9:00 PM EST, ABC – Line: Bucks -4, Over/Under: 220.5
Momentum looks to be changing hands as the 2021 NBA Finals transitions to a crucial Game Four as the Milwaukee Bucks look to square away the series at two games apiece, while the Phoenix Suns look to take a commanding 3-1 lead in this next riveting chapter from Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Though this isn’t the first time that the Suns (51-21, 2nd in Western Conference) have been met with resistance in these Playoffs, Game Three’s 120-100 defeat certainly feels like their biggest setback, leaving many to ponder how they’ll adjust moving forward in this series. Granted, they trailed the Los Angeles Lakers 2-1 in their First Round matchup, and lost Game Three against their crosstown rivals, the Clippers, in the Western Conference Finals only to make the requisite adjustments to win Game Four in each respective series. So what in the name of Cotton Fitzsimmons went wrong for Phoenix after looking so impressive through the first two games, you ask? Well, just about everything that had been working in their favor thus far betrayed them, and it’s as simple as that. First and foremost, the dynamic Backcourt of (emerging Superstar) Devin Booker (25.6 PTS, 48.4% FG, 34.0% 3FG, 4.2 REB, 4.3 AST, 0.8 STL, 19.2 PER) and (perennial All-NBA Selection) Chris Paul (16.4 PTS, 49.9% FG, 39.5% 3FG, 4.5 REB, 8.9 AST, 1.4 STL, 21.4 PER) suffered their first poor shooting display of the Finals; after combining for an average of 56.5 points on 47.1% shooting from the field in last week’s contests, the tandem managed a meager twenty-nine points on 11-of-28 shooting (39.2%) in Sunday’s Game Three. Booker in particular struggled, totaling only ten points on 3-of-14 shooting (21.4%), whereas in the past when he was able to supplement his shooting woes with production at the charity stripe (10-of-10 FT in Game One), he struggled to get to the line against Milwaukee’s stifling defense, attempting only five free-throws on the night. Look for (Head Coach) Monty Williams and his Coaching Staff to devise some more creative ways to get the 24-year old some easier looks, whether coming off a multitude of screens, or by continuing to milk the Pick & Roll, though that well appears to be drying up (more on that shortly). And then there is the team’s depth, particularly in the Frontcourt where they are running out of options; (former No. One Overall Pick) Deandre Ayton (14.4 PTS, 62.6% FG, 10.5 REB, 1.4 AST, 0.6 STL, 1.2 BLK, 20.3 PER) has been a revelation in these Playoffs, with his exponential growth proving every bit the match for opponents with more talented bigs, such as the Denver Nuggets and the aforementioned Lakers. However, following unfortunate injuries to the likes of (backup big man) Dario Saric (8.7 PTS, 44.7% FG, 34.8% 3FG, 3.8 REB, 1.3 AST, 0.6 STL, 14.3 PER) and (former Bucks Forward) Torrey Craig (7.2 PTS, 50.3% FG, 36.9% 3FG, 4.8 RE, 1.0 AST, 0.6 BLK, 15.5 PER) in successive games the Frontcourt has been utterly decimated, putting all the pressure on Ayton’s young shoulders. Simply put, Phoenix CANNOT afford for him to get into foul trouble; while he performed beyond his years in Games One and Two, he quickly headed to the Bench in Game Three, forcing Williams to dive deeper into his reserve unit to help quell the Bucks overwhelming advantage in the paint. Then again, this is nothing new for the Suns, who throughout this renaissance have been one of the National Basketball Association’s weakest teams in terms of production within the restricted area; on the campaign, just over 27.0% of their points came in the paint (30th Overall), and in this series that figure has decreased to barely 23.0%, while their opponent continues to hammer away at them in this regard (more on that too in a bit). And this leads us to our last point: when you’re a team that relies upon shooting midrange jumpers and three-pointers, it’s going to be difficult to survive games in which you can’t throw the basketball into the proverbial ocean. Williams’ charges were unconscious in Games One and Two, netting 31-of-74 attempts from beyond the arc (41.9%), including a franchise postseason record 20-of-40 (50%) last Thursday Night. That parlays to a Plus-18 advantage, but on Sunday Night they could only muster a 9-of-31 performance from downtown (29.0%) in which they were outscored by fifteen points. Hell, apart from (veteran journeyman) Jae Crowder (10.1 PTS, 40.4% FG, 38.9% 3FG, 4.7 REB, 2.1 AST, 0.8 STL, 11.8 PER), who accounted for six of his team’s total triples, the rest of the rotation finished a miserable 3-of-24 (12.5%) from three. So what do the Suns need to do in order to regain their grip on these Finals? Well, apart from Booker getting cleaner looks and Ayton staying out of foul trouble, they’re going to need Paul to do what he does best: control the tempo of the game and dominate possession of the basketball. Few Point Guards have ever been better when it comes to directing the offense and taking care of the rock, and the 36-year old has been nothing short of sublime in his first season in Phoenix, and he’ll need to continue being the Point God if he’s going to add that elusive Larry O’Brien Trophy to his considerable ledger. Limiting turnovers and getting to the Free-Throw Line will keep the pace within the Halfcourt, which is where they want it to be, and in turn keep Milwaukee from getting out in transition where they have thrived all season; Phoenix was Minus-10 in Fast Break Points in Game Three, which accounted for 29.6% of their opponent’s paint production in that affair.
Meanwhile, though they once again started slowly it appears that the Bucks (46-26, 3rd in Eastern Conference) are gaining more and more momentum with each passing game in this, their first appearance in the NBA Finals since 1974. We already covered what went wrong for their opponent in last Sunday’s convincing 120-100 affair, and now it’s time to discuss the adjustments that (Head Coach) Mike Budenholzer and his Staff have made after dropping the first two chapters of this series. First and foremost, after coming into the first Finals of his already outstanding career, (two-time MVP) Giannis Antetokounmpo (28.1 PTS, 56.9% FG, 30.3% 3FG, 11.0 REB, 5.9 AST, 1.2 STL, 1.2 BLK, 29.2 PER) as a major question mark following a hyperextension to his left knee towards the end of the Eastern Conference Finals, the Greek International now finds himself dominating on the grandest of stages. Needless to say, it’s been a whirlwind two weeks for the five-time All-NBA Selection, who following the injury was thought by some to potentially be at risk for the rest of the postseason, and possibly beyond. Heading into Game One, Antetokounmpo began the day as Doubtful despite receiving around-the-clock treatment from the team’s Medical Staff, though was promptly upgraded to Questionable and later a Game-Time Decision which ultimately made his status for the opener academic; the 26-year old started strongly, but went on to total a tepid twenty points on 6-of-11 shooting (54.5%) in just over thirty-five minutes of action. He was far more aggressive in Game Two, exploding for FORTY-TWO points on 15-of-22 shooting (68.2%), along with a dozen rebounds, four assists, and three blocks in defeat, though clearly established his superiority against Phoenix’s depleted front line. He also made some serious history in setting a Finals record with TWENTY points in the Third Quarter, which was rather impressive for a guy who just over a week beforehand thought he suffered a significant knee injury. Thankfully, it was more of the same on Sunday Night, leading Milwaukee to victory with forty-one points on 14-of-23 shooting (60.9%), thirteen rebounds and six assists, joining Shaquille O’Neal and LeBron James as the only two players in this century to post back-to-back 40-point games in the Finals. Hell, he’s even starting to knock down his free-throws of late, which has been a HUGE topic of discussion; Antetokounmpo, who has struggled in this regard on 57.1% shooting in these Playoffs, was 13-of-17 from the stripe in Game Three (76.5%), undoubtedly enjoying the atmosphere at home where the fan base in Milwaukee aren’t mercilessly counting to ten as he goes through his (lengthy) routine. Rather than simply accept the basketball at the top of the key and drive towards the rim, Budenholzer has utilized him more in Pick & Rolls, while also deploying him in the paint as a Small Ball Center so to speak, where he can make plays for his teammates out of the post, which was really lacking when the series was contested in Phoenix. And speaking of his supporting cast, the rest of the rotation looked predictably more comfortable in their own building. After struggling throughout Games One and Two, (All-Star Swingman) Khris Middleton (20.4 PTS, 47.6% FG, 41.4% 3FG, 6.0 REB, 5.4 AST, 1.1 STL, 18.2 PER) and (veteran Point Guard) Jrue Holiday (17.7 PTS, 50.3% FG, 39.2% 3FG, 4.5 REB, 6.1 AST, 1.6 STL, 20.0 PER) finally showed up in this Final, with the former filling out the stat sheet with eighteen points, seven rebounds, and six assists, while the latter rediscovered his stroke from beyond the arc, netting 5-of-10 attempts (50.0%) en route to scoring twenty-one points. Furthermore, (journeyman) Bobby Portis (11.4 PTS, 52.3% FG, 47.1% 3FG, 7.1 REB, 1.1 AST, 0.8 STL, 19.9 PER) chipped in with eleven points and eight rebounds off the bench, while (veteran Center) Brook Lopez (12.3 PTS, 50.3% FG, 33.8% 3FG, 5.0 REB, 0.7 AST, 0.6 STL, 1.5 BLK, 15.4 PER), who was effectively played off the floor in Game One due to being exploited in the Pick & Roll by Paul and Booker, managed to contribute nonetheless in a diminished role with eleven points of his own in just over twenty-one minutes of play. Defensively, the adjustments that Budneholzer has made have paid off with the Bucks fine-tuning their switching, and relying on smaller lineups so that they don’t have to sell out so much when it comes to defending the paint; after losing the points in the paint battle in Game One (42-44), they dominated in this aspect in Game Two (54-28) and in the last two games have posted a stellar Plus-40 advantage. Forcing the Suns to shoot so many mid-to-long-range shots leads to longer rebounds while also cutting down on the fouls, which in turn keeps them off the charity stripe. Of course this all leads to pushing the tempo; Milwaukee held a 16-6 advantage in transition and have outscored them 33-13 over the last two games alone. It may not seem like it, but Milwaukee was the highest-scoring team in NBA History this season, averaging a staggering 120.1 points per game and have PLENTY of tricks in their proverbial bag when it comes to putting the ball through the nylon. However, what doesn’t get talked about enough is their prowess on the defensive end of the hardwood, which helps create so much of their opportunities in transition. Even when they go smaller this group is still taller and longer than most teams, and length is always the solution for defending shooting.