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NBA Finals Analysis: Game 2 Observations + What to expect in Game 3

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Breakdown of the Bucks vs. Suns NBA Finals matchup

2021 NBA Finals - Game Two Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Game 2 Observations, and What to Expect from Game 3

Despite losing Game Two of the NBA Finals, 118-108 to the Phoenix Suns, the Bucks should feel pretty good about their chances in Game Three. They contained Deandre Ayton in a way no other team in the playoffs has so far: 10 points on 4-10 shooting and only 11 rebounds in 42 minutes.

Giannis Antetokounmpo had his way with the Suns, who mostly tried to play him straight up on defense. The result was the former MVP scoring an ultra-efficient 42 points on 15 of 22 shooting. Part of this was the Bucks steady parade to the foul line in the second half, as the Suns resorted to fouling Antetokounmpo and hoping his woeful 61% free throw shooting would slow him down. He dominated the boards as well, with 12 rebounds. The Bucks collected 18 offensive rebounds as well as they packed the paint.

The box score shows the Bucks shooting nine more free throws than the Suns, but this is deceptive. Ten of the Suns’ 14 free throws came in the last 1:21 of the 4th quarter when the Bucks were deliberately fouling. In other words, the during the first 46 minutes and 39 seconds of the game the Suns shot only four from the charity stripe.

On a normal night these stats would tell a story that the Bucks won.

This wasn’t a normal night.

What saved the Suns was their three-point shooting. The Suns shot a blistering 20-40 from beyond the arc. The 20 they made are a tie for second most in NBA Finals history. This was a result of both design and a bit of luck.

During the first quarter the Bucks changed their defensive scheme from Game One. On the 1-5 pick and roll with Chris Paul and Ayton, the Bucks began chasing Paul over the top of the screen and dropping the second defender back with him as well. A 3rd or 4th defender would drop off of Crowder or Bridges to cover Ayton and help pack the paint.

The result was that Paul had difficulty getting to his favorite spot on the right side of the paint, couldn’t get the ball to Ayton, and Ayton was trying to fight three or four players for the rebound. You can see this in the picture from 10:21 in the first quarter below. During this play four Bucks chased Paul and Ayton into the paint, prevented Paul from getting to his spot, and the result was Antetokounmpo blocking Paul’s desperation heave.

The Bucks basically were daring the Suns to beat them with three pointers by Crowder and Bridges. And, for a while it worked. They leapt out to an early nine-point lead, until that was whittled down by a barrage of Suns’ three pointers. The first five shots made by the Suns were three pointers, and 7 out of 8 of the buckets they made in first quarter came from behind the arc.

The other side-effect of the Bucks coming over the tops of screens on the pick and roll was that it often left Devin Booker open to shoot one of his favorite shots: the three coming off the curl.

For whatever reason, the Bucks got away from this defensive scheme later in the game, and the Suns stretched their lead to 15 early in the third quarter. The Bucks frequently left Booker iso’d on Tucker and Connaughton, who lacked the foot speed to stay in front of him, or unable to recover from jab steps at the three-point line. Booker feasted on this for 32 points on 12-25 shooting, 6 assists, and going 7-12 on threes.

The Bucks focus on stopping Ayton and Paul also left them vulnerable to long offensive rebounds off of missed threes. The Suns came up with a more than respectable 11 offensive rebounds as they outhustled the Bucks for a number of 50-50 balls.

What would I change for game 3 if I were Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer? I’d keep playing Paul and Ayton the way I did in the first quarter. Send three guys at the pick and roll, pack the paint, and make the Suns beat me with three-point shooting.

In particular, I would dare Jae Crowder to beat me, particularly off the dribble. He’s prone to taking bad shots from the mi-range. His three-point shooting is both streaky, and limited to the left side of the court. He’s also not great from the top of the arc either.

On offense, keep with a steady diet of Greek feast. Middleton and Holiday will find their rhythm eventually, and until the Suns prove they can stop Giannis one-v-one, keep feeding the beast. In the long run, the averages say that the Giannis’ true shooting percentage inside is better than the Suns three-point shooting.

The Bucks Game Two plan was sound. They just ran into a Suns team that quickly figured out that the three-point line was open for anyone not named Paul or Booker, and then hit their shots at a phenomenally high rate for the entire game. The odds are, they can’t do it twice in a row.

The Suns must recognize this quickly again, and make sure that their open three-point shooter are at their best spots. They should also consider mixing in more double teams of Giannis to get the ball out of his hands, and force other Bucks players to beat them.