After losing the first game of the 2021 NBA Finals to the Phoenix Suns, the Milwaukee Bucks opened Game 2 at the Phoenix Suns Arena with a sense of urgency.
They quickly built a nine-point lead over the first seven minutes of the contest before their offense began to sputter. Phoenix clawed back in the second quarter and finished it with a 15-4 flurry that put them up by 11 points at halftime.
Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton combined for just 11 points in the first half, shooting an abysmal 5 of 24 from the field, yet the Bucks remained within striking distance on the strength of their defense.
The Suns quickly extended their lead to 15 points to begin the second half, but Giannis Antetokounmpo, playing despite hyperextending his knee in the Eastern Conference Finals less than two weeks ago, took matters into his own hands.
The two-time NBA Most Valuable Player was all over the court for the Bucks. He scored 19 of his 29 second half points in the third quarter, even hitting a few jump shots and free throws in the process and put the Bucks on his broad shoulders while the rest of his teammates struggled to hit a shot.
Antetokounmpo’s strong third quarter was only enough to trim the Suns’ advantage to ten points by the end of the third period. Milwaukee had a run in them and managed to pull within five with less than nine minutes left, but the Suns promptly responded with an 8-0 run and went on to take Game 2, 118-108. Phoenix hit a franchise-record 20 threes in their victory that established a 2-0 lead in the best-of-seven NBA Finals.
Antetokounmpo finished with a heroic 42 points, 12 rebounds, and four assists in the loss. Unfortunately, the rest of the Bucks’ starters could not provide him with reliable support and wasted one of the finest NBA Finals performances in recent history.
Holiday had recovered from a sluggish first half and had what looked like a decent statline with 17 points, five rebounds, and seven assists. He made just seven of his 21 attempts from the field though, with most of those misses coming at the rim or in the paint.
He has had a fine first postseason with the Bucks, with averages of 17.2 points, 5.7 rebounds, and 8.4 assists coming into Game 2 of the NBA Finals. In the Eastern Conference Finals, the one-time All-Star played his best basketball of the postseason, especially in the last two games of the series when they were without Antetokounmpo.
However, Holiday’s shooting percentages have fallen off greatly from their healthy regular season levels where he shot 50.3% on field goals, 39.2% on three pointers, and 78.7% on free throws. In the playoffs, his numbers have plunged to 41.7% from the field and 28.8% on threes while making just 67.4% of his free throws.
His on-ball defense has remained elite, even now against the Suns’ prolific backcourt of Chris Paul and Devin Booker, which helped his poor postseason percentages go relatively unnoticed before it hit a new low in the first two games of the NBA Finals.
Holiday was brought in as a perceived upgrade to Milwaukee’s previous starter, Eric Bledsoe, and while both his talent and body of work in the NBA are superior, the two point guards have looked rather identical in the postseason.
The two-time All-Star Middleton could not do much either and followed up a 29-point Game 1 with just 11 points on five-for-16 shooting in Game 2. The ever-inconsistent Middleton, who at times can look like the Bucks’ best player over some stretches, will have to find some semblance of consistency if they are to make this series competitive.
The task at hand for Middleton is not an easy one, with the Suns’ best perimeter defender in Mikal Bridges hounding him at every corner. Still in just his third NBA season, Bridges thoroughly outplayed the veteran Middleton on both ends of the court in Game 2, highlighted by a career-playoff high 27 points.
Middleton’s previous performances this postseason, particularly in the last two rounds, are a reminder of how good he can be. The challenge for him and the Bucks will be determining how often they can get that version of him to show up for them versus the Suns. With two losses already in their ledger, Milwaukee will need him to show up every night for them not to waste their first NBA Finals appearance since 1974.
Reserve Pat Connaughton built off the momentum of his successful Game 1 stint and provided Milwaukee with a spark, hitting four threes en-route to 14 points while playing tough defense.
He has played a crucial role for them in the face of the guard-heavy Suns, but it also serves as a reminder that the Bucks are sorely missing the services of starting guard Donte DiVincenzo who was deemed out for the season after suffering an injury in the opening round of these playoffs. A hard-nosed and athletic defender with a consistent three-point shot, DiVincenzo would have provided the Bucks an above-average defensive tag-team partner for Holiday while providing floor spacing on the other end.
Holiday, Middleton, and the rest of the Bucks will have to step up as the series shifts to Milwaukee for the next two games. Antetokounmpo, who played 40 minutes in Game 2 on a knee that was hyperextended less than two weeks ago, has given it his all.
When he plays at this all-time great level, even just a reasonable performance from one of his supporting stars may be enough to bring home a win. It is unreasonable to expect Antetokounmpo to play the entire game, although with how they have played with him on the bench, head coach Mike Budenholzer might not have a choice come Game 3.