The first road game of a series is always the toughest, especially when that team is facing a near-elimination hole like there Milwaukee Bucks were. The Phoenix Suns have bounced back from losses throughout the regular season and even during their playoff run, so no need to sound the alarm just yet.
Every playoff series is a game of adjustments, and in Game 3 it looked like the Bucks were better prepared from top-to-bottom. Everyone knew the Bucks weren’t going to go down without a fight, as they made the NBA Finals for a reason.
I will quickly identify some key areas that will make a difference in an ultra-important Game 4 for both squads.
#1: The Ayton & Giannis minutes battle (on & off)
When Giannis is on the court and Ayton is off the court in this series (27 min), the Bucks have a +38.5 net rating.— Michael Gallagher (@MikeSGallagher) July 12, 2021
When Ayton is on the court and Giannis is off (19 min), the Suns have a +43.9 net rating.
When they're both on the court, the Suns have a +0.2 net rating.
This shows you everything you need to know about this series. It’s no secret that the Suns need Ayton on the floor and the Bucks need Giannis on the floor nearly at all times. Unfortunately for both sides, it’s not ideal (unless an elimination game) to play either of them for 48 minutes.
Ayton was off to a torrid start in Game 3, scoring 12 points in the first quarter alone. He was hampered by foul trouble in much of the second half and that ultimately wound up being the deciding factor. Frank Kaminsky is not the solution in the non-Ayton minutes. They need to stick with the small-ball lineup that was working for them when they started to make up some ground led by Cam Johnson.
Winning the non-Giannis minutes by a large margin is going to be the key. I’d try to attack him offensively and see if you can get him into early foul trouble. Selling offensive fouls against him defensively is another tactic to try and limit his playing time. Easier said than done, but Phoenix has to continue to be aggressive and target him defensively for this reason.
#2: The Assists Battle
Winning the assists battle has been a major key towards the Suns’ success (or failure) throughout the season, and it’s been no different during this playoff run.
*Note: The Game 1 statistics are a bit skewed due to the number of free throws attempted by the Suns, especially when considering how well they shot from the charity stripe. In theory, they had more estimated assists despite the raw numbers indicating otherwise.
- *Game 1: PHX — 18 MIL — 21
- Game 2: PHX — 26 MIL — 21
- Game 3: PHX — 21 MIL — 28
Ball movement is and always has been the key to this team’s success. No hero ball, no ball-stopping... just getting everyone involved in a balanced attack is when Phoenix is at their best. If there’s a gap with a differential of 5+ assists on either side, chances are the team on the positive end of it wins convincingly.
#3: Vintage Devin Booker needs to return
Phoenix will need their young star to return to form very quickly on the road in order for them to split in Milwaukee. He simply has not been the same since Patrick Beverley broke his nose last series.
Devin Booker before he broke his nose (11 playoff games):— Matt Petersen (@TheMattPetersen) July 13, 2021
Booker after breaking his nose (8 playoff games)
Hopefully, the extra day off in-between games helps him get right, as I’m sure the team will be looking to make plenty of adjustments on both sides of the ball. He settled for far too many jumpers rather than attacking the rim where he’s at his best. Let’s hope he puts his head down more frequently in game four.
Here’s his shot chart that illustrates that below:
#4: Mikal Bridges
The Suns are 14-5 in the playoffs, and one major factor in those results has (quietly) been which version of Mikal Bridges the Suns get. They’re going to need an aggressive Mikal in Game 4 to take pressure off the backcourt specifically. They go as he goes.
The Suns are 14-5 in the playoffs. Mikal Bridges is a major swing factor in these results.— Zona (@ZonaHoops_) July 13, 2021
14 Wins: 13.1 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 1.8 APG, 1.2 SPG, 10.4 FGA.
5 Losses: 6.8 PPG, 3.2 RPG, 1.6 APG, 0.2 SPG, 5.6 FGA.
They are also 10-0 in the playoffs when he shoots 10+ field goals. I’m no math major, but that seems pretty good. Let’s hope we get a trigger happy Mikal tomorrow night.