Gut-check time in the NBA Finals is upon us and while the Milwaukee Bucks currently have a 3-2 series lead over the Phoenix Suns, the outcome remains up in the air.
The Bucks certainly have momentum after rallying from an early 2-0 hole by pulling off three consecutive wins. However, it’s not as if they effectively extinguished the confidence of the Suns. Game 4 and 5 went down to the last few possessions and while those turnovers were certainly painful, they’re not something Phoenix can’t learn from.
With ample time between now and Game 6, both teams must focus on remaining consistent with some of the factors that got them to where they are now. For Milwaukee, it may mean building on what worked in the past few games, whereas for the Suns, it may take a revisit to what worked in the first two games to force a winner-take-all Game 7.
The Bucks can clinch their second NBA title if they…
Continue utilizing Giannis Antetokounmpo as a swiss knife on both ends of the floor
Giannis Antetokounmpo doesn’t mind doing the dirty work. From setting screens to coming up big on help defense, the two-time MVP has shown time and again in these NBA Finals that he can do whatever it takes to win. Of course it helps having teammates like Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday, but his willingness to do other things to help his team win gives confidence to his teammates to do what they do best in order to inch closer to an NBA title.
Doing the unheralded things doesn’t mean that the offense can’t run through him. He can continue to attack in his spots, but his multi-faceted approach adds layers and troubles that the Suns defense still haven’t figured out.
Players are taught to reward their big men and the Bucks have never been stingy in rewarding Antetokounmpo, who scored the punctuating basket that shut down any hope of a Phoenix comeback.
Protect Jrue Holiday at all costs
Simply put, Milwaukee is within a win from an NBA title thanks to Holiday. His defensive stop on Devin Booker and ensuing lob to Antetokounmpo were the final nails in the coffin.
While he has had his inconsistencies during these playoffs, it’s plays like those that have emphasized Holiday’s value to the Bucks. His offense is a welcome weapon anytime it’s there, but it comes secondary to the defensive presence he provides especially against elite point guards on a nightly basis.
Holiday being in foul trouble provided the Suns, especially Booker and Chris Paul, opportune time to push Phoenix ahead. It became one of the concerns in Milwaukee’s Game 2 loss and was poised to become an issue again in Game 4. Instead, he produced his best performance this postseason, finishing with 27 points and 13 assists.
It goes without saying that the Bucks must keep the three-time member of the NBA’s All-Defensive team in the game as much as possible while managing both his minutes and fouls. His playmaking has also allowed Antetokounmpo to thrive inside and his ability to score has given the Greek Freak another offensive option to go to.
Don’t empty the tank
Mike Budenholzer had gotten flak in previous postseasons for failing to make adjustments that would have led to longer playoff runs. It’s safe to say that the critics have been silenced for the foreseeable future, with a championship likely to shut down any talk about Budenholzer’s job security.
But as the late great Kobe Bryant once said, job ain’t finished. Budenholzer will have to continue finding ways to contain both Paul and Booker. Offense has not been a major issue at least in the last three games, but devising adjustments to their approach will continue to be key against a team that may not commit the same mistake three times.
Aside from adjustments, managing the minutes of his stars should be crucial considering that they are close to hitting the 100-game mark already. Injuries have been the death of many NBA teams and the Bucks themselves have been able to avert disaster by preserving Antetokounmpo for the finals. It doesn’t hurt to think ahead as well, as they wouldn’t want this to be their last trip in the finals.
Extending the series to a seventh game will become a reality for the Suns if they…
Learn how to close a game
The Suns being up 2-0 in the finals feels so long ago. Now that they’ve blown that lead, thoughts of the 2006 Dallas Mavericks and talk of another Chris Paul playoff disappointment have come up.
Such is the brutal nature of the NBA Playoffs, especially with a title being so close, yet so far. Phoenix had opportunities to take the last two games, but handing Milwaukee some momentum coupled with some late-game miscues have done them no favors.
Going back to the game film will naturally reveal some ways to get over the hump, but ensuring communication on both ends of the floor will improve the execution especially in the endgame.
Make the Bucks a one-man show
The Bucks’ attack over the past three games has come from all fronts and it has posed problems for the Suns. Among other things, it has led to foul trouble for the likes of Deandre Ayton, defensive breakdowns, and in turn close losses that have become difficult to stomach.
When Phoenix won, it usually came in spite of a Herculean performance from Antetokounmpo. But that was it. Limiting the confidence and contributions of the two-time MVP’s teammates will be easier said than done, especially with their signature performances and big plays in previous games.
Forcing Milwaukee’s perimeter players to work on the defensive end of the floor can only do so much, as it may be more crucial to give them a different look offensively. Antetokounmpo thrives when operating within 10 feet of the basket, while Middleton and Holiday are the more perimeter savvy players. Shutting down the lanes and the paint will force them to adjust on the fly and while that may not work for the Greek Freak, a more clogged lane with no help makes carrying the team to a victory a much more difficult task.
Let Booker go supernova
The need for Booker to go wild has never been more obvious especially with things now at do-or-die. Paul has been the one creating opportunities for the Suns, but it’s Booker’s offense that draws the defense and opens things up.
Booker’s worst game in these finals was in Game 3 where he had more shot attempts (14) than points (10). It wasn’t a coincidence that Game 3 was also the Phoenix’s worst loss in the 2021 NBA Playoffs.
Giving more touches to Booker will make the Suns much easier to defend, so the better option would be to get him involved in more offensive sets, regardless of his role. The former Kentucky Wildcat is a capable playmaker and while keeping the defense guessing sounds like an often said strategy, Milwaukee will likely give up a few fouls here and there as they would not take any chances.
They say you’re only as good as your last game and if the last two contests have provided any indications, it’s anyone’s ballgame. The Milwaukee Bucks have things working for them so far with the potential title-clincher set to be played on their home court. However, it would be unwise to count the Phoenix Suns out, as they were a few bounces away from taking a game or two away from the Bucks.