The Suns again rose to a massive challenge, dethroning the mighty Bucks for the second time this year, this time at home, with a 114-105 win. Phoenix’s win cemented its sweep of Milwaukee this season and showed what energetic defense and smart scoring can do for the young Suns.
It was also the Suns’ first back-to-back victory since a Dec. 19 victory on the road against Boston.
Let the Deandre Ayton experiment continue. After capably limiting LeBron James’ penetration on Saturday night, the Suns started with Ayton on MVP candidate and overall battering ram Giannis Antetkounmpo, with Dragan Bender on the floor-spacer Brook Lopez.
It worked OK, but the differences between Los Angeles and Milwaukee showed themselves quickly. The Bucks have better shooters spreading the defense thin as well as multiple starters who can create good looks with the ball in their hands. That meant Antetokounmpo could stand on the perimeter or move without the ball and pull Ayton away from the rim. Milwaukee got out to a 11-6 lead early by getting into the teeth of the Suns’ defense.
Kelly Oubre and Devin Booker were both aggressive to keep the Bucks defense reeling and keep the game within reach. It also helped that the Bucks took out Antetokounmpo early in the first quarter for a few minutes to make life a little easier on the Suns’ defense.
That, however, made it easier when Milwaukee wanted to get wonky with lineups. And they definitely got wonky, playing Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, Nikola Mirotic, Ersan Ilyasova and Brook Lopez at the same time. That’s five guys 6-8 or taller who can all shoot and operate with the ball — and it’s what makes the Bucks impossible to defend.
We saw the Suns respond by switching every single action to try to combat the Bucks’ size but the floor-spacing was too much to contend with. Milwaukee led after one, 31-20.
Right away, Milwaukee’s size was again a factor. Ilyasova and Pau Gasol (in his Bucks debut) made an impact on the offensive glass and Ilyasova drew a charge on Josh Jackson. With Jackson on Antetokounmpo on the other end, the Bucks got exactly what they wanted — the Greek Freak barreling toward the basket creating shots for others.
Lopez made a three to put the Bucks up 16 and the Suns called a timeout.
Phoenix responded well after the stoppage with its stars back in the game. Behind Booker and Ayton, the Suns went on a 11-5 run to cut the lead to 10, though that was more about Milwaukee turning the ball over and making mistakes than anything great on the Suns’ part.
Oubre’s energy was the biggest factor during key stretches of this game in which the Suns were able to keep it close. He grabbed three offensive rebounds in the first half and was the only Suns wing able to consistently finish against Milwaukee’s length.
That helped the Suns start to take control of the pace and whittle the lead down. A couple Tyler Johnson buckets and a three from Jackson later, the Suns closed the half down just two, 54-52, after a 10-0 run.
Slap! Bender opened up the period with authority, containing Antetokounmpo all the way to the basket for his second block of the game.
with everything but the finger wag pic.twitter.com/7G4Z6LzNsC— FOX Sports Arizona (@FOXSPORTSAZ) March 5, 2019
Unfortunately, he got called for a sketchy foul later in that same possession, giving Middleton free throws. It was then upgraded to a Flagrant 1, giving Milwaukee possession after the foul shots.
The Suns responded by putting the ball in Booker’s hands and he made his first two shots, maintaining the tie. Somehow, the swarming attention the Suns threw at Antetokounmpo combined with their efficient halfcourt offense was enough to keep the game within reach.
The defense created a real problem for Milwaukee that propelled the Suns in the period. The Bucks had two turnovers in the first few minutes and weren’t taking good shots, which made it easier for the Suns to get down the floor for open looks. The teams played to a stalemate the first six minutes.
Quick note at this point in the game — the Suns are benefiting once again from an uncharacteristically cold shooting night from a core Bucks piece. Middleton started the game 1-11 from the field. Mirotic started 2-11 as well.
The Suns took the lead around the 5:00 mark after Ayton dribbled, spun and nailed a contested jumper. A late run, powered by great three-point shooting, put the Bucks in charge, 82-76, at the break.
Booker played 30 minutes through three quarters and needed an extended rest, meaning the Suns started the fourth with Jackson and Oubre as the primary intitiators. Jackson responded with a big three after several offensive rebounds. You don’t have to tell him twice that he gets to run the offense.
Giannis then took control, creating contact and trying to get Phoenix into the bonus. The Suns were in the bonus by the 9:00 mark, making it that much harder for them to get back into the game down 9.
Milwaukee kept the lead by scoring when they needed to. Mirotic hit a big three with about 6:00 to go that pushed the lead back up to 9 despite solid defense for several minutes in a row by the Suns. It was truly a back-and-forth game, the rhythm equally frustrating for both teams.
Bridges hit two free throws of his own to cut the lead to 5, the narrowest margin of the quarter. Then, Ayton put the ball on the floor again to finish an and-1 opportunity and the Bucks’ lead shrunk to just 4. It fell to 2 on a Bridges pullup jumper, then Oubre threatened to kill the lead altogether by getting to the line in transition with 4:03 to play.
He made just one, leaving the Suns with a 1-point deficit down the stretch. A Brogdon miss and a Booker pullup three later, we had a tie once more. Booker and Bledsoe had a real battle, competitive fellow teammates very familiar with one another and their habits.
Booker dished it to Oubre for an open three after wiggling past Bledsoe and the Suns took the lead, 103-100. Antetokounmpo, sensing an upset, got to the line again. He missed both, a wild parallel to James’ misses at the end of Saturday’s rally. But after the second miss, Brogdon made a deep prayer to tie it up once again.
Somehow, the Suns truly out-executed the best team in the NBA down the stretch. Johnson got inside for a floater and Ayton laid it in against excellent defense from Antetokounmpo to give the Suns a 4-point lead.
I have seen the future, and it is this pic.twitter.com/HyDAt4GsHy— Matt Petersen (@TheMattPetersen) March 5, 2019
They did not give the lead up. Big win, 114-105.