This may be the last time I’ll be writing about last year’s finalists, the Bucks and Suns, this season. Both teams play a winner-take-all Game 7 tomorrow, with the Bucks visiting the Celtics and the Suns hosting the Mavs. How did we get here?
1. Jayson Tatum is really good
As I was watching Game 6, I thought to myself, “we’ll find out if Tatum is a superstar.” Even with the Celtics in the lead through the first three quarters, everyone had the sense that the Bucks were right in it because Giannis Antetokounmpo had been unstoppable the whole game and they have the home crowd for that crucial fourth quarter push.
After the Bucks cut the deficit to four early in the fourth, 85-81, Tatum delivered a resounding riposte to doubters. Baseline jumper off a botched offensive possession to beat the shot clock. Three-pointer with shot clock running down. A 7-foot fall-away over Jrue Holiday. Just like that, the lead was back up to nine and the Bucks never threatened the rest of the way.
There’s no doubt in my mind that Tatum is a top-10 player now (I have him somewhere between 6-9). This isn’t Donovan Mitchell and Jamal Murray dropping 50s in
pick-up bubble games. He outplayed Kevin Durant in the first round and just stood toe-to-toe with the best player on the planet in Game 6. But there are different levels to superstardom and we’ll see where he’s at in Game 7.
2. So is Jason Kidd
Making fun of Jason Kidd as a coach used to be a thing. But he’s outcoached the newly minted NBA Coach of the Year Monty Williams for stretches in their second-round series, so it might be time to retire the schtick. Dallas’s five-out lineups are doing to Deandre Ayton what they did to Rudy Gobert, but the expectation going in was that Ayton would make them pay on the other end. That has been the case in Phoenix’s three wins, but it’s impressive how Kidd has been able to neutralize that in the other three. Kidd has simply been able to pull the right cards this series. Dwight Powell has only played 74 minutes in the second round compared to 106 against Utah; Frank Ntilikina, who didn’t play a single minute versus the Jazz, has logged 62 against the Suns.
Of course, it helps that the Mavs have Luka Doncic, who has firmly established himself as the unquestioned best player in the series. He and Devin Booker might both find themselves in the All-NBA First Team this season but make no mistake about the gap in their talent level. The Suns successfully hunted Luka almost every time in the first two games, but Kidd figured out that Luka can hunt almost every other Sun too. The Suns have been freely giving up switches this series, and Luka’s made them pay.
3. The Bucks miss Khris Middleton
Giannis is averaging 35.3 points in this series but the Bucks are missing not only Middleton’s ability to close out games (see Game 4), but his offensive production in general. Holiday is averaging 21 points on an inefficient 22.1 attempts per game. All of their rotation guys, except Pat Connaughton, are averaging fewer points per game compared to their regular season and first-round series averages.
I promised never to slander Jrue again, and I absolutely appreciate how he rescued the Bucks in Game 5, but this series shows why he can’t be the second-best player on a championship team. His offensive game just isn’t consistent and polished enough to be relied upon night-in and night-out. He’s fine as the third banana, but it’s an extremely tall task to squeeze out four wins against this level of competition if he has to be the second option.
4. The Suns miss Chris Paul
Chris Paul’s first eight games this postseason: 21.6 points, 9.9 assists, 1.6 turnovers
His last four games: 9.3 points, 6.3 assists, 4.5 turnovers
That’s been the story for the Suns’ offensive struggles—and that’s been the problem when evaluating Paul’s place in basketball’s pantheon. He’ll give you all-time great performances (like the big fourth quarters against the Pelicans and in Game 2 of this series) but he’ll have these baffling lulls that make you wonder what the hell is wrong. It happened in the Finals last year and, at 37, it may be happening earlier this time around.
5. Two Game 7’s but two different series
Just a couple of more observations before wrapping up this week’s column:
• The home team has won every game in the Suns-Mavs series; each of the Bucks and Celtics have won two games apiece on the road.
• All Mavs-Suns games were practically blowouts (the Suns’ Game 1 win was more lopsided than the final seven-point margin suggests). The last four games of the Bucks and Celtics were all fairly close heading into the final two minutes.
• One thing Dallas and Boston have in common is that they are both outshooting their opponents from deep in their respective series. The Mavs have made 26 more threes compared to Phoenix (that’s +78 points if you do the math), while the Celtics have converted 35 more than the Bucks (+105 points). That’s been the great equalizer for these two teams and their chances of advancing likely hinge on how well they shoot the three-ball in Game 7.
6. Throwback video of the week
There have been plenty of great Game 7’s in the conference semis throughout the NBA’s 75-year history (1990 Blazers-Spurs, 1995 Knicks-Pacers, 2000 Knicks-Heat, 2001 Sixers-Raptors, 2006 Mavs-Spurs, 2008 Celtics-Cavs, 2019 Raptors-Sixers, and 2021 Bucks-Nets just to name a few). For this week’s throwback, I’m going with the Suns-Rockets matchup in 1995. The game is perhaps best known for Mario Elie’s “Kiss of Death” with 7.1 seconds left, and featured current Inside the NBA analysts Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith.
Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler had 29 apiece for the Rockets. Kevin Johnson had a playoff career-high 46 for the Suns, most of them on Kenny. Chuck had a subpar offensive game with just 18 points on 7-of-16 shooting, though he did grab 23 boards.