Now that the Milwaukee Bucks have avoided the dreaded 3-0 hole, Game 4 looms as the pivotal moment for both the Bucks and the Phoenix Suns.
Thanks to their Game 3 win, Milwaukee shifted some of the pressure toward the Suns, who would prefer avoiding a 2-2 tie that would bring the series back to square one and extend it to at least six games.
The gap between games is much wider than the regular season and it bodes well for both teams, who have to manage stars due to age and/or injuries. However, wins largely remain decided by strategies and in-game adjustments. There remain some commonalities as to how Phoenix and Milwaukee can secure a much-needed win, but the nuances to their approaches matter as well.
A 3-1 lead is within reach for the Suns especially if they…
Let Chris Paul lead the way
Chris Paul takes whatever the defense gives him and more often than not, it bodes well for his team. His elite basketball IQ and nearly automatic midrange jumpshot make it difficult to defend him and the rest of the team.
In Game 3, CP3 easily found his spots to score, with the Bucks preferring to live with him as a scorer than as a facilitator. While it does play into Milwaukee’s game plan, it doesn’t mean that Paul and his teammates can’t take advantage of it.
Initiating the offense has never been an issue for CP3 and doing so by upping his scoring just flips things around. Attacking the paint through midrange jumpers and layups will attract defenders and create space for his teammates, with an eager Devin Booker likely ready for another huge scoring night in Game 4.
Make ball security a priority
Turnovers are a constant with a pass-happy team like Phoenix, but limiting these miscues will prevent unnecessary scoring opportunities for Milwaukee. Paul himself struggled with taking care of the ball as his nine assists in Game 3 came off nine turnovers.
Cutting down on turnovers is easier said than done, but doing so would require being more deliberate instead of going through the motions. A loss like the one the Suns experienced in Game 3 should serve as a wake-up call, especially with a championship so near yet so far.
Keep Jrue Holiday in check
Khris Middleton gets more shine because of his ability to go nuclear (see Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals and Games 3 and 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals), but Jrue Holiday is the wild card among the marquee players. His passing numbers have stayed the same all throughout, but, just like Paul, it’s his scoring ability that makes him a huge threat when he’s got it going.
Holiday having to guard either Booker or Paul adds to his fatigue but limiting him to a facilitator role and fruitless drives to the basket will be crucial in limiting the offensive damage the former UCLA Bruin can make.
Meanwhile, the Bucks can even things out once they…
Take Deandre Ayton out of the paint
Deandre Ayton’s value was further shown in Game 3. Foul trouble limited his performance and prevented the Suns generating enough momentum to complete a comeback. Drawing fouls on Ayton is not necessarily the goal, but keeping him out of the paint will be enough to limit his effectiveness on the court. The Bahamian center’s rebounding prevents the Bucks from maximizing extra possessions that could generate extra shots for Antetokounmpo and Milwaukee’s shooters.
The number one overall pick from the 2018 NBA Draft has a respectable jumpshot, but the Bucks would rather live with his jumpers than have him score on dunks and jump hooks. He has yet to attempt a 3-pointer in the playoffs and it’s highly unlikely that he will attempt one unless it’s in the dying seconds of the game or shot clock.
Dominate inside both on offense and defense
A look at Giannis’ shot chart in Game 3 shows that while he may not have the multidimensional game of a Booker, he only needs to stay in his sweet spot to do damage. When placed with Paul’s own shot chart, it all the more points to how sticking to one’s strengths is usually an indication of a good game.
The success of the Bucks is tied to their effectiveness in the paint. At the forefront of this is Giannis Antetokounmpo, who more often than not has his way around the rim. The gravity that he draws on defense creates openings for Brook Lopez and Bobby Portis, while the Greek Freak also sets screens for Holiday and Middleton. But let’s not forget his ability to take over a game and put Milwaukee on his broad shoulders.
Dominating the paint also applies defensively. Depriving the Suns of their driving and passing lanes inside will lead to ill-advised passes and shots that the Bucks can convert into fast break points. Both Booker and Paul also love to operate inside the three-point line, despite their abilities to shoot from behind it, and containing their sweet spots can nip their offense at the bud.
Properly manage the minutes of their stars
Antetokounmpo is currently averaging 37.4 minutes this postseason, which is lower than his 40.0 minutes per game back in the 2018 NBA Playoffs but becomes all the more concerning when you remember that he had just recovered from a left knee injury. Both Middleton and Holiday are averaging upwards of 39 minutes, both career-highs.
At this point in the season, both teams have played 100 games and managing minutes becomes a challenge especially when the stakes get higher. Booker is averaging 40.1 minutes so far in these playoffs, but he sat out the fourth quarter of Game 3. Paul and Ayton both average less than 36 minutes a game, and the former has sat out some games in this postseason as well.
Milwaukee has been cautious with their rotations especially when playing from behind. Now they must weigh their options, as the wear and tear of a long season has implications for this series and in the long-run.
The keys to winning a game have never been about WHAT should be done; it’s the HOW that separates the winners on paper and those raising trophies and banners when it’s all said and done.
Both the Phoenix Suns and the Milwaukee Bucks know what they must do to win but given how uncertain things have been so far this season, executing on what it takes to win has been a different matter altogether. Success in doing so, will largely contribute to whoever will be emerging victorious over the next few weeks.