The 2021 NBA Finals is now tied at 2-2 after the Milwaukee Bucks won two consecutive games at the Fiserv Forum.
After dropping the first two games of the series by double digits, the Bucks have revitalized their title hopes and are looking to become just the fifth team in NBA Finals history to win the championship despite falling behind 2-0.
The Phoenix Suns flew to Milwaukee gunning for a series sweep after winning the first two games but will instead return home facing what is now a best-of-three.
If Game 4 was any indication, the culmination of this clash between these two title hungry teams will be memorable and I’ve listed down a couple of keys to victory for both teams coming into what promises to be a thrilling Game 5.
The Bucks are not afraid of a human-looking “Point God”
Chris Paul has recorded between seven and nine assists in the first four contests against the Bucks, but his point totals have decreased dramatically by the game, falling from the 32 points he scored in Game 1.
Paul was again hounded all night by the air-tight defense of Jrue Holiday in Game 4 and he was left relatively ineffective in his 36 minutes for the Suns. He tallied just 10 points on 13 shots, with his signature floaters and mid-range jumpers coming up short on several occasions.
The 36-year-old veteran also committed an uncharacteristic five turnovers in Game 4 and has now turned the ball over a total of 15 times in the last three games. In the 14 playoff matches that he played in over the first three rounds of this postseason, Paul had four or more turnovers in a game just once.
Devin Booker can score the ball at an elite level, as showcased in his 42-point Game 4, but Phoenix’s offense is at its best when spreading the wealth and feeding off an efficient Paul. DeAndre Ayton, Mikal Bridges, Jae Crowder, and Cam Johnson live off Paul’s presence on the court and are direct beneficiaries of his crafty playmaking.
The “Point God” rediscovering himself is vital for the Suns’ chances and the Bucks are clearly aware. Shutting down Paul (and hounding Booker when the opportunity arises) will continue to be Holiday’s primary duty as the series approaches its climax. This will be one of the most influential factors in the outcome of these NBA Finals.
A superhuman Giannis needs just one sidekick to show up
Giannis Antetokounmpo has been the most consistent and dominant player in this series despite suffering a hyper-extended knee just a few weeks ago in the Eastern Conference Finals.
The two-time NBA Most Valuable Player’s gaudy numbers in his first-ever NBA Finals appearance have statistically put him among the game’s greatest players. He had back-to-back 40-point showings in Games 2 and 3, yet only the second of those 40-point games was a Milwaukee win.
Antetokounmpo’s all-time great production on both ends of the court keeps this Bucks team competitive and gives them a chance to win every night, but what has put them over the hump in their victories is the offensive production of Holiday and Khris Middleton.
Holiday has been atrocious from the field in three of the four NBA Finals so far, with the exception coming in their Game 3 win. He hit eight-of-14 shots, including five three pointers, to finish with 21 points and nine assists. Middleton bounced back from an 11-point Game 2 with a decent Game 3, churning out 18 points, seven rebounds, and six assists.
Come Game 4, Holiday shot an embarrassing four-of-20 from the field, but Middleton’s 40-point eruption, highlighted by his clutch fourth quarter shot-making, more than made up for it.
When at least one of these two can share the scoring load with Antetokounmpo, the Suns’ defense is penalized for focusing on Milwaukee’s superstar and puts the Bucks in prime position for victory. It should be head coach Mike Budenholzer’s priority to get at least one of Holiday and Middleton going in the early stages of Game 5.
The Suns will be hard-pressed to contain them, and their defense will have to focus not just on slowing down Antetokounmpo but limiting his pair of wingmen as well. Though Antetokounmpo has reminded everyone that he’s one of the best players in the league in these NBA Finals, he still lacks the ability to create his own shot in the half court when the game slows down over the last few minutes of the game.
If Holiday and Middleton are off their rhythm over the first three quarters, the Bucks may have a difficult time manufacturing offense come the endgame and will give the Suns a healthier chance to secure a win.
Which team’s supporting cast is ready for the moment?
Both teams have trimmed their rotation to just eight players and the production of the three reserves that each team fields has grown more critical as the series has progressed.
The sharpshooting Cam Johnson has been the Suns’ best reserve in the NBA Finals, averaging 10.5 points in over 25 minutes per game. Johnson’s ability to space the floor with his dead-eye three-point shot while providing steady defense as a 6’8 forward has been invaluable for head coach Monty Williams. He also displayed a surprising level of athleticism and had what was arguably the dunk of the playoffs so far in Game 3.
In these playoffs, he has hit at least one three in all but one of Phoenix’s games and the threat of his shooting keeps the Bucks’ defense honest. The Suns will need the same level of production, if not more, from Johnson for the rest of the series, especially with fellow back-up Cam Payne struggling to regain the form that he flashed prior to his injury in the Western Conference Finals. The defensive specialist Torrey Craig will also be needed to continue providing quality minutes and any three pointers from him are a more than welcome bonus for Phoenix.
For the Bucks, Bobby Portis may be the fan-favorite among their second unit players, but Pat Connaughton has played the most essential role in their postseason run. Thrust into a bigger role after starting guard Donte DiVincenzo was ruled out for the season in the first round of the playoffs, he has become even more important to their rotation in the NBA Finals as an athletic defender that they can throw at Booker and Paul.
Connaughton has averaged 31 minutes and has played alongside Milwaukee’s starters down the stretch in place of center Brook Lopez to give them more agility and switchability. He has also made at least two three pointers in each of the four games versus the Suns so far and his 10.3 points per game have been a welcome bonus.
With Jeff Teague practically unplayable on defense at this point in his career, Connaughton’s serviceable production as the third guard in Milwaukee’s rotation has been a welcome development for Budenholzer. Portis is their bench wild card, with his ability to score points at a high volume on occasion, but it is the consistency of Connaughton that has been an underrated yet invaluable reason that the Bucks are two wins away from winning the championship.
The superstars may get all the headlines, but it just might be the ability of these reserves to provide their teams with a fifth player who does not hurt them on either end of the floor that swings this series.
A step closer to destiny
Game 5 at the Phoenix Suns Arena will be an important one, with the winner moving within just one win of taking the Larry O’Brien NBA Championship Trophy home. Since 1984, teams that have taken a 3-2 in a best-of-seven using the 2-2-1-1-1 home-and-away format have gone on to win the series 179 out of 211 times–an 84.8% winning percentage.
The Bucks have momentum on their side after an exhilarating 109-103 Game 4 victory though the Suns have home court advantage which is especially crucial in this series where the host team has yet to lose a game.
The elusive NBA championship is closer than ever for these two teams and the moment of reckoning is here. One side will have to restart their journey to the title from scratch next season, but another will join the elusive ranks of the league’s immortal title winners.
Winning time is here and this is when legends are made.