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Preview: The Bucks (16-8) head to Phoenix to take on the Suns (14-9)

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Jrue Holiday is out, but the ESPN matchup is one of the Suns’ best tests of the season so far.

Phoenix Suns v Milwaukee Bucks Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

What: Milwaukee Bucks (16-8) at Phoenix Suns (14-9)

When: 8:00 p.m. MST

Where: Phoenix, Arizona

Watch: Fox Sports Arizona, ESPN

Listen: 98.7 FM


The Bucks have been incredible offensively all season and are coming off a double-digit win over Denver, but do come to the Valley without Jrue Holiday, who is not only one of their best players but also a key defender against a Devin Booker who is red-hot right now.

In order for the Suns to scoop up their fourth straight win and put together a signature victory over Milwaukee, they will have to figure out a way to contain the Greek Freak (likely with a lineup change), and keep up their usual 0.5 decision-making on offense.

Betting line: Suns are giving 4.5 points at home, ML is Bucks -177


Injury report

Phoenix Suns: Chris Paul, Jae Crowder and Abdel Nader are all questionable, while Dario Saric (left ankle sprain) and Cameron Payne (right foot sprain) remain OUT

Milwaukee Bucks: Jrue Holiday (health and safety protocol) is OUT


Projected starting lineups

Phoenix Suns: Chris Paul, Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges, Jae Crowder, Deandre Ayton

Milwaukee Bucks: Bryn Forbes, Donte DiVincenzo, Khris Middleton, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Brook Lopez

(If anyone watched how Crowder defended Antetokounmpo in the Bubble last year with the Heat, they’d agree that Crowder should start again)


Let’s start with the Bucks here. Their offense is going to be — by far — the best one the Suns have faced, and because of Antetokounmpo and all the shooting Milwaukee has accumulated, it will pose a sizable challenge for the Suns’ strong defense.

Milwaukee Bucks

16-8; No. 2 in the Eastern Conference

119.2 ORtg (1st) - 109.2 DRtg (8th) = plus-10.1 netRtg (1st)

The primary thing to watch for with the Bucks is that with Holiday out of the lineup, we’ll see the ball in Middleton’s hands even more. Rather than slot the undersized D.J. Augustin in the starting lineup with Holiday out on Monday, head coach Mike Budenholzer opted to put Forbes in with the starters and operate without a traditional point guard.

What an advantage it is to have a player like Middleton who can answer the call. He had 12 assists to go with his 29 points. Budenholzer applauded Middleton for knowing the habits of his teammates and how to attack different defensive coverages, and it says a lot that Bud trusts Middleton to be an initiator. This has been a breakout season for Middleton, but that means it will be quite a handful for Bridges to contain him not only as a shooter, but as a play-maker as well.

Yet at the same time, playing without Holiday hampers the Bucks’ defense. While the Bucks did beat Denver on Monday, Will Barton and Monte Morris combined for 36 points on better-than 50 percent shooting from the field. With Booker and Paul in those spots, things could get interesting. Milwaukee just doesn’t have much backcourt size.

If Middleton can maintain his elite all-around offensive play and DiVincenzo can be the guy to step up against Booker, there is a path to victory here for Milwaukee, but it’s going to take a great game from them.

Phoenix Suns

14-9; No. 4 in the Western Conference

110.6 ORtg (16th) - 108 DRtg (5th) = plus-2.7 netRtg (7th)

From the Suns’ perspective, it will be fascinating to see whether we see another Booker-heavy game if Paul does indeed return to the lineup. Against Boston on Sunday, Paul tallied just two assists, a remarkably low number for any game in which Paul plays. Instead, it was Booker who assisted on 11 Suns makes, a trend that continued Monday when, with Paul sidelined, Booker put up eight assists to go with his 36 points.

Unsurprisingly, the Suns’ offense looked far more like it did last season in those games. More often lately, it feels as if the ball needs to be in Booker’s hands for the “point-five” scheme to be at its best. We have seen Paul play off other talented players in the past, from Blake Griffin to James Harden. That adjustment may be coming.

It should likely start with more three-point shooting. Paul is currently posting a career-low three-point rate, or the proportion of shots that come from deep. At the same time, Paul has coughed up the ball more often than usual. And lately, he’s been getting to the rim more.

As the Suns also start to play faster, what we’re seeing is a course-correction from the very slow, methodical offensive style the Suns played early on. Will Paul rejoin the lineup tonight and fit into what has led the Suns to three straight wins, or will the process continue to grind along slowly? The result could determine whether the Suns announce themselves on national TV tonight or lose to the Bucks.


Prediction

I imagine a game in which Paul and Booker hit more than half their jumpers, give Lopez nightmares in the pick-and-roll, and do just enough to with Crowder and Bridges defensively against Milwaukee’s two best players, the Suns can win.

Still, Phoenix will need to make its threes against a Bucks team that is one of the best shooting squads in the league, or it could get out of hand quickly.

Suns 115, Bucks 108