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Spectacular Giannis, Holiday-Middleton clunkers define Bucks' Game 2

Spectacular Giannis, Holiday-Middleton clunkers define Bucks' Game 2

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 118-105 loss in Game 2:

Just a short time after he thought his year was over, Giannis Antetokounmpo gave the world an all-time performance. Unfortunately for the Milwaukee Bucks, he was about the only one that they could depend on.

Giannis finished with a postseason career-high 42 points and 12 rebounds, playing with sheer force and bullying his way to the bucket with ease. He put the ball on the floor with some nifty dribble moves, backed down his opponents deep in the paint and got to the free-throw line as a result. Defensively, he was flawless as a helper on the weak side and active with his hands and long arms. Greek Freak’s third quarter was nothing short of dominant, keeping the Bucks in the game with his power and realization that nobody on the floor could answer for his stature.

To Milwaukee’s chagrin, it just wasn’t enough, as the Phoenix Suns defended home court with a 118-108 win to take a 2-0 lead in the NBA Finals.

“I just tried to be aggressive. Miss or make, gotta be aggressive,” Giannis said postgame following the Game 2 loss. “Got to leave everything on the court. You know, just focusing on my body, my technique, everything I do.

“Personally I think to win this series, it's going to be all mental. I feel like there's so much talent on both teams. It's going to be mental,” Giannis said after the Game 2 loss. “It's going to be the constant pressure. That's what I want to put to the other team. Obviously they get tired, we get tired, Khris [Middleton] gets tired, I get tired, but we have to keep coming over and over again as a team. Keep being aggressive and keep pressuring them and having that constant pressure putting on them. That's what I was trying to do.”

Any time the Bucks shortened the deficit, Chris Paul would knock down a patented off-balance mid-ranger over the top or a timely three, and if it wasn’t him, it was Devin Booker knocking down momentum-killing jumpers from wherever he pleased. The Bucks’ defensive adjustments worked; this was just a classic case of great offense beating great defense. 

“You know, we're pros. They can keep making them. I've seen it happen,” said Pat Connaughton, who contributed 14 points and 7 rebounds off the Milwaukee bench. “I think we definitely tried to make some adjustments at halftime. We were active in the first half, being in the passing lanes and they made some shots, so we tried to be a little bit less active going into the second half as far as, you know, staying in. We wanted to show a body and then try to get out. And it felt like in the second half, we did a better job of it.

“I think they capitalized on the ones that got loose at the end and they definitely hit some transition threes and Book hit a few shots that were tough and contested and were setbacks and things of that nature. But it's the NBA Finals. Great players do great things and everyone around here can play, everyone around here can shoot. It's just about trying to make them feel a little bit more uncomfortable.”

“[Booker] is one of the leading scorers in this game,” Jrue Holiday said. “He's put in the work and practiced for it, just like we've done the same. He's damn near perfected it and has been on a roll, been on a tear. Difficult [to guard], yes, but still not impossible for us to do a little bit more... I think we do exactly what we did [to not get sped up]: Stay calm, stay collected. I think the third and fourth quarter, we outscored them in the third and we tied in the fourth. I think there are times in the game where if they hit those big shots, you've just got to stay calm like we did. And then once we get down, what, seven points, six points, we have to try to get over that hump.”

Phoenix’s extra possessions late in the fourth when Milwaukee went small again with Giannis at the 5 were also a big reason the home team was able to secure the victory.

“Yeah, got to do a better job on the 50/50 balls,” Giannis said. “There was one possession where we gave them three open threes. Wasn't able to get the rebound. I think we were like down six or something. It was a big shot. Just got to do a better job rebounding the ball. And it's tough, it's tough, going small and like switching up, and then I've got to get my butt back and help my team to get the rebounds. But we're going to hopefully move forward, we're going to do a better job of that.”

“Definitely [have to] run down those long rebounds, loose balls,” Middleton said. “They had several. Late in that fourth quarter, they scored each and every time. Even if they missed that second attempt, they still got it back and hit a mid-range or a three. We do that, it could be a totally different ballgame.”

There’s another saying that proves true in the NBA: It’s a make-or-miss league, and the Bucks did not live up to cashing in on their looks. There were more missed layups, perplexing early attempts in the shot clock and a lack of rhythm and continuity, specifically when it came to Middleton and Holiday. Milwaukee’s Achilles heel in this postseason has been a lack of trust and a shortage of passing. The team saw it work in the first quarter with off-ball cuts and open-lane drives early on that led to 20 first-quarter points in the paint. And still, the Bucks reverted back to the same bad habits in the next 36 minutes.

Holiday knew he had to be aggressive from the tip for Milwaukee following his poor shooting night in Game 1, and he showed that with a ton of field goal attempts. The problem was, not many of those shots fell. 

“I think we had a lot of open shots that we didn't make,” Holiday said. “I know me personally, there were a couple layups there that I usually make that kind of rimmed in and out. Had some good looks... I think I did a good job of being aggressive, especially from the start. We got a quick lead early, but again, they started to go dry there a little bit. I'll continue to be aggressive. It's the only thing I really can do is put pressure on the rim and try to spread out for threes.”

“No matter what's going on, you've got to stay aggressive and you cannot get in your feelings. It's hard not to. You know, NBA Finals, 20,000 people booing you and all that, it's kind of hard. But at the end of the day, it's not about me. It's not about him. It's not about Khris. It's not about Coach. It's about all of us,” Giannis said. “At the end of the day, if there's a game that you're 3-for-12 or whatever the case might be and you can rebound the ball or get a steal or do something else to help the team win, that's what it's all about right now. I think [Jrue] understands that. I know he's going to be there when we need him the most and I don't worry about it. He's a great basketball player. He's played great all year and he's going to continue to play great for this team.”

So was the story of the game with Holiday and Middleton, who once again did not seem to have their jumpers going with quick possession after quick possession, particularly after the Suns converted on the other end. They seemed to be rushing and trying to do too much, and couldn’t convert much; the two were a combined 5-for-23 at a point and finished 12-for-39.

“In the first half, I had more than a few go in and out for me. So, that's that. I'll take them over and over again. Just didn't hit them in the second half... knocking down some shots would make life a lot better for us.”

“You always give credit to the defense,” Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer said of Holiday and Middleton’s troubles. “Those guys do a good job. There's probably a few looks that I think they got to go in when you're playing against a good defensive team -- you get a good, clean one. Jrue was getting to the paint a lot. I liked his aggressiveness. I think we need all three of those guys. I think if they just keep working, they will come good... Jrue's got to play his game. He knows how to play. He and I will talk, but it will be more just keep being aggressive. Our spacing I think was better tonight. I think his opportunities were better.”

Defense was not really an issue for the Bucks. Their coverage on Paul and Booker was tighter. Holiday was even picking up Paul around three-quarters court on the inbounds. As a team, Milwaukee didn’t commit a foul until the 8:17 mark of the second quarter, so the discipline was there, as was the physicality. 

But what hurt, with Paul giving it up and Booker not getting easy layups, were the open looks and opportunities that surfaced for Mikal Bridges, Jae Crowder and Cameron Johnson to make their own marks. As a team, the Suns drilled 20 three-balls on a 50% clip.

“I think a little bit of over-helping,” Middleton said of what Milwaukee did wrong. “CP and Book, they were able to get into the pick-and-roll play and get in the middle, draw a crowd -- sometimes we over-help and sometimes they hit tough shots. They did a good job of spreading the floor, getting to the middle and then drive-and-kick and find the shooters.”

“With Book and Chris, they attract so many people that you just want to just try to stop them from getting (in) the paint and make it difficult for them, but you can't forget about the other guys. Not helping so much and hard close-outs to those threes,” Holiday added.

On the bright side, the Bucks as a whole did a much better job of getting a body or two on Deandre Ayton as well to make sure he stayed off the boards as much as possible. Brook Lopez was terrific at defending in between on pick-and-rolls and recognized when Ayton was going to catch his lobs, so that is a positive, too.

Connaughton and PJ Tucker gave Milwaukee a boost with their hustle plays and some timely triples, but the Bucks’ issue seems to come from a lack of juice at the backup point guard position. While Jeff Teague’s veteran presence is valuable on this stage, he just hasn’t been up to par in the short minutes he’s been afforded. Bryn Forbes provides a shooting threat; however, he is an easy target for the Suns on the defensive end. They’re really hurting without Donte DiVincenzo as well.

Perhaps most disconcerting of all is that Phoenix won with two completely different styles. In Game 1, it was a freeway to the rim with plenty of restricted area shots and free throws. In Game 2, it was via perimeter shooting and daggers to crush Milwaukee’s spirits after solid defensive possessions. 

The good news? The Bucks are heading home. Every game is a must-win, basically, from here on out. They’ve been down 0-2 in a series as recently as the Eastern Conference Semifinals, and have been mentally tough all postseason long. The question is, though: Can they do it in The Finals?

“We've got to come out, be prepared and be ready for a dogfight. We have been in this hole before. It's not going to be easy, but we've got to find a way to do it,” Middleton said. “Like I said, it's going to be hard, but that's what it is at this point in the playoffs. Hopefully we can knock down a couple more shots, limit them to some of those three-pointers and play a little bit faster or freer or whatever.”

“I think no matter what we say, we know what the deal is,” Giannis said. “It's as simple as that. We've got to go back home and do our job. They did their job. We've got to do our job. We've been here before and we were able to get the job done. Hopefully we can put ourselves in position and we can believe in one another and we can play together and we can have fun. We can compete and we can dive on the floor, we can make shots, put ourselves in a position to win the game.

“But we know what the deal is, man. Like, we got to go back home and protect home.”

Game 3 of the Finals is set for 8 p.m. ET in Milwaukee at Fiserv Forum.

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

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