Home is where the heart is so far in the 2021 NBA Finals, and for the first time in this series, the Phoenix Suns were on the other side of it.
The Milwaukee Bucks clearly took advantage of the comforts of home as a strong combined effort from Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, and Jrue Holiday led to a much-needed 120-100 win to cut the series deficit to 2-1.
A strong third quarter from the Bucks shut down any thoughts of a Phoenix Suns fight back and the aggression with which Antetokounmpo and Co. attacked made it difficult for the Suns to regain any momentum.
Milwaukee came out with a more aggressive approach and that largely had to do with the foul trouble that plagued Deandre Ayton. In the previous two games, the Bahamian center had averaged 16 points and 15 rebounds, numbers that largely summed up his presence in limiting the Bucks’ offensive boards and extra possessions. With his effort and production, it was hard to imagine that this was his first playoff run.
He may have finished with 18 points and nine rebounds in Game 3, but his production was far more limited because of his foul troubles. All but two of his points came before halftime but during that span, he also had three fouls, two of which came within the last 1:32 of the second quarter. The Greek Freak took advantage of this development and to make matters worse for Phoenix, he even made 13 of his 17 free throws. The rest of the team followed suit as both Middleton and Holiday had their best games in this finals series with Ayton playing limited minutes.
It wasn’t just Ayton, however, that Phoenix sorely missed as Devin Booker struggled throughout Game 3 and couldn’t provide the same offensive punch that typically complemented Chris Paul and at times made the Suns look unguardable. His 10 points on 14 shots stood out like a sore thumb and today seemed to be the day that Milwaukee’s efforts to be physical with the two-time all-star paid off as he could not get his usual shots in.
His offensive struggles also spilled over to his teammate Mikal Bridges, who only had four shot attempts in this game. While it’s not something to classify as a bad game, his lost production could not be offset by Jae Crowder’s 18 points, which were more than what he scored in the last two games.
With the way the numbers played out, it can also be said that the Bucks would rather that Paul be looking to pass than score. The 16-year veteran’s midrange game continues to be a riddle that the Milwaukee defense couldn’t completely solve and him going to it produces the same effect as when Booker is on target: it opens things up for his teammates.
CP3 going to his midrange game also forces the Bucks to choose to either contest the jumper or stay on Ayton to prevent the easy lob or drop pass. With the number one overall pick from the 2018 NBA Draft saddled with foul trouble, it became much easier to stay on Paul and force him into attempting to create plays. Not all of Paul’s teammates brought their A-game offensively and the Bucks would rather live with the possibility of a different Sun’s shot rather than a midrange jumper from Paul, given that those are pretty much automatic.
Apart from it not being a Scott Foster-officiated game, the key to Game 4 for Phoenix would be countering the Milwaukee’s newfound aggression with that of their own. The Bucks sensed that the Suns were like deer in the headlights (no pun intended) especially with key contributors Ayton and Booker struggling.
Defensively, containing Antetokounmpo, Holiday, and Middleton would likely entail being more physical as this series has shown that Middleton has generally shied away from contact. Antetokounmpo will not have another 13-of-17 night from the free throw line and it took three games before Middleton attempted his first free throws.
Game 4 on Friday will once again be in Milwaukee, and it could prove to be a pivotal game for both teams. While the game will spell the difference between a 3-1 series lead or a 2-2 series tie, a renewed mindset for the Suns would help them recover from may be the Milwaukee Bucks’ best punch of the series.
Being at home can only do so much, and the Phoenix Suns must rediscover that effort on the road, which led to three successive close outs in their previous series.