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Five Stats That Explain the Bucks’ Comeback in the NBA Finals

After losing the first two games, Milwaukee returns home up 3-2 on Phoenix and one win away from its first title in 50 years. Here’s how it happened.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The 2021 NBA Finals have been roaring, riotous entertainment through five games, replete with superstar showcases, dizzying swings of momentum, and a succession of stupendous late-game highlights. The last time the series went to Milwaukee, the Suns led 2-0; now, just a little more than a week later, the Bucks have won three games in a row to reach the precipice of history.

With Game 6, a potential title clincher, ready to tip off Tuesday night, here are five stats that encapsulate the keys to the Bucks’ reversal of fortune—and reveal what to watch in Game 6.

+34

The Suns are winning the battle of the starting lineups by a fair margin: Phoenix’s main quintet has a plus-34 point differential in 101 minutes in this series. But unfortunately for the Suns, the Finals aren’t a game of 2K with “Stamina” toggled off, and Phoenix has been destroyed every time a bench player has had to relieve a tired starter.

In 139 minutes with all other lineup configurations, the Suns have a minus-41 point differential. Losing Dario Saric to a torn ACL early in Game 1 hurts: He had the best net rating of any Sun in the regular season.


Lineups with Devin Booker off the floor have been particularly brutal: In the regular season, the Suns excelled without Booker as long as Chris Paul played (plus-6.3 net rating), but thus far in the Finals, they’ve lost the 40 minutes with Paul and no Booker by a whopping 37 points—nearly a point a minute.

The obvious solution is for the Suns’ starters to play more—but there’s not much more juice left to squeeze out of that lineup. Booker, for instance, has played more than 40 minutes three times already this series, including 42 in Game 5; with no healthy backup center, Deandre Ayton played 45 minutes in Game 5—the most for a center in a Finals game since Pau Gasol in 2010.

This series has been so close that an extra minute or two from Booker in Game 6 could be the difference between victory and defeat, but it’s not as if he has significantly more room to add playing time, either. The Suns will probably need to turn elsewhere for meaningful statistical upgrades.

29

The Suns offense looks fine overall—it amassed ludicrous 55/68/91 shooting splits in Game 5—but even as the team scores at a prolific clip, it’s not doing so in the same way it did all regular season.

With Paul manning the point, the Suns rank among the league’s best teams in creating scoring opportunities off ball movement. In the regular season, they averaged 50 potential assists (defined by NBA.com/Stats as passes “to a teammate who shoots within one dribble of receiving the ball”) per game, second most in the league. (Incidentally, they also led the league in this stat last season, with the pass-happy Ricky Rubio in Paul’s place.)

The Suns were right in line with precedent in Game 1, with 53 potential assists—only to see that figure drop with every successive game, down to a nadir of just 29 in Game 5, the team’s lowest in any game all season.

Phoenix will take a 55/68/91 shooting game no matter how it gets there, but assuming the Suns don’t shoot the lights out again, that meager level of productive ball movement will be a problem.

When Booker is shooting as well as he has over the past two games, when he scored 42 and 40 points, it can be tricky to see the bigger picture and ensure other players stay involved in the offense. Yet when the Suns are at their best, coach Monty Williams said Monday, “we have had a good balance of the kind of play that Devin brings, but we have also had the ball movement that can break you down.”

That balance reappeared in the fourth quarter of Game 5, Williams continued, “where the ball was whipping around the gym. That’s basically how we cut [the Bucks’ lead].”

Indeed, the Suns started their comeback from 14 points down with consecutive 3-pointers generated from penetration and the kind of ping-ping-ping passing that characterizes the most aesthetically pleasing team basketball highlights.

In these plays, the threat of Booker’s scoring allowed his teammates to make plays—even if Booker himself wasn’t credited with a single statistic in the box score. At this level, shot creation takes a team effort.

73

The lack of ball movement leads directly to our next observation: The Suns have gone quiet from distance. Not cold—they’re shooting 41 percent in the Finals—but quiet: The Suns attempted more 3-pointers across the first two games (74) than across the last three (73). It’s not a coincidence that they won the first two games and lost the last three—simple math is a powerful force in the NBA, and 3s will almost always beat even the most accurate midrange 2s over a large enough sample.

Some of that shift is a credit to the Bucks, who have cleaned up their sloppy backside rotations from earlier in the series. In Game 2 alone, the Bucks allowed 17 corner 3-point attempts, tied for their most in any game all season; in games 3 through 5, they allowed just eight corner attempts combined.

Milwaukee has famously surrendered bushels of 3-point attempts under Mike Budenholzer’s defensive philosophy, but with the Bucks switching more, those opportunities aren’t coming as easily for Phoenix. With “the capabilities of the shooters that we have on this team, we need to generate more 3s,” Booker said Monday. “Obviously, they’re switching a lot and staying home on shooters.”

Yet it’s also incumbent on the Suns to find a better balance not just in who’s creating and taking shots, but in where they’re coming from. Paul said he and Booker can facilitate more 3-point attempts by “penetrating the gaps” and finding the likes of Mikal Bridges, Cam Johnson, and Jae Crowder. “It doesn’t have to be me and Devin,” he said.

17.2

The real statistical story of the Finals does not concern Phoenix’s offense, however, but Milwaukee’s, which is scoring at a rate that would have led the league this regular season (117.7 points per 100 possessions).

Milwaukee is scoring at just a league-average rate in the half court, per Cleaning the Glass, but the Bucks are doing tremendous damage in transition. In the regular season, Suns opponents got out in transition on just 13 percent of possessions, per CtG, the second-lowest rate in the league. (Golden State was no. 1, at 12.9 percent.) But the Suns have met their match in the Bucks, who tied for the league lead in transition opportunities in the regular season (17.8 percent of possessions) and have mostly twisted the Finals to their preferred pace.


Milwaukee is averaging 17.2 fast-break points per game in the Finals—nearly double the Suns’ 9.0 per game. In both games 4 and 5, the gap between the teams’ fast-break tallies was more than the final scoring margin, meaning Phoenix outscored Milwaukee in the half-court in both contests.

Phoenix’s floor spacing is one of the culprits here; the Suns often end possessions with two shooters in the corners and Ayton in the paint, meaning a long rebound or steal gives the Bucks numbers headed the other way. And if Booker and Paul are the two Suns back, there’s not much size to deter Giannis Antetokounmpo from rampaging toward the rim.

Consider, for instance, this screenshot of the most important play of Game 5. At the moment Jrue Holiday collects the loose ball he forced by stripping Booker, the Suns have one player back, one player sprawled on the floor, and three players hugging the baseline, behind every single Buck racing the other way. There’s a reason Giannis was open for his momentous alley-oop.

Good defense begets good offense; it’s hard to run after a make by the other team. But the Bucks also have the personnel to make Phoenix’s normally bendy transition defense break completely. In Giannis, Milwaukee boasts the greatest transition force in the league; he’s led qualified players in fast-break points in each of the last two seasons. He’s not alone, either.

“We have really three or four guys that can always get a board and take it with us and create problems,” Khris Middleton said, “whether it’s going all the way, finding shooters, just creating havoc.” And spacing the floor with shooters like Pat Connaughton (3.0 fast-break points per game this series, second on the team) and Brook Lopez (2.6, fourth), Middleton added, means that Giannis can “get downhill and not see a wall.”

In which case, Giannis either scores an easy bucket at the rim (look how Paul breaks toward the corner in this play, afraid of a Bobby Portis 3-pointer) …

... or kicks out for an open 3. Either option is too easy for the two-time MVP.

31.5%

When the Suns keep the Bucks out of transition and force a miss in the half-court, they’re still not in the clear: Milwaukee is rebounding 31.5 percent of its misses in the Finals, a mark that would have led the league in the regular season. Ayton and Co. mostly kept Milwaukee off the offensive glass in Game 1 but haven’t repeated the feat since, and the Bucks’ point totals have increased accordingly.

The Bucks have 68 offensive rebounds in this series to the Suns’ 36—just like in fast-break points, a near doubling of Phoenix’s total. So worrisome are the Bucks’ boards that in Game 5, the Suns put Booker on P.J. Tucker instead of Paul to deter the bruising forward from bullying his way to rebounds. Of course, that also meant switching Paul to Holiday as his main defensive assignment, which helped free the Bucks’ point guard for his best two-way game of the series.

Because of their advantage on the glass and in turnovers (though the latter wasn’t a problem for Phoenix in Game 5), the Bucks have attempted 31 more field goals and 25 more free throws throughout the series. The Suns are a better shooting team from essentially all areas of the court, but quality cannot compensate for that amount of quantitative difference. That’s the single most pressing, overarching trend Phoenix needs to reconcile if it wants to flip the series comeback the other way, and return home for a Game 7.