The Phoenix Suns have protected their home court with a 118-108 Game 2 victory against a Bucks team that repeatedly felt so close to stealing it. Here are a few takeaways from a game the Suns offense won, as much as the Bucks offense lost.
Devin Booker, definitely a superstar
The Suns found a way to score every time they had to, pretty much from the start. Mikal Bridges met Milwaukee’s early intensity with a few tough threes. Chris Paul snuck some huge mid-range pull-ups against a scheme that worked hard to take them away. The entire team, especially Deandre Ayton, scrapped on the offensive glass, corralled several 50-50 balls, and created critical second-chance opportunities.
No individual had a larger overall impact than Devin Booker, though. Phoenix’s top scorer finished with 31 points and seven threes. It wasn’t the most efficient night because he didn’t attempt a single free throw, but if degree of difficulty factored into how many points each of his baskets was worth, Booker would’ve tallied somewhere between 75-80 points. His ridiculous free-throw fadeaway over Giannis Antetokounmpo made even less sense than the 31-foot bomb he cashed from the right wing (an area of the floor he completely dominated all night long).
Booker literally shrugged off Khris Middleton in several fourth-quarter isolations, relocated for a wide-open straight away three out of Phoenix’s Spain pick-and-roll, and nailed one contested pull-up after the next. Every element of his skill level was present throughout the most important game of his young career. “Be Legendary” indeed.
The Bucks wasted Giannis's greatness
Despite some ugly free throws, questionable threes and an achy knee that chilled the blood of every Bucks fan whenever he crashed into the ground, Antetokounmpo very much looked like a two-time NBA MVP in the second half of Game 2. His 20-point third quarter was historic (no player in the Finals has topped that mark in a single quarter since at least 1997—though a few have surpassed it earlier in these playoffs).
It’s hard to conjure a more physically unstoppable player. Giannis’ power was ungodly. He took 12 shots in the paint and 11 of them went in, flying for transition dunks and trucking his way to the front of the rim in half-court situations. Antetokounmpo’s dexterity was also on display: Standing at the nail on two occasions, he carefully placed a pair of incredibly difficult one-legged fadeaways on the rim before they plopped through the net. A few post-up turnarounds along the baseline were works of art when he appeared on the verge of an empty tank.
Through it all, he kept coming. The Suns had no choice but to foul him (unintentionally) and hope he’d miss the freebies. Monty Williams eventually had to move Deandre Ayton off Giannis and hope Jae Crowder could hold his own. No dice. The Bucks started bringing Khris Middleton up to set flat ball screens near the top of the key, dragging Bridges into the action with more unpleasant results.
Antetokounmpo finished with 42 points, 12 rebounds, four assists and three blocks. He was +3 in 40 minutes, two days after he logged 35, many of them as a center who was switching screens, protecting the rim, sprinting out to shooters, and exerting as much energy as anyone possibly could. There were moments where he couldn’t help but limp, somehow making the performance even more remarkable. Now, with two days to rest his knee, the Bucks may need even more out of their franchise superstar if they want to make these Finals a series. Unless, of course, Jrue Holiday or Middleton (who combined for 28 points on 37 shots) decide to show up. Offensively in Game 2, both were humongous disappointments.
Milwaukee's defense was better
In Game 1, the Bucks didn’t look like the team that entered these Finals with the postseason’s top defense. Instead of executing the drop coverage they’re known for, Milwaukee spent the entire first half switching their bigs out onto Phoenix’s star guards, a strategic decision that filled Booker and Paul with confidence every time they touched the ball.
In Game 2, the Bucks reverted back to what they’re great at. Brook Lopez stayed in the paint defending pick-and-rolls and did a terrific job giving whoever was on the ball enough time to recover over the screen before he himself dipped back to Ayton. It was masterful coverage for most of the game, and helped Milwaukee look more like Milwaukee. One of the more disciplined defenses in basketball, the Bucks committed way too many fouls in Game 1. In Game 2, the Suns took their first free-throw with 14.9 seconds left in the first half.
All was not perfect, though. It can’t be against an offense like Phoenix’s that’s able to recognize an opponent’s thought process in real time and then counter. Example: When the Suns realized the Bucks were switching 1-4 but not with Lopez, they had Crowder slip a ball screen for Chris Paul, which immediately led to Crowder kicking it out to Bridges in the corner for an open three.
The Suns quickly understood that the Bucks came into the game wanting to eliminate as much dribble penetration as they could. They shrunk the floor and packed the paint as much as they could. Whenever a ball-handler turned the corner, another Bucks defender was already waiting in the gap to take any progress away. Phoenix responded by getting off the ball at the right time, especially when someone stunted an inch too far off a three-point shooter.
In the first half, the Suns made seven corner threes, an area where a whopping 26% of all their field goal attempts came from. During the regular season, the highest shot frequency Milwaukee allowed from the corner was 17%. (Coming into Game 2, only 5.8% of their opponent’s shots in non-garbage time minutes were from the corner, lower than every team in this postseason except the Spurs, who didn’t survive the play-in tournament.)
But all in all, the Bucks carried out Coach Budenholzer’s scheme well enough to win. They were attentive and quick to the ball, pressuring Paul 94 feet, turning him as he dribbled up the floor. There were even well-executed pre-switches where, when the Suns clearly wanted to hunt Lopez with a high screen, Holiday would drift up off Booker and take the assignment so Lopez could stay near the basket. (A couple times the Suns swung the ball back to Booker, which forced Lopez out on an island. But the results on those possessions were mixed as the Bucks befriended the shot clock.)
In the end, Milwaukee lost because Holiday and Middleton couldn’t score. If they head into Game 3 with the same defensive focus and intensity, there’s no reason why this series can’t be tied this time next week.
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