Defense, at its base, is a stall tactic. Sure, some hyperaggressive players interpret “to defend” as an active verb defined primarily through physicality, and yes, some coaches favor extreme pressure schemes designed to strike first. For the most part, though, it’s about battening down the hatches, holding on tight, and playing to the clock—about making opponents take as long as possible to create a good chance to score, because if they can’t do it in 24 seconds, you get the ball back.
You can’t stop modern NBA offenses; there’s just too much shooting and playmaking skill, too many ways to spread you out, too much ground to cover, too much sophistication in the pursuit of paths to puncture your coverage. NBA defenses, then, function as dams, straining to hold back incalculable weight and remain watertight as the seconds tick away. Dams fail every year when the pressure becomes too great to bear, though, and while the Bucks may still be the no. 1 defense in the 2021 postseason, the Suns are the sort of flood that had Noah picking pairs and building boats:
That’s 11 passes in one half-court possession—the ball touching every Suns player’s hand as it pings from the paint to the left wing to the left corner, then all the way around to the right corner, before coming back up top and, after a deflection, finally back into the paint and into the sure hands of Deandre Ayton, who finished it ahead of a late contest (and, ultimately, a foul) from an onrushing P.J. Tucker. The Bucks were incredible on defense here, sprinting all over the floor, indefatigable and composed in their closeouts, stringing out the Suns for as long as they possibly could. Eventually, though, even the best dams spring a leak somewhere; eventually, the flood wins.
The flood won again on Thursday, as the Suns scored a 118-108 victory over the Bucks to take a 2-0 lead in the 2021 NBA Finals. Phoenix is halfway to its first championship in franchise history thanks largely to an offensive onslaught that has overwhelmed Milwaukee: 48/42/93 shooting splits as a team through two games, 44 total assists against 22 turnovers, and a rate of offensive efficiency—119.8 points per 100 possessions—head and shoulders above what the league-leading Nets managed during the regular season. No play better exemplifies the degree to which the Suns are rolling—or how much they’re enjoying themselves in the process—than that late-second-quarter symphony.
“We actually talked about that play right after the game, me and Mikal [Bridges],” Suns superstar Devin Booker told reporters after the game. “And he was like, ‘I think that was the most pumped I’ve ever been after a play,’ and I was like, ‘Me too. Same here.’ When you’re playing like that, it’s fun. It’s fun, everybody’s touching it, you feel the energy of the ball. When you get it, you want to make a play for somebody else and something opens up, always, when it’s popping and moving like that.”
If you needed a four-word phrase to describe Phoenix’s offense, you could do worse than “Something opens up, always.” (We also would’ve accepted “These guards freaking rule.”)
The Suns have boasted one of the NBA’s most versatile and potent attacks all season long—one capable of roasting opponents in isolation or with perpetual motion; with Booker, Chris Paul, or Cameron Payne at the controls of an exceedingly intricate pick-and-roll playbook or spotting up away from the initial action; with Ayton rolling to the rim or the now-lost-for-the-season Dario Saric popping to the perimeter; with forays to the basket or kickouts to waiting shooters like Bridges, Jae Crowder, and Cameron Johnson. Their combination of play design, execution, collective IQ, and sheer talent has produced an offense capable of adapting to whatever the situation calls for, processing an opponent’s defensive adjustments and prescribing the appropriate counter. Go to work; move the ball; something opens up, always.
The Bucks started Game 1 switching all ball screens, aiming to stay out of rotation, run the Suns off the 3-point line, and keep them from generating high-value long-range looks. Some aspects of the plan worked—the Suns attempted more shots from midrange than they did at the rim or from beyond the arc, shooting just 42.4 percent on them and only 10-for-30 from 3—but some didn’t, as Paul targeted his preferred switches and flame-broiled Milwaukee’s defenders in space, Booker drove his way to 10 free throws, and Ayton feasted on deep seals and putbacks. Milwaukee tinkered a bit for Game 2, playing drop coverage in the pick-and-roll but bringing the screener’s defender up closer to the level of the screen and having help defenders stunt in from the wing to wall off the paint, keeping Paul and Booker from just walking into pull-up jumpers at the elbows, and deterring drives all the way to the rim.
After a few early turnovers, Phoenix shifted its approach. Rather than try to power through the extra bodies, Paul and Booker (and later Payne) just looked to make the simple play: activate the drive-and-kick game and hit shooters—ideally in the corners, but sometimes above the break—before Milwaukee’s help defenders could recover to contest. That approach says a lot about how much head coach Monty Williams and his two stars trust the likes of Bridges, Crowder, and Johnson to knock down shots or make the next play. Their response showed why they’d earned that trust:
Bridges scored a playoff-high 27 points on 8-for-15 shooting, routinely beating the Bucks’ closeouts and driving for short jumpers. Crowder, ever the experienced vet, bounced back from an 0-for-8 showing in Game 1 to chip in 11 points on 4-for-8 shooting with 10 rebounds and three assists. Johnson continued to provide great minutes off the bench, adding eight points on a pair of 3s along with some timely defensive help.
“With our team, we got shooters. Like, real shooters,” Paul said after the game. “And I say this all the time: It’s nice when you kick it to the guy and you expect him to make it. You expect him to make it. Like, I get mad at some of these guys when they miss it. They miss it and I’m like, ‘Come on, man, you don’t miss that in practice.’”
Their complementary work in support of Booker (a team-high 31 points on 7-for-12 shooting from deep, making him just the fourth player ever to drop 30 with seven or more 3s in a Finals game) and Paul (23 points, 3-for-5 from distance) propelled the Suns to a 20-for-40 night from 3-point land, and into rarefied air when it comes to long-range marksmanship in the championship round:
It’s just another example of what’s made Phoenix so tough to deal with, from the regular season through its sprint to the Finals. The Suns can win with Booker sticking daggers into the eyes of defender after defender after defender; with CP3 snaking his way to his spots; with their superstar tandem pouring in buckets like no starting backcourt in Finals history. They can win with defense, as they did in a second quarter in which they held Milwaukee to just 16 points on 6-for-25 shooting with sharp rotations, good contests, and great physicality; Williams said after the game that he thought that defensive effort to slow the Bucks down “won the game for us.”
They can win without the benefit of the 25-9 advantage in made free throws they rode in Game 1; the Suns didn’t even attempt one in Game 2 until there were 14.9 seconds remaining in the second quarter, and still led by 11 heading into halftime. They can win when a superstar goes supernova against them: Giannis Antetokounmpo, the two-time NBA MVP who sure doesn’t seem to be feeling any worse for wear after his left knee folded the wrong way nine days ago, scored 20 points in the third quarter—the most anyone’s scored in a single quarter in a Finals game since Michael Jordan, 28 years ago—and Phoenix still led by 10 entering the fourth.
You drop, and they rain pull-ups. You switch, and they hunt mismatches in isolation. You try to trap or hedge and recover, and they drive-and-kick you into 17 corner 3-point attempts, drilling 10 of them. You play big, and they spread you out. You downsize, and Ayton starts hammering the offensive glass. You run out any player with a defined defensive weakness—Tucker and Pat Connaughton being a step too slow to stick with Booker and Paul, Bryn Forbes being too small and slight to deal with just about anybody, etc.—and they exploit it.
You stay connected, scratching and clawing your way back to within a couple of possessions despite everybody but your top gun firing blanks, and they just come back with an answer every single time:
“They come in, go to the free throw line or hit a couple 3s, they’re making a little run,” Bridges said after the game. “Every time Book hit a 3 or do something, you could just tell it just melted them down. Like, ‘Dang, we was right there.’”
And then the Bucks weren’t, because when you share the ball and the burden—and have two of the best creators and shot makers in the world—there’s an answer for everything. There has been all year.
It’s the formula that won 51 games in a 72-game season, in a shock to everyone outside the Suns’ locker room and precisely no one within its walls—the same one that dethroned the defending champions, swept the reigning MVP, and outclassed a damn good Clippers team. Now, it’s got Phoenix two wins away from what Paul, Booker, and everyone else in that locker room has been chasing for their entire lives. If the Bucks can’t force them to change that formula, and fast, there’ll be more flooding in the forecast—a rising tide that can lift the Suns to heights they’ve never reached before.