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Bucks' Big Three clicks, same mental toughness shows in Game 5 win

Bucks' Big Three clicks, same mental toughness shows in Game 5 win

With the 2021 NBA Finals underway, BasketballNews.com will have you covered every step up the way with the top storylines, breakdowns, player quotes and more. Here are Spencer Davies' observations from the Milwaukee Bucks' perspective after their 123-119 win in Game 5:

Going back on the road with a tied series after falling into an 0-2 hole in the NBA Finals, the Milwaukee Bucks’ resilience was on full display, grinding their way yet again to a third straight win over the Phoenix Suns, 123-119. In a shocking turn of events, the Bucks are one victory away from an NBA championship.

Falling behind by as much as 16 points in the first quarter, Milwaukee stormed back and outscored the Suns 79-53 over the next two periods, flipping the momentum to stun the crowd at the newly-named Footprint Center. Although the Suns would make a run and cut it down to a one-point game in the final minute, timely plays and critical shots from the Bucks’ Big Three allowed the road team to close this one out.

“I feel like we don't stop,” Giannis Antetokounmpo said after rallying to the win. “I feel like -- I've been a part of different teams. Usually when you're down 15 or 16 or whatever, down 0-2 or whatever the case might be, you kind of like, stop. You kind of stop competing in a way. But I feel like this team, we don't do that. We haven't done that all year long, I think. I can't remember, I can't go that far back, but we keep competing...because we know the game is long; it's 48 minutes, and we always try to put ourselves in a position to win the game. That's all you can ask for. 

“You go into a game, you don't know if you're going to win the game but you know if we compete for 48 minutes, we are good. We have great players, great closers, great shooters, great rebounders, great defenders, have a great coach and we know that we can put ourselves in a position to win the game.”

“I think they have been in a lot of close games,” Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer said. ‘It's a very mature group. There's a lot of confidence. I think there's a natural poise with the group. We don't necessarily talk about it, but you can feel it in the huddles.”

With 27 points and 13 assists, Jrue Holiday had his finest offensive game of the series, but it was his defense that propelled Milwaukee to the finish line. As the clock wound down and Phoenix had the ball with 29.2 seconds left down one, Devin Booker drove on PJ Tucker and forced him left. Holiday was at the nail, and ripped the Suns’ star to begin a fastbreak, which ultimately ended up being the exclamation point to a sensational night. The Bucks guard wisely pushed the pace without rushing, and lobbed the ball from the left perimeter to a rising Giannis Antetokounmpo with a full head of steam. 

“Honestly it was great team defense,” Holiday said. I feel like we knew Booker wanted to take that last shot and played great defense on him and made him turn his back and he turned right into me. I guess I was just in the right place at the right time...I was going to [pull the ball out and wait to get fouled after the steal], and Chris I think kind of played in between, but Giannis took off and he was calling for the ball.”

“Big time. Big-time steal. Showing a crowd, they didn't get to the spot and he came from behind and ripped the ball out,” Giannis added. “He can go down to the other end and just, you know, go for like a full play, run the clock down. But he trusted me and made an incredible pass, also, for the lob. It was big time. It was a big-time play. It was the winning play of the game.”

As the pair flexed in celebration, their connection took the wind out of the sails of every Suns fan in the arena.

“At that point, I just threw it as high as I could and only where Giannis could go get it, and he went up there, got it...they don't call him the Freak for nothing. I threw it as high as I could,” Holiday said.

“I saw Chris Paul and then I started sprinting, and I saw nobody was around me. He didn't want to throw me the ball at first, but I was like, ‘Throw it, throw it, throw it,’” Giannis said. And then he threw it. He trusted me. After the game I was like, Thank you for trusting me. He could throw it and make a wrong pass and that would be on him as the point guard. The coach would say, You're supposed to keep the ball. But he trusted me and he knows I'm going to finish the play. That says a lot to me. I went up to him after the game and I told him that, too.”

While Holiday was delivering on his playmaking, pull-up jumpers and threes, Giannis was asserting himself on the block, and for another night, was extremely decisive and quick-witted, committing zero turnovers. If he wasn’t using the hook shot or a short-range turnaround, he was finding an open teammate. There was no lull in the game that we’ve seen in the past, no hesitancy on the next move or no foolish shots being taken. 

“He did a great job,” Middleton said of Giannis. “The same randomness with the traps on the pick-and-rolls, they double-teamed him randomly on the block throughout the game and a couple times during the series. He's been doing a great job knowing when he could sometimes beat it, and knowing when they are coming in, finding that outlet out and letting us attack on the back side and also knowing when they are not coming. He's done a great job, for sure.”

Despite a modest 11 attempts at the free-throw line, Giannis put plenty of pressure on the rim and continued to make a gigantic impact on the interior, including a pair of putback jams and a backtap off his own miss at the charity stripe that basically sealed the game. Giannis produced a 32-point, 9-rebound, 6-assist stat line.

Of course, we can’t forget about the ice in Middleton’s veins. It was a rather rocky start for Milwaukee’s scoring assassin, making just one of his first seven shots and only having nine points at halftime. However, Middleton began to turn on the jets in the third quarter, cashing in on difficult look after difficult look. He was nailing threes, contested baseline mid-rangers, off-balance jumpers -- you name it. And when money time came around, Middleton delivered as he has in pivotal games all postseason long, notching 20 of his 29 points in the second half.

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Maybe the most important moment of the game was from the beginning of the second quarter to the 6:14 mark of the period. With Giannis on the bench, the Bucks cut the deficit all the way to three. Pat Connaughton and Bobby Portis led the charge, bringing their impact from Milwaukee to the desert when the team needed it most. They had 18 points combined in the first half, with all 9 of Portis’ coming in that stretch. 

“Great momentum. We were able to keep our composure. We were making our shots, we were getting downhill and we were defending. We were down 16. That's what our team is about,” Giannis said. “You can go the other way and go, yeah, okay, this is not the night. No, we kept playing hard, especially that group that [led the comeback]. They kept moving the ball, kept getting open shots and they were knocking it down, too. They played great in that stretch.”

“I think Coach has a feel for [the rotation] every game,” Connaughton said. “We have lineups that are in rhythm and making runs, and he kind of lets us ride. Oftentimes Giannis is in the game for those runs, but it just shows that we've got a true team and we have Giannis' back just like he has our back. We're moving the ball. We were playing defense. We were doing things that Bucks basketball does, so it doesn't really matter who is on the floor for it.”

Offensive rebounding, timely triples and all-out defense were aplenty, especially from Connaughton. Any time the Suns would try to pull away, he would hit a three from the corner to settle Milwaukee down. When Booker wasn’t nailing his patented, ridiculously tough middies, Connaughton was cutting him off and getting a hand in his face. His defensive tenacity was felt on the floor in a big way, and his teammates rewarded him for it on the other end. 

“He doesn't need the ball all the time,” Holiday said. “He knocks down open shots. He's gritty. He gets there into the paint and offensive rebounds, big defensive rebounds, and he's one of those role players that honestly is reliable, one of the most reliable that we have on our team. Pat has been huge for us all year, and he'll continue to do that.”

This felt like the first time in these Finals that the Bucks’ Big Three all clicked at once, particularly from an offensive production standpoint. There have been times where Giannis and Middleton had it going, with Holiday having an off shooting night. The same goes for Giannis and Holiday, with Middleton being somewhat cold. On this night, a series-altering Game 5 in a tied scenario, all three were on their A-game, and the bench duo of Connaughton and Portis provided a boost for the brief moments that they needed a jolt.

“[It] makes everything more balanced and makes life easier for everybody,” Khris Middleton said of when each of the Bucks’ Big Three has it going. “Knowing that we play together and we have everybody clicking on all cylinders, we're tough to guard. Obviously on defense, we can click. We can switch and we know how to have each other's back. But when we are all playing well, we're one of the best teams, for sure.”

Just one win stands in the way of a Bucks championship season. Now they’re the ones who have to take care of business, while the Suns are playing the role of the desperate team with its back against the wall. 

“It's a test. It's a big, big test,” Giannis said of mentally preparing for a chance to end the series and win the Finals. “You've got to enjoy the moment. We have to enjoy the moment. Winning a game on the road, we have to enjoy the moment. But the job is not done. We have to realize that. We have got to stay in the present. It doesn't mean we are going to go back home and win Game 6. Probably Phoenix thought the same thing: They were going to come back home and win Game 5. Come to Milwaukee, try to win again.

"But we've got to stay humble. We've got to be in the present and stay humble as much as possible. When this team is humble, this team is very, very dangerous. I feel we play at our best when we are humble. There's steps to it. When the game starts, we have to take it a possession at a time and hopefully we can be in a position to win the game. If we are in a good position to win the game, we have great closers on our team -- Jrue, Khris, me -- that we have an opportunity to win the game.”

How quickly things can change.

“We don't really care if it's Bucks in whatever [amount of games]; we just want it to be Bucks, right,” Connaughton said. “I think it's been great to rally the fan base. I think they have actually had it for a few years, so it's been a cool thing to hear and see. But at the end of the day, we go out there every single night trying to win, trying to represent the city of Milwaukee to the best of our ability. We've got to do it again. The job's not done. It was a great win tonight. We had each other's backs and there was ebbs and flows to the game that I think really brought us together and showed us that we can fight through adversity. But we've still got one more.”

“It means a lot. But I can't get too carried away. I have to stay in the present. I can't worry about the outcome,” Giannis said. “Obviously we know what the deal is. It's one game away from being an NBA champ, being in the history of this game, being always there. You know, nobody can take that away from you. Doing it in front of our families and our fans, it's big. It's going to be big. That can wait. We've got to focus and keep playing good basketball. We've got to go back home and we've got to recover...There's steps to it before the game.

“If we do all these things right and we are disciplined, once the game starts and we play good basketball and we have the energy of the fans because we know they are going to be loud, and we have an opportunity to win the NBA championship, it's going to be amazing to do it in front of our fans.”

Game 6 is set for tip-off at Fiserv Forum on Tuesday night at 9 p.m. ET

For Game 1 observations from the Bucks' perspective, click here.
For Game 2 observations from the Bucks' perspective, click here.
For Game 3 observations from the Bucks' perspective, click here.
For Game 4 observations from the Bucks' perspective, click here.

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