EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Phoenix’s Big 3 keeps Suns out of shorthanded Bucks’ reach in win

Feb 7, 2024, 12:44 AM

Jae Crowder #99 of the Milwaukee Bucks talks with Bradley Beal #3 of the Phoenix Suns during the fi...

Jae Crowder #99 of the Milwaukee Bucks talks with Bradley Beal #3 of the Phoenix Suns during the first half of the NBA game at Footprint Center on February 06, 2024 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Kelsey Grant/Getty Images)

(Photo by Kelsey Grant/Getty Images)

PHOENIX — An improved last two quarters for the Phoenix Suns and surge for all members of the Big 3 helped them recover from a poor start in a 114-106 win over the Milwaukee Bucks on Tuesday.

Phoenix in the first half managed only three assists, its lowest output since Jan. 2016 when those Suns shot 20% over the opening two quarters. The 2024 Suns also produced just a 1-of-9 mark from 3-point range. And yet, because of an OK defensive effort and Milwaukee being very shorthanded, the Suns trailed by just one.

Damian Lillard missed just his fourth game of the season because of an ankle sprain while Brook Lopez remains away from the team for the third straight contest due to a personal situation.

Pregame, new Bucks head coach Doc Rivers acknowledged that without Lillard they don’t really have a natural other guy to turn to for the point guard duties, so he put in wing Pat Connaughton for the forward’s first start of the season.

And in the mid-first quarter, Milwaukee forward Khris Middleton went up for a 3-point shot and landed on Kevin Durant’s foot as he came down. It was deemed a Flagrant 1 after a review and Middleton was ruled out for the rest of the game because of an ankle injury.

Milwaukee, like Phoenix, is extremely top-heavy. Take away one of its Big 3 and the Bucks are in trouble. Two like Tuesday is a huge challenge, even when the one remaining guy is Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Booker was in fine form all night with 32 points (12-of-21) and four assists.

Both Durant and Bradley Beal were having inefficient nights before strong second halves got them back on track. Durant ended up at 11-of-21 shooting for 28 points with 10 rebounds while Beal’s 25 points, 10 rebounds, three assists and three steals were on 10-for-22.

Booker’s 16 points in the third quarter paved the way to a six-point lead entering the fourth that Beal (5-of-6) and Durant (6-for-7) combined to shoot 11-for-13 in. Milwaukee didn’t have much left from its supporting cast and Phoenix eventually extended its advantage to 15 points with 3:49 remaining. Beal did a great job staying aggressive during the portion Booker sat for when his shot wasn’t falling earlier.

It was going to be the Suns’ most solid final frame in a while before the stew mix of bad turnovers, missed shots and poor-looking offensive execution was splashed all over the game once again. Milwaukee cut the deficit to eight with 1:37 to go and then Beal missed both of his free throws, keeping the door ajar. The Bucks, however, missed a 3 and then Beal knocked down a step-back dagger of his own.

This was the Suns’ best defensive execution of the season when it comes to a specific scheme for an opposing star. Tunneling Antetokounmpo on drives was a success, with Durant taking on the matchup most of the time he was out there, forcing Antetokounmpo into the help waiting around the rim and placing himself elsewhere as a helper. Other times, Durant contained Antetokounmpo the best anyone could possibly try to.

“Well the story of the game defensively starts with Kevin Durant guarding Giannis Antetokounmpo,” Suns head coach Frank Vogel said. “He continues to just impress our group with his willingness to guard the other team’s best player. Sometimes perimeter guys, sometimes power players like Giannis and wanting to take on that challenge and doing a great job with it.”

That does wonders for the team.

“That’s why he is who he is and that’s why he’s one of the greatest to ever play this game,” Booker said of Durant. “It’s a domino effect. We feel it through the locker room, everybody does. It keeps everybody on their Ps and Qs.”

Reserve center Drew Eubanks took on the assignment at other times and did fine all things considered.

As a brief aside, Antetokounmpo also spent lots of time marking Durant and it was an absolute treat to watch two all-time greats who know each other so well compete in 1-on-1 scenarios. Both guys used a bounce-back second half to salvage performances that were subpar to their standard.

Durant was asked about what are the couple of key things to focus on going into a night knowing he will defend Antetokounmpo, who he has now played a total of 26 times in the regular season and playoffs. He paused to collect his thoughts and how to properly share them before doing so.

“You can’t focus on a few things,” Durant said. “You just — some players are so good that regardless of the scouting report or their tendencies, you just gotta play the game and not try to think too much out there. And rely on physicality, rely on my teammates and just go from there.”

Antetokounmpo seemed to enjoy it as well.

Durant did get Antetokounmpo, though. In the fourth quarter after a hilarious attempt in the backcourt by Jae Crowder to draw an offensive foul on Durant, the Slim Reaper slashed down the lane and yammed one right by Antetokounmpo recovering from the weak side.

Antetokounmpo ended up at 34 points, 10 rebounds and six assists. He and Durant each had five turnovers. Antetokounmpo had a scary moment in the fourth quarter when a physical post battle with Durant concluded with a Durant foul, and Antetokounmpo went down in lots of pain holding the left side of his lower back. That wasn’t really where the contact was, so there was some worry it was some non-contact issue before Antetokounmpo seemed fine and potentially was just dealing with some cramps.

Bol Bol continues to be a positive for Phoenix, especially at home. He’s one of the three most popular players on the team for the Footprint Center crowd, behind only just the pair of superstars. When he made his way to the scorer’s table, the crowd buzzed and started rambling to each other that he was about to check in.

“Well he’s very entertaining to watch. … I love how our fans embrace his minutes,” Vogel said.

Booker proposed Jimmer Fredette as the only other teammate he’s had that has the crowd as captivated as Bol.

This play in the third quarter was ridiculous and speaks to the 24-year-old’s immense potential.

What even is that? That’s a playing with the Nerf hoop when you’re too big for it as a kid move, and he’s playing in the National Basketball Association.

More importantly, Bol makes energy plays, like this block.

It’s tough on Phoenix’s spacing when Bol is out there with a center but the bottom line is he’s playing well and the Suns getting consistent impactful from any reserve outside of Eric Gordon is a game-changer. Josh Okogie, who has played well lately, only logged three minutes because Vogel was able to use an eight-man rotation thanks to 17 minutes for Bol. It can’t be stated enough how much he changes the vibe of the arena as well.

Some of those minutes were in what will henceforth be known as the MonStars Lineup, featuring a center, Bol and Durant all out there together. Vogel said there was some good and bad in there for a look he wanted to see.

Durant’s answer on Bol was revealing in terms of what can be attributed to the player’s success after struggling to find his way the first couple years of his career.

“What I love about Bol is he has a way higher IQ than what people think. … He’s not stepping outside of himself and doing things that he doesn’t normally do,” Durant said. “He’s playing with energy, he’s talking out there — I love what he brings. I just love everything about Bol and you can tell that everybody loves Bol — we’re rooting for him. Even the crowd. Every arena we go to, they’re rooting for Bol. … He’s just a great soul.

“I like being around him, I like to see his growth as a player and his IQ is growing every single day for the game. We just want him to continue to build on this to a point where we expect him to do stuff like this even more every night. We gonna stay on him. Bol’s the type of guy, he gonna come to work regardless, not say nothing, keep his head down and work every day. But we’re also going to keep encouraging him and continue to hold everyone accountable.”

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