PHOENIX — Devin Booker jabbed to his right and squared his body to Milwaukee Bucks forward Khris Middleton. With no hesitation, Booker rose into his shooting pocket and swished a contested 3-pointer, regiving the Phoenix Suns a 10-point lead.
The reaction to the play was expected. Phoenix Suns Arena roared like a pack of lions. NBA Hall-of-Famer Isiah Thomas leapt from his seat in the media row, shook his head while yelling, ‘Wooo!’ and walked away for a moment.
It was one of five second-half 3-pointers for Booker, who finished with 31 points on 12-of-25 shooting after starting 2-of-10. The Suns’ All-Star guard was a key for their victory — along with starting forward Mikal Bridges, who finished with a playoff career high of 27 points — but not the only part of it.
Phoenix’s 118-108 win over Milwaukee in Game 2 of the NBA Finals on Thursday night showed how difficult it will be to beat. With a 2-0 series lead, the Suns have to win twice in the next five games to secure their first NBA championship. That has to be discouraging for the Bucks, who got a 42-point night out of superstar forward Giannis Antetokounmpo, outscored the Suns 54-28 in the paint and still lost.
Despite those numbers, Phoenix coach Monty Williams brought back his team’s third straight double-digit victory to one factor: poise.
“I mean the first quarter was a storm of aggression from them attacking the paint, offensive rebounding and we talked about it all morning,” Williams said. “We studied (the Bucks’) Game 2 versus (the) Atlanta (Hawks) (in the Eastern Conference Finals) and that was their way to attack Atlanta in that Game 2 after a loss, was to just get to the paint. So, we knew that was coming.”
After a first quarter in which Milwaukee made 13 of its 24 shots from inside the arc, had 20 of its points in the paint and nine second-chance points, the Suns took over, which was unexpected given the flow of the game.
The Suns finished with 8 threes in the first quarter, the 2nd-most in a quarter in Finals history.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) July 9, 2021
But the Bucks won the paint battle 20-0, tied for the 2nd-best diff in any playoff quarter over the last 25 seasons. pic.twitter.com/YUEdq7j2j3
Phoenix shot just 1-of-9 start on shots inside the arc and had four turnovers in the first quarter. But the Suns made 8-of-14 3-point attempts, setting them up well for the second period.
Phoenix dominated that quarter, 30-16, beginning to congest the paint with starting center Deandre Ayton and a smaller rotation that featured backup forward Torrey Craig at the five.
In that period, the Suns held the Bucks to 6-of-25 (24.0 percent) from the field, including a 2-of-12 clip from 3-point range.
“They’re a great team once the ball is in the paint,” Suns starting forward Jae Crowder said. “We just tried to just guard the ball, guard our yard as best as possible to keep that ball out of our paint and make those guys make tough contested shots.”
Stops allowed the Suns to get out in transition, where they had nine points off six Bucks turnovers in the first half. Phoenix only had five fastbreak points in the half but did a much better job of getting into the paint, forcing the Bucks to space their defense and open more driving and cutting lanes.
The Suns were led in the period by Bridges, who had seven points while diving to the rim and fanning out for 3-point attempts.
“I think tonight he recognized once he started making shots and they ran him off the line, he was getting to his spot,” Williams said of Bridges. “Sometimes, he would get close to the basket but he would get to a spot where he can make that seven, eight-foot jump shot. He’s been doing that all year, it’s just that everybody’s seeing it now.”
In the third, Milwaukee hit the Suns with another blow. It got 20 points out of Antetokounmpo had a 33-point quarter as a team on 10-of-19 shooting, its best of the series.
But the Suns kept on responding. They shot 8-of-14 that period following scores from Milwaukee that cut their lead to fewer than 10 points, keeping the Bucks from breaking closer. Booker and Paul had seven of those makes and 22 of Phoenix’s 32 points in the quarter, enabling it to stay in front.
This guy Devin Booker man. So damn good. pic.twitter.com/wqyS7uVNRf— Trevor Booth (@TrevorMBooth) July 9, 2021
According to ESPN Stats and Info, Booker and Paul have combined to score 113 points through the first two games of the Finals, which is the most by a starting backcourt in the first two contests of the Finals since starters were first tracked in 1971. Despite playing over 40 minutes in nine of the Suns’ last 10 games and 13 contests overall this postseason, Booker said fatigue has not affected him.
“Just preparation, taking care of your body,” he said “There’s a whole list of it. But I think the adrenaline and me and Mikal, we’re some young guys, we’re young and getting it and trying to get after it. So, I don’t feel tired, for real.”
Paul, who is in his 16th NBA season and is 36 years old, said the pressure of winning a championship at this stage in his career has not hurt him.
“I do a pretty good job of staying in the moment,” Paul said. “Maybe a lot of the guys on our team, it’s their first playoff series, they don’t know the heartache or the heartbreak. They’re just out there playing.
“So for me, I know how quick things can change. I know how a possession or a play can change the dynamics of an entire series. So, for me I don’t get too high, I don’t get too low.”
That mentality remained for the Suns in the closing period. Milwaukee cut Phoenix’s lead to single digits four times up until 3:17 remaining in the fourth quarter and sliced it to five with 8:45 left, but it never got over the hump.
The Bucks cut the Suns’ lead to as little as 103-97 with 5:15 to play, but they would not draw any closer. Paul hit a corner 3-pointer following a pair of offensive rebounds from Bridges and Ayton, and Phoenix rebuilt its lead to double digits after a layup by Bridges with 3:36 left.
“Those are the kinds of relentless plays that we have been talking about all year,” Williams said. “We have a, ‘We score,’ mentality, and when DA and Mikal give it up like that and other guys score, it’s like they scored. That’s how we view it. But in that moment when they cut it to six, seven, we kept answering with a big 3(-pointer) and you have to make plays like that to win games in the Finals.”
Despite holding a 2-0 series lead, the Suns’ players aren’t satisfied with their position. The Finals now move to Milwaukee, where the Bucks are 7-1 this postseason and previously eliminated a 2-0 lead against the Brooklyn Nets.
“Zero-zero (series),” Crowder said. “Fight. These guys are a tough team. Obviously, we’re going into a tough environment. But your mindset has to be just zero-zero next game. Can’t look too far ahead, don’t look back. Just next-game mentality and that’s what we’re preaching.”
Phoenix is two wins away from its first championship in franchise history. It wants to continue to focus on executing against its opponent, something it has shown it can do in multiple ways.
“I said before the series, I’m excited,” Booker said. “I’m excited honestly. Every day I wake up and get a chance to play in the NBA, the league that I’ve been watching since I was a kid. So, I try not to lose sight of that.”