It's not a series until the home team loses. That's the old
Through four games, the home team has come out victorious. The
Phoenix Suns looked like a ball-popping, shot-making buzzsaw
through the first two games of the NBA Finals. The Milwaukee Bucks
responded with full-court pressure and active helpers on defense,
and an emphasis on paint bludgeoning on the other end.
Chris Paul, Devin Booker, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Khris
Middleton have all had signature performances in this series. Cam
Johnson, Cam Payne, Bobby Portis, and Pat Connaughton have all made
timely impacts throughout this series. Both Monty Williams and Mike
Budenholzer have presented counters -- and sometimes, counters to
those counters -- to what the other is doing.
Clutch your pearls too tightly, focus on the ratings too much,
and you may miss out on what is turning into a phenomenal series
between pretty evenly matched teams.
Now, here we are: a best-of-seven has turned into a
Here are a few questions that I have that could decide the back
end of this series.
1) WHO WILL CONTROL THE TEMPO?
As even as the Suns and Bucks are, they couldn't be further
apart in terms of how they want to play.
During the regular season, the Bucks ranked second in pace (102.85) while
the Suns ranked 24th (98.00). Per Cleaning The Glass, only two
teams had a lower percentage of their possessions come in the
half-court than the Bucks (78.2). The Suns, on the other hand,
ranked just outside of the top 10 (81.2).
In short: the Bucks want to push in transition and keep you on
your heels, while the Suns want to minimize the possession count
and execute you to death.
Game 1 was a Bucks game in terms of pace (101.5), but the series
has generally been in the Suns' wheelhouse. The shift, however, is
that the Bucks have found a way to bring the game into the mud.
Playing slow is one thing; being sluggish and stagnant is
The Bucks' decision to implement full-court or 3/4-court
pressure has helped take the Suns out of rhythm. It's hard to
overstate how good of a job Jrue Holiday has done on Chris Paul,
forcing him to work hard to even get the ball across
When they're able to get across half-court, the Suns have had to
deal with more bodies. The Bucks have been more intentional about
providing help at the elbows, clogging up driving lanes and forcing
a mid-range heavy team into more contested shots.
This has bothered the Suns on two accounts. The added pressure
has forced them to work later in the clock than they're comfortable
with. During the regular season, 19.8% of the Suns' possessions
ended with seven-or-fewer seconds left on the shot clock. In the
Finals, that number has risen to 27%.
The pendulum has also swung the other way at times. In an effort
to not get bogged down, the Suns have opted to take the first
decent look they see, as opposed to working to truly scramble the
Bucks in the halfcourt like they did in the first two games. Take
this stretch for example:
P.J. Tucker picks up Booker at half-court. As Booker and Deandre
Ayton flow into an empty corner pick-and-roll, peep the help from
Holiday to ensure Booker isn't able to force Lopez into a
pick-your-poison scenario. Holiday's able to get a hand on the
ball, force a turnover, and the Bucks get points out of the
Before the next possession even begins, Middleton hangs back to
take away an early inbound pass to Paul. Once Paul receives the
pass, Holiday is there to pick up Paul before crossing
Paul is able to shake free a bit before driving into a ton of
help, leading to a relief pass to Ayton and an early mid-range
jumper. Decent look, but it's hard to call it Suns Basketball.
2) CAN PHOENIX KEEP MILWAUKEE OFF THE
Tucker has been a bit of a bellwether in this series. Individual
plus-minus isn't the end-all be-all by any means, but Tucker being
a minus-19 across the first two games and a plus-9 over the last
two seems pretty on-the-nose.
You know his primary function: bother, mirror, and be physical
with whoever he's tasked with guarding. You know his secondary
function: knock down as many corner threes as possible.
What has become a bigger deal is Tucker's timely rebounding. His
motor speaks for itself; he's also in a better spot to create extra
possessions because of Phoenix's decision to put Paul on him in an
act of conservation.
On one hand, Tucker isn't a dangerous pick-and-roll or
pick-and-pop threat, nor is he doing anything off the dribble. The
gambit makes sense within that context.
On the other hand, it leads to stuff like this:
Tucker absolutely trucks Paul before coming up with the miss,
then firing the kick-out that eventually leads to a trip to the
free throw line.
The Suns already have their hands full with Giannis being a
monster, Portis mixing it up (six offensive rebounds over the past
two games), and Lopez slicing in to box out for his teammates.
Tucker's activity is further tilting things in Milwaukee's favor.
To that point: the Bucks have rebounded nearly 31% of their own misses in the
series, after posting a 26.9% clip during the regular season.
3) WHAT IS BROOK LOPEZ'S ROLE MOVING
That's the primary shot Lopez has taken (and missed) in this
That number also signifies how many post-up shots Lopez has
logged in this series.
The latter is a bit frustrating considering how good of a post
player Lopez has been throughout his career. Even with the caveat
that the game has changed, and that he has value as a spacer to
open up the floor for his more talented teammates, it's odd
watching possessions where Lopez floats as a default.
Like, there have been possessions in which Booker has drawn the
Lopez assignment and there has been no effort to give Lopez the
ball, no effort from Lopez to seal, or both. It's just weird.
Combine that with the fact that Lopez hasn't actually been
knocking down shots -- he went 2-of-9 from deep in the Milwaukee
games, and is shooting 25% in the series -- and you begin to see
why his minutes have started to dwindle.
Add in the Bucks finding goodness with Giannis at the 5, and
that the Giannis-Portis frontcourt in particular is generating
goodness (plus-25 in 42 minutes together)
and you have more ammo to limit Lopez's playing time.
That may not be particularly fair. He's mostly fine at
navigating the drop defensively, and has continued to showcase
comfort playing closer to the level of the screen when necessary.
But "fine" and "comfortable" only mean so much if Giannis is able
to not only replicate that, but exceed it.
If Lopez isn't able to find his way offensively -- either
knocking down threes at a higher clip, or mixing in more random
cuts -- it's hard to argue against his minutes being cut.
4) WHICH VERSION OF DEANDRE AYTON WILL THE SUNS
Ayton has been a godsend to the Suns throughout this entire
postseason run. The defense has improved. He's running the floor
incredibly hard. He's doing his homework early, sealing off dudes
in transition, or punishing smaller players on the offensive
There will be built-in exploits for him whenever the Bucks
switch smaller players on him. If they front, high-low
opportunities are present if a wing relocates. Ayton doesn't get
the bucket here, but the threat of him getting a layup frees Mikal
Bridges for this jumper:
But Ayton has to 1) be available and 2) play with a consistent
level of force to really bother the Bucks. His foul trouble in Game
3 (further) exposed the lack of depth behind him. In Game 4, there
were too many possessions in which he didn't lean into his physical
advantages. Like, what exactly is this?
Please, just bully Connaughton.
The Suns are going to need Ayton to be a consistent part of the
offense. His screening matters. The offensive rebounding matters.
As mentioned in the series preview, Ayton's ability
to abuse smaller players after switches will absolutely matter.
- Which Chris/Khris is going to make more jumpers? It may be as
simple as that for the second options of their respective teams.
They're similar in that neither consistently generate separation in
isolation. They're tough, contested shot-makers at heart. We saw
what that looked like in Game 1 for Paul, and what that looked like
in Game 4 for Middleton.
- Is there a way to get Mikal Bridges more involved offensively?
Steve Jones Jr. and I discussed this on the latest
episode of The Dunker Spot, but it'd be
nice for Phoenix to find a way to unlock him in more ways.
- Can Holiday make layups again? It feels like a troll question,
but I'm genuinely concerned. I don't get how a guy that converted a
career-high 70.2% of his shots inside of three feet this season has
suddenly forgot how to make, in theory, the second-easiest shot in
basketball (if we're to assume that dunks, layups, and free throws
are the top three). Generating rim pressure is important! Missing
layups is a major buzzkill, though.