milwaukee Bucks on Sunday.

The game was weird. It involved plenty of bad offense. It involved plenty of awesome defense. The combination of intensity and physicality was there, even without the star power of Kevin Durant (right MCL sprain) and Giannis Antetokounmpo (right quad contusion).

I imagine it was not a fun watch for Suns fans, especially after it ended with a 104-101 loss.

Phoenix shot just 33.3% in the first half but hung around in the first half thanks to terrific two-way efforts from Deandre Ayton, Torrey Craig and Josh Okogie.

Devin Booker and Chris Paul were hounded by the likes of Milwaukee’s Grayson Allen, Jevon Carter and Jrue Holiday in the first half but got freed up in the second to produce 20 of the Suns’ 28 points for the third quarter.

They kept rolling. That brought on overcommitments their way from the Bucks’ defense which led to openings for Deandre Ayton. His third straight field goal in three trips down the floor at 5:47 left put the Suns up eight.

Milwaukee, however, responded with a 10-2 run that included back-to-back triples for Crowder to tie it at 3:11 on the scoreboard. The lone Suns points, a 15-footer from Booker, represented their last field goal for the game’s next 3:39.

That just can’t happen against elite teams, and the Bucks, winners of now 14 straight, are the elite team right now.

A flashback to the Finals peaked through ugly crunch-time offense and outstanding bits of 1-on-1 defense to keep the game close.

After Holiday exploded for 22 of his game-high 33 points in the second half, Paul and Booker respectively locked him up on two consecutive possessions. Booker then hit a ridiculous fallaway with Holiday draped all over him at 33 seconds remaining for that aforementioned field goal to tie the game again.

Milwaukee came back from the timeout with an excellently designed play. Khris Middleton was who it was drawn up for, and again, rewinding to the Finals, he was “the guy” for Milwaukee late. Phoenix doubled him at the elbow, as they should, and then Middleton made a great pass to a rolling Brook Lopez to put the Bucks back up two.

Phoenix’s counter was a play that was supposed to get Booker switched onto Crowder, a matchup the face of the franchise had been hunting. Holiday, however, had none of it, denying the switch and forcing a Booker turnover.

A pair of oddities after that awkwardly left the door open for the Suns, only for them to barely be unable to squeeze through.

Milwaukee’s Joe Ingles missed his second free throw after making the first but Phoenix’s Terrence Ross had the ball bounce off him last out of bounds. Holiday got fouled for his trip at 10 seconds to go and also split them to put the Bucks up four. The Suns then found Booker in the corner with only a few ticks left, and his smart pump-fake drew in Ingles, who fouled the two-guard that nearly made the shot for a four-point play that could have tied the game at 0.2 remaining. It hit front rim, though, and that was that.

Milwaukee only managed 15 assists on its 38 field goals and was carried by the Holiday masterclass on 13-of-22 shooting. He is a phenomenal basketball player. Lopez had a strong day as well with 22 points, 13 rebounds and four blocks.

Phoenix grabbed 19 of its 55 rebounds on the offensive glass and it was the reason it stayed within striking distance for the first half. You’ll remember second-chance points plaguing the Suns in the 2021 Finals but they split that battle 16-16 and were +10 overall in rebounding.

Craig (six), Okogie (four) and Ayton (three) combined for 13 offensive rebounds on their own. Craig had 10 total with four assists. Okogie ripped three steals to go with his seven rebounds and 11 points.

The Suns uncharacteristically shooting 59.1% (13-of-22) at the foul line is the glaring area of the box score. That is only the fourth time this season they’ve shot 60% or worse on free throws, per Stathead.

Booker ended up at 24 points (9-for-21), four rebounds and eight assists in 38 minutes while Paul added 18 points, five rebounds and seven assists in 40 minutes.

Ayton was very good, his second straight outing of that caliber in Milwaukee following a Finals he himself was critical of his own performance in after the fact. He was at 22 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks.

Ross, who looks like the new sixth man in the post-deadline rotation, had a good all-around showing on Friday but Sunday showed what could be his downfall in the postseason if he gets serious minutes there.

Milwaukee heavily targeted Ross’ defense, particularly with Middleton and Holiday. On a few of those plays, Ross was still trying to figure out the situational switching the Suns do. On others, he was trying his best but was overmatched. As I wrote on Friday, I’m buying stock on how much of a positive contributor he could be overall beyond his scoring and shooting. He’s engaged and the energy is there. At the same time, teams will pick on him in the playoffs, so it’ll be interesting to see how that balance plays out over the next six weeks and then in the games that really matter.

Ross scored seven points. Jock Landale’s energy was the standout on the bench. He grabbed four offensive rebounds and eight total, with seven points.

Crowder’s line was seven points, three rebounds, two assists and a steal in 25 minutes off the bench while he gets his legs back for the starting role he’s anticipated to take on (and he was out there for the game’s closing stretch).

As anyone would have guessed, Crowder embraced the game’s physicality, taking every opportunity to produce contact and get an extra shove in while talking to anyone on Phoenix within an earshot. The Marquette product that played just down the street from Milwaukee’s Fiserv Forum at the now-demolished Bradley Center is a tremendous fit for how the Bucks get after it.

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