The 2020-21 NBA Finals were due for a classic. None of the first three games were decided by single digits; none even qualified for a single “clutch” possession, which occurs when the score is within five points in the last five minutes.
Then Game 4 arrived, with the propulsive force of a game-saving Giannis Antetokounmpo rejection at the rim. After a mostly choppy, sometimes sloppy first three quarters, the Bucks outscored the Suns by 12 points in the fourth to escape with a 109-103 victory and even the series at two games apiece—and ratchet the intensity all the way up as the teams head back to Phoenix for Game 5.
A game like this deserves proper commemoration, and that celebration starts at the end. Early in the fourth quarter, the Suns held onto a nine-point lead. But Milwaukee slowly, achingly, inched back to within six, then five, then three, then two. Khris Middleton nailed his trademark midrange jumper to tie the score with 2:07 left, then sank another on the Bucks’ next possession to give his team the lead. Phoenix had a chance to tie on the next possession—only Giannis, the two-time MVP and one-time Defensive Player of the Year, had other ideas.
Guarding Deandre Ayton at the top of the key, Giannis hedged after a handoff to Devin Booker and stuck to the top-right corner of the paint. Ayton, meanwhile, rolled uncontested to the left, and Booker threw a lob toward the open man. At the moment Booker released the ball, Giannis still had one foot on the free throw line:
Yet while the alley floated through the air, Giannis recovered all the way to the opposite corner of the paint, leaped, and swatted Ayton’s oop at the height of his jump. Given everything that came after—a Suns turnover, another Middleton bucket, and Bucks free throws to clinch the win—it’s not an exaggeration to call this the most important defensive play in the Finals since another jaw-dropping block half a decade ago.
Late-game drama aside, this was not a pristine Finals contest; neither team was the 2017 Warriors, crisscrossing the court with crisp offensive sets. The Bucks shot just 40 percent from the field and 24 percent from distance. The Suns—a team led by Chris Paul!—turned the ball over 17 times, and nobody besides Booker reached double-digit points until the 7:10 mark of the fourth quarter.
Yet in a league that now sets offensive efficiency records every season, there is beauty in the mess, in the clutter, in the occasional defense slugfest between two teams so desperately straining for a title. (See also: Bucks-Nets Game 3, another must-win for Milwaukee that was also saved by Middleton midrange jumpers.) When points are harder to score, each basket matters all the more, and in a contest like Game 4, every loose ball begets a battle, every in-and-out 3-pointer a collective gasp and release from the crowd.
Both teams offered their fair share of foibles on Wednesday. On the Bucks’ side, P.J. Tucker repeatedly fouled jump shooters. Jrue Holiday missed layups, shooting 4-for-20 overall. Jeff Teague played 11 minutes because with rotations shrinking, coach Mike Budenholzer has nowhere else to turn.
For the Suns, Ayton and Mikal Bridges, two young players who have been so important to the team’s success all postseason, combined for just 13 points. Booker, even amid a midrange masterpiece, kept hacking despite ongoing foul trouble.
And Chris Paul, most of all, scored just 10 points, made zero 3-pointers and zero trips to the free throw line, and collected as many turnovers as made shots. In the final minute, with the Suns trailing by two, Paul slipped and turned the ball over in a mistake reminiscent of his 2014 meltdown against the Thunder; Phoenix never again possessed the ball with the score within a single basket.
Even the refs joined the mess: Booker grabbed Holiday on a fast break with 3:40 left for what would have been his sixth foul—only to receive a puzzling no-call and a reprieve from fouling out.
One of the all time no calls on Booker’s 6th foul. Legendary stuff. He actually fouled him twice!!!!— Bill Simmons (@BillSimmons) July 15, 2021
Still, individual heroes emerged from the chaos: Middleton (40 points) and Booker (42) became the first pair of Finals opponents to reach 40 points since Allen Iverson and Shaquille O’Neal in 2001. Giannis posted 26 points, 14 rebounds, and eight assists despite a strangely slow start. And Holiday compensated for his Tony Allenesque offense with, well, Tony Allenesque defense on Paul on the other end.
Despite shooting 11 percentage points worse than the Suns—the fifth-widest gap for any winning team in Finals history—the Bucks won Game 4 because they excelled in all the margins: Milwaukee had 12 more offensive rebounds, 12 fewer turnovers, and 10 more free throw attempts in the game. Plus the team’s defensive scheme kept the Suns under wraps, allowing just 13 shots at the rim (versus 32 on offense) and two corner 3-point attempts.
The Suns may well win this series; they still have home-court advantage, and even with poor performances from every player except one, they still led for most of Game 4. With the series now tied 2-2, and as much game-to-game variation as these imperfect teams have exhibited thus far, it’s hard to be confident in predicting what will come next.
Yet that uncertainty is the fun of the Finals—particularly between two teams that haven’t won a title since 1971, or ever, and have no players with a ring. They’re straining and they’re struggling and they’re stretching for four wins, but in the heat of the moment, the winning buzzer can seem so far away.
Within the next week, one of them will close that final distance. Just like Giannis closed the distance from the free throw line to the rim, securing an indelible Finals highlight and, in the process, a necessary win for his team.