10:00 PM EST, TNT – Line: Suns -3, Over/Under: 233
In the wake of the Trade Deadline, last year’s NBA Finalists renew acquaintances for the first time since last summer’s classic, as the surging Milwaukee Bucks close out their westward road trip in the desert against the league-best Phoenix Suns, from Footprint Center in Phoenix, Arizona. After winning their first Larry O’Brien trophy in fifty years, there was a feeling that the Bucks (35-21, 2nd in Eastern Conference), had all the makings of going on a prolonged run, and following a slow start to their title defense they have certainly rounded into championship form. Stumbling out of the gates to a 6-8 record was understandable for a team that was clearly fatigued following their run to the Finals (which ended in late July BTW), only for their top three performers, (two-time MVP) Giannis Antetokounmpo (29.2 PTS, 54.4% FG, 30.3% 3FG, 72.2% FT, 11.3 REB, 6.0 AST, 1.0 STL, 1.4 BLK, 32.1 PER) along with (All-Stars) Khris Middleton (19.5 PTS, 44.2% FG, 37.7% 3FG, 88.1% FT, 5.6 REB, 5.3 AST, 1.3 STL, 18.4 PER) and Jrue Holiday (17.9 PTS, 50.3% FG, 39.5% 3FG, 76.0% FT, 4.7 REB, 6.7 AST, 1.5 STL, 20.0 PER) to immediately hop on a plane to compete in the Summer Olympics, altogether leading to a second consecutive abridged offseason. As a result, this triumvirate hasn’t enjoyed much time together on the hardwood thus far; Antetokounmpo, Middleton, and Holiday have featured together in just twenty-six of their fifty-six games and is still just the ninth-most utilized three-man combination that (Head Coach) Mike Budenholzer has relied upon; the trio has logged 436:22 of gametime thus far, with the team +14.8 in points, +.084 in field goal percentage, +4.1 in rebounding, and +2.9 in assists when they are on the court together. Granted, the Bucks are 21-5 when they are all healthy, which has been the case of late, with the three competing in each of their last seven contests, a period in which they’ve gone 5-2. While it’s hardly surprising that a team is exponentially better with their top-three contributors on the hardwood, these deer are reminding us all just how formidable they really are, winning their first three outings of this four-game road trip, annihilating the likes of the Portland Trail Blazers (137-108), Los Angeles Clippers (137-113), and most recently the Los Angeles Lakers (131-116) with shocking ease. Indeed, Tuesday’s second leg at Crypto.com Arena was eye-opening for a variety of reasons, for while the Lakers have certainly fell short of expectations this season, they still possess the requisite star power to threaten the reigning champs. Evidently, Giannis & Co were NOT impressed. This one was over early, folks, as the visitors throttled the hosts in the first quarter 38-24, shooting a torrid 16-of-26 from the field (61.5%) with nine assists in comparison to just one turnover, all the while relegating Los Angeles to a miserable 9-of-25 shooting (36.0%), including 4-of-14 from three (28.6%), with as many turnovers as assists (7). This scintillating start set the tone for the rest of the affair, as Milwaukee topped 130 points for the third straight outing, shooting 54.2% overall, including 15-of-36 from beyond the arc (41.7%), with thirty-one assists opposed to just eleven turnovers, while turning six Lakers turnovers into twenty-five points and besting them 15-9 on the break. Starting 11-of-11 from the floor, Antetokounmpo led the way with forty-four points on a ridiculous 17-of-20 shooting (85.0%), along with fourteen rebounds, eight assists and a pair of blocks. Middleton and Holiday added twenty-one and fifteen points respectively, with the latter compiling seven rebounds and ten assists, though the rest of the supporting cast continued to impress, particularly the duo of (versatile Froward) Bobby Portis (15.6 PTS, 48.9% FG, 42.7% 3FG, 77.0% FT, 9.1 REB, 1.3 AST, 0.7 STL, 0.8 BLK, 18.9 PER) and (sparkplug Guard) Grayson Allen (11.7 PTS, 42.8% FG, 39.4% 3FG, 85.7% FT, 3.5 REB, 1.5 AST, 0.8 STL, 13.2 PER). After playing for three different teams in two years, Portis really made a home for himself in Milwaukee last season, and proved to be an integral part of their championship run, and this season in a much more pronounced role has become arguably the most improved player in the National Basketball Association; with career-highs in starts (42) and minutes (28.7), the 27-year-old has posted personal-bests in points (15.6) and rebounds (9.1), with his perimeter shooting (42.7% 3FG) making him an ideal complement to Antetokounmpo, which is all the more imperative given that (veteran Center) Brook Lopez has been out since the season opener after undergoing back surgery. Portis totaled twenty-three points on 9-of-18 shooting (50.0%) against Los Angeles, nailing 5-of-9 threes (55.6%), while Allen chipped in with a dozen points and four assists. After showing moderate growth over the last two years in Memphis, the 26-year-old arrived via trade in the offseason, and has continued to develop within Budenholzer’s friendly system, amassing a career-high forty-five starts and 28.2 minutes per game, leading to an average of 11.7 points which is also a personal-best. And now it’s on to Phoenix, which was of course the sight of their greatest triumph, eliminating the Suns in six games after falling behind 2-0 in the 2021 NBA Finals. The Bucks averaged 114.3 points on 47.5% shooting from the field, including 34.2% from downtown, with 24.0 assists in comparison to committing just 10.8 turnovers, all the while edging them by 6.2 points at the charity stripe and 9.7 boards on the glass, and relegating a Chris Paul-led team to just 19.0 assists opposed to 13.3 turnovers. During that stretch, Giannis was nothing short of DOMINANT en route to claiming Finals MVP honors, averaging 37.3 points on 61.1% shooting, with 12.5 rebounds, 5.5 assists, 1.0 steal, and 1.8 blocks, including a crowning 50-point performance on the road in the clinching Game Six. Back to the present, Budenholzer and (General Manager) Jon Horst were very active at today’s Trade Deadline, bolstering their frontcourt with the addition of (veteran Center) Serge Ibaka (6.6 PTS, 49.0% FG, 38.7% 3FG, 69.0% FT, 4.3 REB, 1.0 AST, 0.7 BLK, 15.1 PER) along with a pair of second round picks in a four-team deal with the Kings, Pistons, and Clippers, sending out Donte DiVincenzo, Rodney Hood, and Semi Ojeleye as part of the deal. Despite struggling with injuries over the last three years (69 games missed), the 32-year-old Ibaka’s rim defense and perimeter shooting project as a perfect fit for Budenholzer’s system, while also bringing a wealth of postseason experience to Milwaukee, including a championship ring earned as member of the Raptors back in 2019. Ibaka has featured in just thirty-five games for Los Angeles this season, making only ten starts en route to logging career-lows in a slew of categories including minutes (15.4), rebounds (4.3), steals (0.2), and blocks (0.7). Expect those figures to rise in the coming weeks.
Meanwhile, after experiencing more growth than any other team in the Association a year ago and coming oh so close to winning their first Larry O’Brien trophy in franchise history, the Suns (44-10, 1st in Western Conference) have proven that last season’s success was no fluke en route to sprinting out to the best record in the league. Indeed, after suffering ten losing campaigns in eleven years, Phoenix improved by a staggering SEVENTEEN games from 2019-2020 to 2020-2021, thanks in large part to the addition of (veteran Point Guard) Chris Paul (15.0 PTS, 48.9% FG, 33.9% 3FG, 83.0% FT, 4.5 REB, 10.5 AST, 1.9 STL, 21.0 PER), whose presence served as the catalyst for substantial growth throughout their roster, with virtually every young talent developing at an exponential rate. (Prolific Swingman) Devin Booker (25.7 PTS, 45.0% FG, 37.3% 3FG, 85.7% FT, 5.3 REB, 4.3 AST, 1.0 STL, 20.2 PER) became an All-Star last year and has risen to All-NBA levels this season, while the likes of (former No. One Overall Pick) Deandre Ayton (16.1 PTS, 61.5% FG, 72.5% FT, 10.4 REB, 1.5 AST, 0.8 STL, 0.8 BLK, 22.1 PER) and (3 & D extraordinaire) Mikal Bridges (13.1 PTS, 52.2% FG, 36.9% 3FG, 87.5% FT, 4.3 REB, 2.2 AST, 1.2 STL, 0.5 BLK, 14.0 PER) have ascended to higher levels to boot. Now 36-years of age and in his seventeenth season, Paul has continued to age like a fine wine, with his experience, intelligence, and competitive nature continuing to drive this young team to new heights. The 10-time All-NBA selection may have seen a fairly large dip in his three-point shooting (33.9%), but his mid-range game remains as deadly as ever (54.4%), while his savant-like court vision has him leading the league in assists for a fifth time. The only real issue that (Head Coach) Monty Williams had last year was his team’s overall depth, which really became problematic once they ran into the Bucks in the Finals, and he alongside (General Manager) James Jones have done an excellent job of addressing that in the offseason and most recently at the Trade Deadline. In the summer, the Suns added (veteran Center) JaVale MaGee (10.0 PTS, 65.8% FG, 68.0% FT, 7.1 REB, 0.7 AST, 1.0 BLK, 24.8 PER) and (sharpshooting Guard) Landry Shamet (7.4 TS, 37.0% FG, 35.3% 3FG, 85.2% FT, 1.9 REB, 1.6 AST, 0.5 STL, 10.1 PER) to bolster the rotation, with the former bringing valuable size, length, and championship experience to a second unit that was really without a legitimate alternative to Ayton in the paint last year. As for Shamet, the oft traveled sniper finds himself on his fourth team in as many years but has nonetheless found a role coming off the bench as a solid catch and shoot option. Furthermore, Phoenix also got to work at the Deadline, bringing back (versatile Forward) Torrey Craig (6.5 PTS, 45.6% FG, 33.3% 3FG, 77.1% FT, 3.8 REB, 1.1 AST, 0.5 STL, 11.1 PER) in a deal with the Pacers in exchange for (Sophomore Forward) Jalen Smith and a future second round pick. Craig was a key reserve for Williams last season, featuring in thirty-two games after being acquired via trade with the Bucks, bringing physicality and the ability to guard multiple positions off the bench. The journeyman suffered a knee injury early in the Finals, with his absence taxing the rotation in ways that Milwaukee was all too happy to exploit. Winners of fourteen of their last fifteen outings, the Suns were certainly made to work for their last two, edging the Bulls in a 127-124 thriller in the Windy City on Monday night followed by a hard-fought 114-109 victory over the 76ers on Tuesday night. With the latter serving as the second leg of a back-to-back and the final stop on a four-game road trip, it would have been completely understandable for the reigning Western Conference Champions to take the night off against a potential Finals opponent, but that simply wasn’t the case as Williams’ troops overcame a 59-54 halftime deficit to outlast Philly down the stretch, outscoring the hosts 59-50 in the second half. Over the final two periods, Phoenix locked in defensively, relegating the Sixers to 17-of-42 shooting from the field (40.5%), including just 3-of-16 from beyond the arc (18.8%), outrebounded them 26-20, and forced nearly as many turnovers (7) as assists permitted (8). Conversely, though they didn’t shoot the ball much better themselves (44.2%), particularly from deep (1-of-10 3FG), they made up for it by getting to the charity stripe, where the visitors knocked down 20-of-22 attempts, a +7 difference which made all the difference in a game ultimately decided by five points. Another major factor was turnovers, with Philadelphia committing fifteen opposed eight for Phoenix, who turned those mistakes into a commanding 27-9 advantage in points off. The aforementioned Booker was the man of the night, scoring twenty of his thirty-five points after intermission, including all ten of his free-throws. Bridges added twenty-three points an efficient 9-of-13 shooting (64.3%), with four rebounds and a pair of assists, while Paul finished with sixteen points, four rebounds, and a dozen assists, despite suffering from a poor shooting performance (7-of-18 FG) and committing six turnovers. Combatting MVP frontrunner Joel Embiid, the tandem of Ayton and MaGee held up well, with the latter posting fifteen points, twelve rebounds, and a pair of blocks in just under eighteen minutes off the bench. And now they return home to Footprint Center ready to welcome the surging Bucks, with vengeance on their minds after last year’s collapse in the Finals. The Suns earned a 2-0 lead in that series, besting them in Games One (118-105) and Two (118-108), before hitting a wall the rest of the way. We touched upon their struggles in slowing Milwaukee down over the final four games, with their depleted rotation exploited over and over again in transition, where the deer completely manhandled them. In Games Three through Six, Paul & Co committed eleven more turnovers and were -19 in points off, were outscored twenty-four points in transition, and by a commanding twenty-two points in the paint. As long as Paul is pulling the strings, Phoenix will operate at a slower tempo, and if this game is contained within the halfcourt then the Suns have an excellent chance of snapping the Bucks win streak, but if these deer manage to turn missed shots and turnovers into opportunities in the open court then history will likely repeat itself, for one more night at least.