The Milwaukee Bucks have experience overcoming a 2-0 deficit this postseason. Against the favored Nets in the Eastern semifinals, the Bucks lost the first two games, then eked out a three-point victory in the final minute of Game 3 to start their comeback.
In the same situation in the Finals, trailing 2-0 to the Suns after two convincing losses in Phoenix last week, Milwaukee was once again fighting to stay alive: No NBA team has ever rebounded to win a playoff series after losing the first three games. For all intents and purposes, a Bucks loss in Game 3 Sunday would have meant the end of their championship hopes.
So Milwaukee didn’t wait until the final minute to grab control of Sunday’s game. Instead, they blitzed the Suns at the end of earlier quarters, via a 30-9 run to end the second and a 16-0 run to end the third, the latter of which built an insurmountable lead heading into the final frame. In the first NBA Finals game in the city since 1974, the Bucks won 120-100—and ensured that we still have a competitive series.
Back at home, the Bucks rediscovered their offense after a pair of subpar showings in Phoenix. Milwaukee scored 105 points in Game 1 and 108 in Game 2 then passed the 105-point mark with more than eight minutes remaining in Game 3.
Led by Giannis Antetokounmpo’s 41 points and 13 rebounds—his second consecutive 40-10 game—the Bucks dominated inside and on the glass. Entering Game 3, they were allowing just 39 paint points per game this postseason, the stingiest mark in the league. And just as important for a team in a two-month slump from the perimeter, they were scoring 51 paint points per game, tops for any team that won a series. That advantage manifested almost exactly in Game 3, as Milwaukee beat Phoenix 54-40 in the paint.
And when the Bucks missed shots, they often cleaned up their own mess, collecting 13 offensive rebounds. Milwaukee has been the best offensive rebounding team by far this postseason—the Bucks have seven games in which they’ve collected at least a third of their misses; every other team has six combined—and utterly destroyed Phoenix with putbacks on Sunday.
At the end of the third quarter, the Bucks led by 22. At the time, they had 20 second-chance points, to zero for the Suns.
Thanks to both their advantage on the offensive glass and in the turnover column, the Bucks attempted seven more field goals and 10 more free throws than the Suns. Even if Phoenix had shot more efficiently than its 48-29-69 line, there was no way they could overcome such a volume imbalance.
Milwaukee benefitted in part from the one sore spot in Phoenix’s rotation: a lack of bench size. Deandre Ayton was stuck in foul trouble, picking up his fourth personal less than two minutes into the second half, and with backup big man Dario Saric injured, the Suns were woefully undermanned. Frank Kaminsky—Wisconsin’s own—couldn’t stick on the court, as the Suns were outscored by 12 points in his 14 minutes. A super-small lineup with a frontcourt of Jae Crowder, Mikal Bridges, and Cam Johnson could score in bunches but had nobody to protect the paint on the other end.
Antetokounmpo preyed on those smaller defenders. He beat Crowder with a soft hook shot; he forced Johnson into a quick foul with deep paint position; he turned Bridges into a turnstile with a sudden Eurostep for a layup. In Game 1 of the series, his first back after missing two with a knee injury, Giannis played well but didn’t move much horizontally. He was firing on all cylinders, in all directions, in Game 3.
The two-time MVP even made his free throws, hitting 13 of his 17 attempts (76 percent) from the line. And he bullied his way to the basket time and time again, with a single-minded focus; after a postseason full of boinked open 3s, Giannis attempted only two triples all game, one of which was a spinning heave at the end of the first quarter.
Instead of longshot 3-pointers, almost all of Giannis’s shots came inside the paint or just one step away. The NBA’s king at the rim (non-Zion division) shot 13-for-13 in the restricted area, fulfilling the desire of every Bucks fan who just wants their star to get to the hoop.
He had sufficient help in Game 3, too, after his teammates all lagged behind in Game 2. Big men Brook Lopez and Bobby Portis both scored 11 points, with Portis in particular energizing the crowd with four offensive boards. Jrue Holiday started 1-for-5 from deep before making four of his next five, finishing with 21 points. Khris Middleton was quiet in the second half but scored 15 in the first while Holiday was slumping.
Just as the Bucks uniformly succeeded, the Suns almost uniformly struggled; only Crowder (6-for-7 from distance) played particularly well. Given the Suns’ consistent play this postseason, the specific problems that plagued them in Game 3 likely won’t carry over. Ayton will surely play more than 24 minutes in Game 4; Paul and Devin Booker won’t shoot 2-for-11 again from distance. With a 2-1 series lead and home-court advantage, the Suns remain considerable favorites in the series, with a 72 percent chance to lift the trophy, per The Ringer’s NBA Odds Machine. Phoenix is as likely to win the series in five games as Milwaukee is to win the series overall.
But that prospective victory is not a cinch—which it would have been with a Suns win in Game 3. The combination of size and a superstar gave Milwaukee its first Finals win in 47 years. The Bucks want more, of course. Game 4 is Wednesday.