The 2020-21 Milwaukee Bucks led the league in scoring in the regular season. They weren’t merely the best of the bunch compared to their peers, either; rather, they were a historically high-octane offense, becoming the first team to reach 120 points per game since the 1984-85 Nuggets.
But in the playoffs broadly, and the Finals specifically, they haven’t been able to score consistently. There are a lot of reasons the Suns are up 2-0 in the series and just two wins away from the first title in franchise history, but this might be the greatest: After a 118-108 loss in Game 2, Milwaukee is averaging just 106.5 points through two Finals games.
Or: In retrospect, it probably wasn’t a super encouraging sign that the Bucks managed the worst offensive rating for any team in the second round despite facing a weak Nets defense. Now they’re facing a top-six defense, and the challenges are clear.
Giannis Antetokounmpo was not the problem Thursday night. In just his second game back from a knee injury, the two-time MVP produced a phenomenal two-way performance: 42 points on 15-for-22 shooting, 12 rebounds, four assists, three blocks, and a steal. He was aggressive; he was bouncy on both ends of the floor; he was the only Buck, really, that was keeping his team in the game. Early in the third quarter, with the Suns up 15, Giannis scored 13 points in a row. At one point in that stretch, seeing the slighter Mikal Bridges in front of him, Giannis visibly demanded the ball from Jrue Holiday and immediately backed into a short hook shot for two points.
But around Giannis, two main problems have emerged for Milwaukee this postseason. First is a broad team issue: The Bucks’ 3-point shooting—the team hit just 29 percent from beyond the arc on Thursday—has abandoned them.
In the regular season, Milwaukee made 38.9 percent of its 3-point attempts, tied for fourth in the league. In the playoffs, that figure is just 31.7 percent, the worst for any team that won a series. The sample size is growing, yet almost every regular rotation member is still far from his regular-season accuracy.
Bucks 3-Point Shooting
Then, on an individual basis, the Bucks need more from the supplementary stars surrounding Giannis. Holiday has looked downright reminiscent of Eric Bledsoe at points this postseason, with erratic game-to-game numbers leading to two porous Finals performances in a row. Holiday is shooting just 31.4 percent in the Finals so far; this graph shows how up and down he’s been since the Bucks coasted to a first-round sweep over Miami. Milwaukee needs him to return to the lofty level at which he played to close out the Hawks in the Eastern Conference finals to have a chance in this series.
(Game score is a box score statistic, invented by John Hollinger, that offers an estimate of a player’s overall productivity in a game. “The scale is similar to that of points scored,” per Basketball-Reference, meaning above 20 is great, below 10 is not, etc.)
Khris Middleton, meanwhile, has had a few heroic performances this postseason—most notably the series-winning bucket in overtime in Game 7 against the Nets—but he’s also suffered from inconsistency of his own. Middleton led the Bucks with 29 points in Game 1 of the Finals but followed up with a 5-for-16 effort in Game 2, not reaching the free throw line once. Given his track record, he will likely bounce back in Game 3—but again, the Bucks need that performance just to have a chance now. Any margin for error is gone.
Milwaukee still has defensive problems it hasn’t yet solved, too. The Bucks cleaned up some of their early defensive mishaps on Thursday; the Suns took just 14 free throws (six in the final minute) after attempting 26 in Game 1, and the Bucks almost completely walled off the rim. But Phoenix is still shredding the Bucks’ defense with its guard play, as Devin Booker and Chris Paul combined for 54 points in Game 2 after 59 in Game 1.
Devin Booker and Chris Paul have combined to score 113 points through the first 2 games of the Finals.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) July 9, 2021
That's the most by a starting backcourt in the first 2 games of a Finals since starters were first tracked in 1971.
h/t @EliasSports pic.twitter.com/YnYsBuBPD6
Booker was especially potent on Thursday, rebounding from a relatively off shooting night to nail seven 3-pointers. He wasn’t alone: Phoenix’s 3-point shooting provided a clear contrast to Milwaukee’s inaccurate barrage, as the Suns shot 20-for-40 from distance. To some extent, there’s nothing Milwaukee can do about that kind of accuracy. In an extreme make-or-miss league, teams shooting 50 percent or better on 3s this postseason have now won at a 93 percent clip (13-1 record); in the regular season, that was 90 percent (140-15).
Yet the Suns also made that effort easier on themselves with so many attempts from the shorter corners. With its stout defensive system, Milwaukee had been the best team this postseason at preventing corner 3-pointers, allowing only 5.7 attempts per game. On Thursday, however, Phoenix attempted twice that many corner 3s in the first half, ultimately finishing with 10 makes on 17 tries, tying the most corner attempts Milwaukee had allowed in any game all year, regular or postseason.
Listing all the Bucks’ deficiencies through two games takes a while because, well, they’re down 2-0 for a reason. Phoenix played excellent two-way basketball in both home games, in front of a vibrant crowd, but the Bucks haven’t matched their energy or efficiency. Milwaukee hasn’t led for a moment in the second half of either game.
For the Bucks to get back in this series, improvements must come on both sides of the ball, from every player, because even a Giannis masterpiece wasn’t sufficient to salvage Game 2. Plus-minus is not the be-all, end-all of NBA statistics, especially on a single-game level. But it’s hard to escape noticing that the Bucks were plus-3 in 40 minutes with Giannis and minus-13 in eight minutes without him.
It’s also hard to escape noticing that the Bucks need to win four games in five tries now to win the title, or that the Suns haven’t lost four out of five games since January. The Bucks face a tall climb from here to the trophy. They haven’t yet demonstrated the ability to reach that necessary level.