Talking to Sky Sports NBA a few weeks ago, Devin Booker of the Phoenix Suns said: “It’s what the game has turned into: spacing the floor and shot-making ability.”
This is never truer than the NBA Finals, in which his team is up 2-0 against the Milwaukee Bucks, in part, thanks to the 20 three-point bombs the Suns dropped in Game 2. They connected on half of their long-distance shots to tie the 2019 Golden State Warriors for the second-most threes in an NBA Finals game behind the 2017 Cleveland Cavaliers with 24.
The Bucks have built their defense to do two things: switch on the perimeter to defend the three, or play in a drop coverage to stop shots at the basket – it is designed to defend modern offenses that seek out the shots preferred by analytics.
Phoenix coach Monty Williams has built his team’s offense to accentuate the strengths of his best players, including the shooting brilliance of Chris Paul and Booker and the rim-attacking excellence of Deandre Ayton. His team torched the Bucks at the rim in Game 1, as the Suns scored 15 of their 20 attempts at the basket while Milwaukee played a predominantly perimeter switching game, but Game 2’s drop coverage resulted in more space to score from three.
A combination of good ball movement and making the most of space in pick-and-rolls helped the Suns come back from an early deficit.
Change for Bucks
The Milwaukee Bucks began the game well and adjusted to some of their mistakes from Game 1. After shooting just 14 shots to start the series, Jrue Holiday was more aggressive from the off, scoring three of nine shots in the first quarter, most of them coming from hard drives to the basket. This mindset also set the tone on defense, especially in the first half, not just for Holiday but the rest of the team on both ends of the court.
He was fighting over screens inside the arc to force the ball handlers towards the drop help, and under the screen when the pick-and-roll was at the halfcourt logo. And the changes worked for the first quarter as Milwaukee held the Phoenix Suns, who were the sixth highest-scoring team in the regular season, to just 26 points in the opening 12 minutes.
But Bucks forward Khris Middleton, who carried the offense in Game 1, was largely shut down for Game 2. He was being asked to bail out the team at the end of shot clocks with awkward kick-outs rather than having time to find his spots and rise in rhythm
The ray of hope in this series for the Bucks was Giannis Antetokounmpo. He continued to get more healthy after a scary knee injury last week, but his 42 points and 12 rebounds showed he’s more than up to the task in his first NBA Finals appearance. If Milwaukee coach Mike Budenholzer can get Holiday and Middleton being effective at the same time, this team will be back in the series before you can say ‘pivotal Game 5’.
Leaving it all on the floor
No opposing team will ever admit it, but the Phoenix Suns Arena crowd might have played a role in the Suns winning both games at home. In Game 2, the Milwaukee Bucks won the battle of the boards, but it felt like every loose ball or clutch rebound went in favour of the Suns at key moments.
The hustle of Phoenix was on full display when Jrue Holiday lost the ball and Devin Booker sprinted down the court for a fast break layup, blocked by a chasing Holiday, but two other Suns raced forward with him and Deandre Ayton cleared up the mess with an emphatic dunk. Four members of the Bucks didn’t actually get back across half court to help Holiday.
Home court is said to help role players get more focused and energetic than anyone else. Defenders get pumped up, rebounders fight harder and shooters are more locked in. While Chris Paul and Devin Booker led the way by combining for 10 three-point makes, the other 10 threes came from Mikal Bridges, Jae Crowder, Cameron Johnson and – before he left the game with an injury – Torrey Craig.
While Craig’s buckled knee looked scary at the time, the good news is he is listed day-to-day and will hopefully be able to return in the series. His defense and shooting will be needed, and earlier in the playoffs, he told Sky Sports NBA about how he trains to shoot in pressured situations when the passes aren’t always clean.
He said: “A good pass helps but it’s not that big of a deal. We practise all the time shooting off bad passes. Coaches or whoever is working you out gives you bad passes so it’s more game-like, because you’re not going to get a perfect pass every single time. You’ve got to know how to catch and shoot with different passes.”
Pick your poison
The rest of the series will come down to the Bucks having to pick their poison. In Game 1, the Suns got everything they wanted at the basket, and in Game 2, everything went in from distance. As the contest moves to Milwaukee, the sharpshooting Phoenix Suns might find that the away rims aren’t as friendly. Role players become more intimidated, and the hostile crowd drains energy when building comebacks – everything gets a bit harder.
The Suns have one of the best in-game managers on the court in the history of the NBA. Monty Williams is great in having developed a plan for the final eight minutes of a game, and Chris Paul rarely starts a game well, but he figures out how teams are playing and adjusts the team’s attack towards the end of second quarters and third quarters.
The Bucks aren’t out of this yet. Improved energy in certain situations will help, but coach Mike Budenholzer excels in making small changes and tweaks to positioning on defensive coverage or offensive positioning throughout a series. He always talks to his team about getting ‘smarter’ game by game.
The home crowd will help keep energy high when the Bucks face challenges in Game 3, and shots are more likely to fall when you know the court and are more familiar with the backdrop. But if Milwaukee doesn’t get this next one, those subtle adjustments might be too little, too late.
Live NBA Finals 3: Phoenix @ Milwaukee Gm3 11.07 2445
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