The Phoenix Suns, playing in front of their home crowd, built a 2-0 lead over the Milwaukee Bucks in convincing fashion. Phoenix has scored an identical 118 points in the first two games, winning both by double digits, by utilizing a deadly pairing of crisp ball movement and smart defense that has left the Bucks reeling.
The Suns have used a balanced, team-based approach led by the ever-reliable pair of Chris Paul and Devin Booker. Meanwhile, the supporting cast around Milwaukee’s two-time NBA Most Valuable Player Giannis Antetokounmpo, who has been impressive despite being just two weeks removed from hyperextending his knee, has been underwhelming at best.
A couple of sequences from these first two games paint an accurate picture of what the series has been like so far for these two teams.
The first happened in Game 2, where the Bucks led for most of the first half following a strong start, but Phoenix fought back and tied the game by the middle of the second quarter. The Suns then seized command of the game and, in the dying seconds of the opening half, had built an eight-point lead.
After the two teams traded a few missed shots, Milwaukee’s starting point guard and prized offseason acquisition Jrue Holiday accelerated to the basket against Paul. Phoenix’s 6’11 center DeAndre Ayton, already sagging off Bucks forward PJ Tucker who was parked on the left corner, picked up on Holiday’s intentions and covered the paint.
Holiday tried to shake off Paul, albeit unsuccessfully, with a cross-over followed up by a behind-the-back dribble that brought him right below the free throw line. He then tried to pick up the ball, but he had unsuspectingly moved within the reach of Ayton’s 7’5 wingspan.
Ayton easily tapped the ball away and immediately handed it off to his teammate Jae Crowder, who then passed it to Paul, triggering the next sequence of beautiful basketball that is arguably the highlight of the series so far.
Paul accelerated against the struggling Holiday, who was already in the middle of a horrible shooting slump that started in Game 1, though the Bucks recovered quickly and stifled the Suns’ transition opportunity.
As he crossed the three-point line and attempted to attack the basket, Paul was met by Antetokounmpo and Pat Connaughton who had sprinted back to cover the inside. This forced him to pass it off to a cutting Booker, approaching from the opposite angle, who then zipped the ball upon receiving it. A wide-open Crowder, standing behind the three point line on the left elbow, caught Booker’s pass and squared up for a three.
Milwaukee’s swingman Khris Middleton was alerted by the threat of Crowder, who had just hit his third three-pointer of the first half a few possessions ago. The two-time All-Star Middleton rushed towards him, leaving Mikal Bridges open at the left corner.
Ever the savvy veteran, Crowder turned down the shot and instead swung the ball to Bridges who in turn tried to take a jumper, but Tucker sprinted hard at him from the paint to contest the attempt.
The third-year forward Bridges, the leading scorer for the Suns at that point in the game, used a shot fake to turn Tucker’s momentum against him and send him straight into the Milwaukee bench. Bridges then took two dribbles inside before Connaughton met him, leading to another pass back to Crowder who had now rotated to the right elbow on the other side of the court.
Crowder made another quick pass to Paul in the right corner that kept Milwaukee’s relentless switching defense on its heels, with Antetokounmpo and Holiday both charging towards Paul. The 36-year-old veteran quickly faked a shot before returning the ball to a stationary Crowder who rotated it again, this time to Booker on the left elbow.
Booker, the Suns’ top scorer in these NBA Finals at 29 points per game, tried to drive past Tucker, but the lane to the basket was blocked off by Middleton. He pulled back and instead gathered for a step-back jumper, using his sublime footwork to create a seemingly open shot. However, he could not shake Tucker who quickly challenged him, and Booker decided to throw it back to Crowder who had barely moved from his perch.
This was now Crowder’s fifth touch of the possession and he attempted another quick pass, but Middleton managed to deflect it this time around. Unfazed, Crowder recovered and picked up the loose ball then found Bridges again, this time close to the free throw line.
At this point, all of the scrambling left the Bucks with jumbled match-ups and Holiday found himself close to the rim and covering Ayton in a mismatch. When Bridges received the ball a few feet away, Holiday was the next man up and charged towards him, leaving Ayton alone under the hoop.
Bridges quickly recognized the situation and fed Ayton for what was supposedly an easy dunk, but the 6’5 Tucker sprinted from the three-point line to try and block his attempt. Ayton completed the play, drew a foul on Tucker, pumped his fist, and proceeded to calmly sink the ensuing free throw.
Just like in this possession, the Bucks suffered from the poor offensive showing of Holiday, whose turnover triggered the whole sequence. The excellent defense of the Suns cannot be overlooked as well and they read the situation perfectly. Milwaukee needs Holiday and Middleton, who also shot poorly in Game 2 after a fine Game 1, to show up and help Antetokounmpo if they are to make this series competitive.
In that succeeding possession off Holiday’s missed opportunity, Milwaukee sprinted back hard and were rabid on defense, like they were all night long. They challenged the Suns with intensity and selflessly covered for each other, yet Phoenix simply had better offense. The margin for error against this Phoenix team has grown impossibly thin as they have meshed together.
The Suns have fed off the leadership of head coach Monty Williams, Paul, and Crowder, maturing before everyone’s eyes in the postseason to become this team-oriented juggernaut on both ends of the court. Mix in the elite ability of Paul and Booker to create their own shots at the end of close games and you have a tried-and-tested recipe for an NBA champion.
They have grown more lethal by the day and their execution has become near-flawless, reminding some, to an extent, of the 2014 NBA Champion San Antonio Spurs team that tore apart the Miami Heat with surgical precision in the finals.
Another notable possession from this Suns-Bucks series happened in Game 1, coincidentally in the waning moments of the second quarter too with Phoenix also up by eight points.
A turnover from Holiday was also the starting point, this time a failed entry pass to center Brook Lopez in the paint. Lopez was fronted by Ayton and had decent position to catch the high-arching pass from Holiday.
Ayton frantically recovered, but Lopez wrestled him and had better position. Now, all he had to do was receive the ball and complete an easy lay-up, but Paul realized what was happening. He decided to help off Connaughton in the left corner and intercept the slow-moving lob.
Paul slapped the ball away and Crowder recovered it, starting what briefly looked like a three-on-two fast break opportunity. The slow-footed Crowder dribbled the ball until the half court line and after crossing it, threw a no-look bounce pass to a streaking Bridges on the right wing. Bridges caught the ball right outside the three-point line and used one dribble before gathering for a lay-up.
Unfortunately, the slight delay caused by Crowder’s Magic Johnson impersonation allowed the hustling Bucks to recover and Antetokounmpo swooped in for a chase down block that was reminiscent of LeBron James’ title-winning denial of Andre Iguodala in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals.
Milwaukee recovered nicely, with Connaughton securing possession and handing it off to Middleton for a counterattack. Holiday ran ahead, received the ball, and attacked the smaller Paul with a powerful spin move. It gave him adequate space with no shot blockers in sight, but he bungled the relatively open lay-up.
Lopez was fouled while corralling the offensive rebound, saving the possession for Milwaukee, but it was another lowlight in the difficult series that the one-time All-Star Holiday is having.
Defense is clearly not the problem for the Bucks and neither is Antetokounmpo, who followed up his 20-point and 17-rebound showing in Game 1 with a dominant 42-point outing in Game 2. It cannot be stressed enough that Holiday and Middleton will have to live up to their billing and play like they did in the previous three rounds for the Bucks to have a chance to steal the title. Antetokounmpo alone cannot take down this Suns team that is peaking at the right time of the season.
Phoenix is coming in to Game 3 at the Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee full of confidence and momentum–only two wins away from making their fanbase’s collective cry of “Suns in Four” come true–although they will have to remain focused in the face of a Bucks team that has played far below its potential in the past two games.
Milwaukee has a chance to even things up at home though it remains to be seen if Antetokounmpo’s running mates are up for the daunting challenge on the sport’s biggest stage.