Through two games, the Phoenix Suns looked to have things in the
bag against the Milwaukee Bucks. Chris Paul was dancing against
mismatches. Devin Booker was sprinkling in jumpers. Deandre Ayton
was dominating the paint on both ends of the floor. Role guys,
particularly Cam Johnson, were filling the gaps with timely
shot-making and heady defensive plays.
Then, the Bucks went home.
More specifically, the Bucks were able to take matters into
their own hands.
Their 120-100 victory over the Suns in Game 3 was huge for
obvious reasons. No team has ever come back from a 3-0 Finals
deficit; snagging a home victory puts them closer to tying things
The Bucks were able to post their best offensive (123.7) and
defensive (103.1) ratings of the series in Game 3. The "how" of
those numbers are what really stand out about the Bucks'
BRINGING THE NOISE
In Game 1, the Bucks deviated from their base defensive
coverage. Typically, a team that plays their matchups pretty
straight while dropping (deeply) against pick-and-rolls, the Bucks
opted to cross-match and switch virtually everything,
The switch, figuratively and literally, made sense on the
surface. Keep actions in front to stay out of rotation, and
cross-match in a way that took away easy mismatches. The Bucks
opted to toss PJ Tucker on Chris Paul to begin that game in
anticipation of 1-5 pick-and-rolls between Paul and Ayton.
What eventually happened, however, was that the Suns were able
to find exploits. Consistently.
The post-fronting against Ayton put a ton of strain on the
backline. The Suns were able to feed Ayton in advantageous spots.
Even when they had to work a little harder, counters were found.
The high-low sequence between Johnson and Ayton may have been the
Suns' best possession in Game 1.
Paul in particular was able to dictate terms. He went after
Brook Lopez early. Bobby Portis was put in the torture chamber.
Bryn Forbes. Pat Connaughton. It simply didn't matter after a
Fast forward to Game 3, and the Bucks' changes are evident. They
put pressure on ball-handlers from the very beginning of
possessions. It didn't matter who brought the ball up; Paul,
Booker, and Cam Payne all had to deal with full-court pressure.
The story here is the pressure and the eventual turnover. Jrue
Holiday picks up Paul at the free throw line to throw off Paul's
cadence. Payne sets a screen to free Paul, forcing a switch (and
giving us a Chris vs. Khris matchup)
Paul eventually tosses the ball away after changing his mind on
the pull-up, but peep Holiday right before Paul rises up.
That stunt from Holiday was not something we saw much of from
the Bucks in Game 1. The stunts were consistent in Game 2, though
the Bucks found themselves struggling with the balance of helping
and recovering back out to shooters.
In Game 3, the Bucks did a much better job of clogging up
driving lanes with timely stunts, while still being in position to
recover and close-out if necessary. Mixing that kind of off-ball
activity with more selective switching made the Suns have to work a
heck of a lot harder in the half-court. That, of course, was after
being made to work to even get the ball across half-court due to
the full-court pressure.
MIXING DANGER WITH DESIGN
There aren't enough good things to say about Giannis
Antetokounmpo right now. Barely two weeks removed from what looked
like a season-ending knee injury, the two-time MVP looks as
dominant as ever. Heck, he looks more dominant.
42-14-4-1-3 in Game 2. A plus-3 in a 10-point loss, somehow.
As if that wasn't enough, Giannis followed that up with a
41-13-6 performance in Game 3.
He bludgeoned the Suns inside. Feasting in transition with long
strides and wider eurosteps. He crushed the Suns on the offensive
glass; he snagged four of them, bringing his series total to 10
through three games.
What really stood out was how strategic the Bucks were in
getting Giannis favorable looks in the half-court. When discussing
half-court spacing, we generally default to the shooting ability of
whoever's on the perimeter.
That's obviously important, but the literal location of where
players are stationed is an incredibly basic, yet underrated
portion of the discussion. Stressing help defenders and putting
them in no-win situations is the goal.
Think of it this way: having Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and
peak Reggie Miller on the court at the same time means little if
they're bunched up beside each other, allowing the defense to zone
up and account for them.
The Bucks did a good job of spacing around Giannis. On some
possessions, they'd empty out a corner so that Giannis could roll
into an open lane. That would turn ball screens or dribble handoffs
into a true 2-on-2 endeavor.
You see the issue off the bat. Booker and Jae Crowder are
defending this Holiday-Giannis action. The Suns don't want to
switch Booker onto Giannis, so Crowder is forced into a drop.
Middleton is one pass away, so Mikal Bridges can't fully commit
to helping from the nail. As soon as Crowder takes an extra step
over to block Holiday's driving path, the window for a pocket pass
to Giannis opens up. Since the corner is empty, there's nobody
available to help Crowder with Giannis.
On other possessions where Giannis would operate in the middle
of the floor, the Bucks would place one shooter in the corner,
while keeping Middleton one pass away. Again, stressing out help
This is an example of the ghost-screening action mentioned in
the Bucks' series preview.
Middleton pops out, forcing Bridges to switch onto
In an ideal world, the Suns would be able to build a wall here
and cut off a Giannis drive. But look at the positioning: Middleton
is one pass away to Giannis' right, while Holiday is stashed deep
in the left corner.
Crowder comes over to help anyway, but the left side of the
"wall" is pretty open because Booker doesn't help off of Holiday.
Technically, he's not supposed to; helping off the strong side
corner is generally a big no-no.
However, conventional rules are hard to follow against an
unconventional talent like Giannis.
IT TAKES TWO
Middleton didn't have a loud night -- 18 points on 14 shots,
seven rebounds, six assists -- but it's worth noting the coverage
Through the first two games of the series, the Suns were content
to send single coverage his way. Bridges is one of the best on-ball
defenders on the planet, as well as an ace screen navigator. With
Middleton being a tough shot-maker but not necessarily a space
creator, his shot-making didn't bend Phoenix's defense.
It was odd, then, that the Suns decided to start sending two to
the ball against Middleton in ball-screen actions.
The gamble makes some sense on the surface. Middleton is a
good-not-great passer with a adequate-at-best handle to boot.
Pressuring him and then daring him to make quick, accurate reads is
a fine gamble.
However, Middleton is still 6-foot-8. All he had to do was get
rid of the ball quickly and the Bucks would be able to generate
some goodness, scrambling the defense in the process.
Guess what Middleton did?
Stuff like this:
Middleton didn't just have six assists; he had high-value
assists. Defense-scrambling assists.
As a whole, the Bucks were able to move the ball and make the
Suns uncomfortable. Having 28 assists on 43 made field goals (65.1
assist rate) is a winning formula. To that point: the Bucks are
15-4 in games they've assisted on at least 65% of their made shots
this season, playoffs included.
For the first time all series, the Bucks were able to dictate
terms on both ends of the floor. That type of force, complemented
by all-time level play from Giannis, could be enough to turn this
into a real series.