Giannis Antetokounmpo faked a dribble hand-off toward the left elbow and drove his way into the paint. From there, the Milwaukee Bucks’ superstar forward collided with Phoenix Suns All-Star guard Devin Booker, missed a floater but got his own rebound and scored plus a foul call.
Looking toward the Bucks’ bench, Antetokounmpo pumped his fist and snarled. The Greek Freak had scored his 35th and 36th points of the game, extending Milwaukee’s lead to 92-76 with 56.8 seconds left in the third quarter. It was also his team’s 43rd and 44th points in the paint, a total the Suns could not cut into with starting center Deandre Ayton sidelined with foul trouble and backup forward Dario Saric out with a torn right ACL.
At that point, Phoenix’s fate was sealed. It had cut a 15-point Milwaukee lead to four with 5:22 left in the period, led by a flurry from backup forward Cameron Johnson and a temporary stall of the Bucks’ offense thanks to its 2-3 zone. But with Johnson, backup forward Torrey Craig and backup center Frank Kaminsky as their final line of defense, the Suns could not keep Milwaukee out of the paint, leading to a 24-6 run to end the period.
That ended up being the difference in Phoenix’s 120-100 loss to the Bucks in Game 3 of the NBA Finals at Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee on Sunday night. For the second straight contest, the Bucks dominated the Suns in points in the paint (54 to 40), second-chance points (20 to 2) and fastbreak points (16 to 6).
Giannis finished with 24 points in the restricted area (12-12 FG), tied for the most in an NBA Finals game over the last 25 years (LeBron James in 2017 and Shaquille O'Neal in 2004). pic.twitter.com/suEDv8BDaN— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) July 12, 2021
Unlike Game 2, Phoenix could not shoot itself out of its interior woes, making just 9-of-31 (29.0 percent) of its 3-point attempts. Coupled with a 10-point performance from Booker on 3-of-14 shooting — his worst outing of the season — the Suns were dominated by a Milwaukee team that was incredibly desperate for its first win of the Finals.
“We knew it was coming,” Suns coach Monty Williams said of the Bucks’ effort. “We did not respond to it well tonight, especially in the second and third quarters. The turnovers certainly hurt us, points in the paint, everything we have been talking about the whole series. So it was a tough lesson for us to learn.”
Leading 36-30 with 9:05 left in the second quarter, Phoenix surrendered a 30-9 Milwaukee run over the remainder of the period. Once Suns starting center Deandre Ayton left with 6:45 left in the quarter, his team relinquished an 11-4 run over the next 3:01, which included every score either inside the paint or at the free-throw line.
Antetokounmpo had seven of his 11 second-quarter points during that stretch, part of a 41-point effort overall on 14-of-23 shooting and 13-of-17 from the free-throw line, which was more attempts than the Suns had as a team (16). The Bucks punished Phoenix with a small-ball lineup that featured Antetokounmpo at center, creating driving lanes and space that Kaminsky and others were unable to keep up with.
Williams said he didn't want to complain about officiating but said this:— Trevor Booth (@TrevorMBooth) July 12, 2021
"We had 16 free throws tonight. One guy (Giannis) had 17."
On Deandre Ayton's foul trouble: "He'll grow from this."
“He’s physical,” Johnson said. “When he gets downhill, gets to the basket, gets to the free-throw line, it encourages him to keep going. And he was hitting his free throws tonight and that just kind of opens up his whole game. So it’s on us to stop him, give him more resistance.”
Trailing 60-45 at halftime, the Suns did not give in to Milwaukee’s onslaught. They hit 10 of their first 12 shots to start the second half, including 10 points from Johnson that featured a vicious one-handed dunk over Bucks starting forward PJ Tucker and a crafty up-and-under layup, to cut their deficit to as little as 74-70 with 5:22 left in the third.
It appeared to put Phoenix in a good position before the final quarter, as Ayton picked up his fourth foul with 10:25 left in the period and had not returned yet. But with the Suns employing a smaller rotation in which Johnson was the tallest player on the floor at 6-foot-8, Milwaukee responded with a gut-punching 24-6 run to end the period, which included three 3-pointers from starting guard Jrue Holiday, five points from Antetokounmpo and a pair of triples from backup guard Pat Connaughton.
The Suns faced their largest deficit at the time, 98-76, at the end of the period and were unable to cut it to fewer than 17 points for the remainder of the game.
“It goes back to the 50/50 balls that we lost,” Crowder said. “I feel like on the road we got to win that battle. It’s not about shot making. It’s just about mano a mano, making sure your guy doesn’t get it and coming up with the ball. Someway, somehow, you have to find a way. And I felt like once it got that close, those guys scrapped a little harder tonight than we did.”
In the third quarter alone, the Suns gave up 14 points in the paint and four offensive rebounds for 10 second-chance points. Antetokounmpo had 16 of his points in the quarter, followed by Holiday with 12 of his 21 and Connaughton with all eight of his points.
Even though the Suns were outmatched from a size perspective and employed a 2-3 zone, Williams felt that effort was a differentiator, much like his team’s Game 3 losses to the Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers in the first round and Western Conference Finals, respectively.
“You know what was coming, but (we) just didn’t do enough consistently to withstand their attacking the paint, whether it was penetration, offensive rebounding,” Williams said. “We gave them so many possessions, so we lost a shot and then they scored off of it. It was a double whammy.”
In just 24 minutes, Ayton had 18 points on 8-of-11 shooting and nine rebounds. He had 12 of his points in the first quarter, taking advantage of switches on to the Bucks’ shorter players and when they played in drop pick-and-roll coverage.
He, Johnson, Suns starting forward Jae Crowder — who had 18 points on a 6-of-7 clip from the 3-point line — and starting point guard Chris Paul combined for 69 of their team’s points on 27-of-43 (62.8 percent) shooting. Booker struggled from start to finish, appearing to be bothered by the Bucks’ switches and pressure off pick-and-roll sets.
“I think I can get better ones,” Booker said of his shot selection. “We’ll make that happen. The point of the game is to win it, and I think there were other things that went on throughout the game. You can say it’s a make/miss game, but at the end of the day you have to make the other team miss and get easy opportunities for your team. We didn’t do that tonight.”
Leading the series two games to one, the Suns will be in a familiar position as they prepare for Game 4 on Wednesday at 6 p.m. MT. They lost Game 3 on the road by double digits to the Clippers and Lakers, something they said they can draw on for their next contest.
“I think we know that we have to play with an unreal amount of aggression and energy for 48 minutes,” Williams said. “That’s the deal. All of our guys know that we didn’t. We have had this happen to us before in the playoffs, and so I expect our guys to bounce back.”
For the Suns to respond, they will likely need a big effort out of Ayton and perhaps some modifications with how they approach their backup frontcourt. Kaminsky was a minus-12 in just under 14 minutes, and Craig and Johnson do not have the size to match against Antetokounmpo, 7-foot center Brook Lopez and 6-foot-10 forward Bobby Portis.
That will require them to get more stops or find more contributors offensively. It’s something they expect to figure out.
“Just like I said, it’s a series, and understanding that and understanding it’s the NBA Finals,” Crowder said. “I said after last game, this team is not going to give in. They’re going to keep playing all the way through. So we have to bring that same effort that we had in the first two games and I think we’ll be in good shape.”