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2021 NBA Finals Reset: Five Questions That Will Decide Bucks-Suns

Milwaukee and Phoenix are all square and separated by just three points over four games. With the slimmest of margins potentially deciding this year’s title winner, we re-preview the Finals.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

By the grace of Khris Middleton’s 40-bomb and one of the greatest defensive plays in NBA Finals history, the Bucks held serve in Milwaukee, securing a 109-103 win over the visiting Suns in Game 4 on Wednesday to level the Finals at two games apiece. As a result, the 2020-21 NBA season—this alternately blighted and brilliant spin around the sun that’s produced heartache and hosannas in (roughly) equal measure, and that has been marked, more than anything else, by near-constant uncertainty—either has two more games left, or three more games left. That much, at least, we know for sure.

Which just leaves, y’know, everything we still don’t know.

Now that we’re back at square one—home teams still undefeated, the sides separated by a whopping three points across four games—let’s reset the Finals, attempting to take a fresh look at Phoenix vs. Milwaukee through the lens of what we’ve just watched by asking (and hopefully answering) some big questions that could decide the series.

Who will be the best player in the series the rest of the way?

Sick question, dipstick. I’ll go out on a limb and say the guy who did this:

Giannis Antetokounmpo’s top-of-the-square block of an alley-oop attempt by Deandre Ayton seemed impossible. It should be impossible. The two-time MVP said after the game that he himself thought he was going to get dunked on when he leaped; this stands to reason, considering he had a foot on the free throw line when the lob left Devin Booker’s hand. But he sold out anyway, leveraging the full awe-inspiring breadth of his physical gifts, defensive instincts, and willingness to accept sins of commission in pursuit of salvation. The result was a rejection for the ages—one that preserved a two-point Milwaukee lead with 74 seconds remaining, and that looks even more mesmerizing in slow motion:

And when it’s chopped-and-screwed to a downright glacial pace, well, the combination of Antetokounmpo’s extraterrestrial athleticism and the flashes of photographers’ strobe lights make it feel like a fever dream you’d have after taking mushrooms in Palau Güell or something (y’know, um, hypothetically):

Antetokounmpo made that play in his 42nd minute of a game in which he’d already provided 26 points on 11-for-19 shooting, 13 rebounds, eight assists, and three steals, on the heels of consecutive 40-point, 10-rebound performances, and just two weeks after hyperextending his left knee. This is pure, uncut superstar shit—the stuff legends and legacies are made of, the stuff that can swing a championship. The Suns still have home-court advantage, but the Bucks have the best player in the series; it’ll be interesting to see which will matter more.

OK, so who’s the second-best player in the series the rest of the way?

Coming off a whisper-quiet Game 3, Booker’s bounce-back performance on Wednesday—42 points in 39 minutes on 17-for-28 shooting, with many of those shots coming with defenders draped all over him—offered Suns fans renewed hope that he can be. Then again, he wasn’t the only sweet-shooting, tough-shot-making swingman showing out at Fiserv Forum:

When the Suns extended their defense early to stifle the Bucks into stagnation, Middleton kept Milwaukee afloat. When they were in danger of squandering a solid second quarter and going into halftime down a handful, he paired up with Giannis to get even by intermission. When Booker was throwing darts in the third, Middleton drew a fourth foul on him, forcing him to cool his heels on the bench for a bit. And when the game was in the balance, a one-possession affair in the closing minutes, Middleton grabbed it by the scruff of the neck, creating space, drilling tough jumpers, attacking in transition, making clutch free throws, and outscoring Phoenix by himself 10-4 in the final two and a half minutes to help seal the win.

Whenever Milwaukee needed a jolt in Game 4, Middleton delivered, to the tune of a career playoff-high 40 points on 15-for-33 shooting, six rebounds, four assists, and a pair of steals in 43 minutes. This is not exactly a new phenomenon: Middleton played a leading role in saving the Bucks’ bacon in Game 1 against Miami, games 3 and 6 against Brooklyn, and games 3, 5, and 6 against Atlanta, operating as a steadying possession initiator, ever-ready conductor of the Tough Shot Express, and capable crunch-time closer. Wednesday was a Khris Middleton kind of night, but then, as Pat Connaughton said after the game, “I think it’s always a Khris Middleton kind of night.”

Middleton’s shooting is a bellwether; Milwaukee is now 11-1 this postseason when he shoots better than 45 percent from the field, and 3-6 when he doesn’t. His capacity to act as Milwaukee’s half-court facilitator in the clutch allows Antetokounmpo to serve as perhaps the league’s most devastating screen-and-dive finisher and frees up Jrue Holiday to focus even more energy on his prime directive: making Chris Paul’s life a living hell. (More on that in a sec.) Consistency can be an issue, but if Middleton’s able to skew closer to his best self twice in the next three games, Milwaukee’s chances of hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy increase dramatically.

Can Chris Paul and the Suns offense get unstuck?

If you’ve ever wondered why you so frequently hear coaches wax rhapsodic about the value of ball pressure, look no further than the last three games of this Finals, which have seen the Bucks—and chiefly Holiday—transform arguably the greatest point guard of his generation from calm and collected to over-caffeinated:

My Ringer teammate Rob Mahoney detailed Wednesday how Holiday and the rest of the Bucks’ stunting help defenders had managed to force Paul into uncharacteristic mistakes. They found even more success in Game 4, hounding Paul into five more turnovers in his 37 minutes; that makes 15 since Game 1, which can fairly be described as the wrong kind of historic:

“I think it’s just making him uncomfortable,” Holiday told reporters after Game 4, which he finished with 13 points on woeful 4-for-20 shooting, but added seven rebounds, seven assists, and that lockdown defense. “Always keeping bodies behind him, two and three people and not really just getting a clear view of what he wants to do. … We know that he can control the game and just kind of put it in the palm of his hand. But I think being able to have his back turned most of the game, always thinking that me or [Jeff] Teague are going to be there, I think it could be frustrating. And then doing it 94 feet for 48 minutes, it can be a bit tiring.”

Disrupting the typically metronomic Paul has thrown some sand in the gears of what had been a pretty pristine offensive operation. Through the first two games of the Finals, the Suns had averaged 116 points per 100 non-garbage-time possessions, according to Cleaning the Glass. Over the last two? They’re down to 105.4 points-per-100. During the regular season, that’s about the difference between the offensive efficiencies of the Mavericks and the Magic—which, as you probably recall from watching those teams, is a pretty big friggin’ difference.

Suns coach Monty Williams hasn’t seemed to have had much luck in getting Holiday off of Paul over the past three games; just about the only thing that’s worked was Booker popping for 20 in the first half of Game 4, which prompted Budenholzer to juggle the matchups and more frequently deploy Holiday to try to shut off Booker’s water in the second half. (Middleton, who’s 6-foot-7 with arms like snakes and better feet than you’d figure, did an admirable job as CP3’s substitute shadow.) And while Booker’s explosion somewhat balanced out CP3’s fizzling, it did so in a context in which Milwaukee is fairly comfortable (or, at least, as comfortable as you can be when someone’s busting you up for 40): from the midrange.

You know the book by now: The Bucks want to prevent shots at the rim and perimeter at all costs, to run opponents off the 3-point line, and to force them to take contested looks from between the arc and the restricted area. In Game 1, Phoenix obliged them, punishing Milwaukee for switching ball screens as Paul and Booker rained down fire from the elbows. In Game 2, the Bucks reverted from switching to their familiar drop coverage, but added in some cranked-up help toward the Suns’ primary ball handlers; this resulted in a barrage of long-distance attempts from complementary marksmen, as Phoenix buried the Bucks with a 20-for-40 shooting performance to take a 2-0 lead. Over the past two games, though, the math has tilted dramatically in the Bucks’ direction. Milwaukee has all but vaporized Phoenix’s drive-and-kick game; after shooting 10-for-17 from the corners in Game 2, the Suns attempted six corner 3s total in games 3 and 4. They’re not getting to the cup, either—just 19.5 percent of their shot attempts over the past two games have come within 4 feet of the rim, a precipitous decrease from even the Suns’ own last-place regular-season finish in share of shots at the basket.

All season long, Phoenix tortured opponents in the half court with their pick-and-roll game, sending defenders scrambling all over the place in fruitless attempts to plug up the leaks. With few exceptions, though, the Bucks seem to be growing increasingly watertight; the Suns aren’t getting Milwaukee into rotation at all anymore, scarcely puncturing the defense, and essentially taking the shots Budenholzer wants them to. They can win that way; they nearly won Game 4, thanks to a phenomenal individual performance by Booker. But Milwaukee’s entire organizational identity in the Mike Budenholzer era has been built on the bet that you won’t get those individual performances as often as the Bucks are going to get stops, and that even if you get one of them, nobody else is going to get off. This is where Paul (10 points on 5-for-13 shooting in Game 4) and Ayton (just six points on 3-for-9 shooting, punctuated by Giannis extinguishing him at the tin) have to come in.

Can Milwaukee keep winning the possession battle?

The Bucks were one of the NBA’s most prolific shooting teams during the regular season. They ranked eighth in 3-point attempts per game, fifth in 3-point makes, and fifth in 3-point accuracy. In the playoffs, though, with the exception of Connaughton (38.8 percent from deep on four attempts per game), they’ve turned into a team that can’t shoot straight, making just 31.8 percent of their triple tries; only the Wizards and Lakers, a pair of first-round casualties, have shot worse in this postseason.

If you can’t pile up points easily—and if you’re playing against an opponent with a bunch of good shooters—then you’ve got to grind them out the hard way. The Bucks have been doing that, leveraging their size to hammer Phoenix on the offensive glass; they’re averaging 14.3 offensive rebounds and 16.3 second-chance points per game in the Finals, both of which would have led the league in the regular season by a healthy margin. In addition to generating extra possessions, they’re also making sure to value the ones they already had, turning the ball over on just 9.5 percent of their trips in this series, and on a microscopic 7.2 percent in their two wins; either, again, would’ve topped the league during the regular season.

If you hold on to the ball, rebound a ton of your misses, and force the other team into miscues—Phoenix has gone from nine turnovers in Game 1 to 12 in Game 2, 14 in Game 3, and 17 on Wednesday—then there’s a good chance you’ll wind up taking more shots than the other guys. Sure enough, the Bucks wound up with an advantage in field goal attempts in three of the four games in this series: plus-five in Game 2, plus-seven in Game 3, and a whopping plus-19 in Game 4. All those extra bites at the apple are helping Milwaukee mitigate the fact that, with Holiday missing two-thirds of his shots in the Finals, Brook Lopez’s minutes fluctuating due to the need to downsize, and the eternal trick-or-treat nature of dudes like Bobby Portis and Bryn Forbes, Antetokounmpo and Middleton are really the only players they have who you can trust to regularly put the ball in the basket.

Changing the dynamics there won’t be easy; Paul has started to look harried and low on gas after three games of harassment by Holiday, which could mean continued turnover problems, and outside of Ayton, Phoenix’s rotation is positively Lilliputian, devoid of bigs to do battle with the likes of Antetokounmpo, Lopez, and Portis on the defensive glass. Then again, things can change quickly in the context of a playoff series, and after Game 4, Monty Williams was adamant about communicating to his team that the changes they need are within their purview to enact:

Reducing those margins—on the boards, in the turnover column, in the shot totals—could go a long way toward stopping Milwaukee’s momentum.

Whose role players will show up?

We’re reaching the point where each team’s rotations will get cut to the bone. Both Phoenix and Milwaukee ran only eight players out in Game 4; Forbes was on the outside looking in for the Bucks, while Abdel Nader and Frank Kaminsky took seats for the Suns. Those who are left will have to do more; those who do will tilt the odds.

We’ve already seen it play out that way in this series. Mikal Bridges helped win Game 2 with his 27 points and steady stream of closeout attacks for midrange Js:

Portis’s 11 points and eight boards in just 18 minutes gave Milwaukee a major spark in Game 3:

And Connaughton came up huge in Game 4, chipping in 11 points, nine rebounds (including three on the offensive glass), and three big 3-pointers, including one off a Giannis feed to the corner with 3:08 to go that gave Milwaukee a two-point lead:

With the action shifting back to Phoenix, will the Suns’ Camerons—Payne and Johnson—step up to knock down shots and take some playmaking pressure off of Paul and Booker? Might Portis bounce back after a 1-for-6 outing on Wednesday, or will P.J. Tucker make his presence felt with some more timely offensive rebounds and maybe some corner 3s? The bulk of the responsibility on both ends of the floor will rest with the stars, of course. Whichever team can get a surprise boost from a complementary player, though, will have a vital edge at a point in the chase for a championship where an atom of advantage means everything.