With both teams tied at two wins apiece, Game 5 of the 2021 NBA Finals in the Phoenix Suns Arena came down the wire and was an instant classic.
It was a duel that was rich in cold-blooded jumpers as the match turned into an isolation showdown in its waning moments, but in the end, it was a defensive stop that stole the show.
The Milwaukee Bucks, already leading by eight points with over two minutes left in the fourth quarter, found themselves clinging on to just a one-point lead over the Phoenix Suns with less than 20 seconds left in the game.
A red-hot Devin Booker, in the midst of his second consecutive 40-point outing, dribbled up the court with a chance to give the Suns their first lead since the second quarter. An equally scintillating Khris Middleton, who put up 20 of his 29 points in the latter half, defended him as he made his way into the paint for one of his signature pull-up jumpers.
Giannis Antetokounmpo quickly realized the imminent threat and helped off DeAndre Ayton to challenge the shot. Instead of rising up for an attempt, a hesitant Booker put up a fake then pivoted straight into the clutches of Jrue Holiday who picked up his third steal of the evening and raced down the court.
As he led the Milwaukee counterattack, Holiday connected with a sprinting Antetokounmpo for a thunderous alley-oop dunk that also drew a foul from a helpless Chris Paul.
Defense has been the Bucks’ calling card in their postseason run and this latest stop with the game on the line gave them a three-point lead with a little over 13 seconds. Milwaukee went on to take a 123-119 win and a 3-2 lead in the NBA Finals, moving within one game of their first championship since 1971.
Antetokounmpo finished with 32 points, nine rebounds, and six assists while Middleton and Holiday simultaneously played well for the Bucks for the first time since the Eastern Conference Finals. This marked the first time in these NBA Finals that all three players put up at least 20 points for Milwaukee. Middleton served as their closer and tallied 29 points, seven rebounds, and five assists.
Meanwhile, the much-maligned Holiday, shooting just 33% from the field in the series prior to Game 5, fueled their first half run with 18 of his 27 points coming over the opening two quarters. He also had 13 assists and played his usual elite defense on Booker and Paul in what was his finest all-around game of these NBA Finals.
The Bucks were trailing by 16 following a first quarter where the Suns shot the lights out, but Holiday led their quick second quarter turnaround. Milwaukee took a three-point lead going into the halftime break after Phoenix’s offense sputtered once again while Booker was on the bench. This happened despite Paul’s presence on the court during that critical second quarter stretch.
Head coach Monty Williams was left with no choice but to keep Booker on the floor for almost the entirety of the rest of the game, but their offense continued to deteriorate from that point on.
In the third quarter, the Suns overreacted and were over-reliant on Booker which fed into the Bucks’ plan. Milwaukee muffled the Phoenix offense, allowing just two three point attempts in the period, and they built their advantage to 10 by the time the fourth quarter rolled in.
The two-time All-Star Booker led the Suns in +/- in Game 5 with a +12 in his 41 minutes on the court, further highlighting how crucial his presence on the floor was for their team in this painful four-point loss. He followed up his 42-point Game 4 with 40 on over 50% shooting in Game 5 coupled with four rebounds and three assists.
Ayton played a team-high 44 minutes, bouncing back from a lackluster Game 4 with 20 points and 10 rebounds. Mikal Bridges came alive in the final period and made five of his six attempts in the evening, finishing with 13 points.
Similar to the previous match, Paul was practically a liability for the Suns over the first three quarters, but he made up for it with a gutsy fourth quarter effort. The 36-year-old guard scored 10 of his 21 points in the final period to go with his 11 assists, helping bring them within a possession of stealing the game.
The Suns, save for their first quarter salvo, did not play to their usual level yet only lost the contest in its dying seconds. Come Game 6, Paul will have to build off on his fourth quarter form to give them a chance to tie up the series and force a winner-take-all seventh game. Booker alone will not be enough for them to take down the surging Bucks who have now won three straight games after losing the first two.
Milwaukee’s Game 5 victory also marks the first road win by either team in the series and they now return home for Game 6 with a chance to win the title. The Suns will have to return the favor and steal a game on the road if they want to keep their championship hopes alive.
However, the Bucks, now rounding into form, will look to end the series in six and avoid another trip back to Phoenix.
After relatively lopsided results over the first three games, the past two games of these NBA Finals have been exhilarating and Game 6 promises to be another thriller between these two championship-hungry franchises.