For the second straight game, Phoenix was outscored in points in the paint (54 to 40), second-chance points (20 to two) and fastbreak points (16 to six). Starting center Deandre Ayton accrued five fouls and played a postseason-low 24 minutes, and starting point guard Chris Paul fell to 0-12 in postseason games played when officiated by Scott Foster.
But arguably the biggest concern for Phoenix was the performance of starting shooting guard Devin Booker. In just 29 minutes, Booker had 10 points on 3-of-14 shooting, including a 1-of-7 clip from the 3-point line. It was his second-lowest scoring total — he had eight points on 3-of-9 shooting in a 111-86 win over the New Orleans Pelicans on Dec. 29, 2020 — and lowest shooting percentage of the season and just the ninth time in the last four seasons that he has scored 10 or fewer points.
Booker also struggled from the free-throw line, making just three of five attempts. He did not play for the entirety of the fourth quarter and was observed having a conversation with Suns coach Monty Williams at the end of the third period.
“Just talking to him about the game, the kind of force we have to play with,” Williams said. “Just normal stuff. This is one of those games that you typically, in NBA speak, say, ‘Flush it.’ But you can’t in the Finals. We got to watch the film and learn and get back to playing our kind of basketball consistently.”
Williams said that Booker’s poor shooting night was a result of “a bunch of everything,” including Milwaukee’s aggressive defense from starting forward PJ Tucker and switches involving starting All-Star forward Khris Middleton and starting point guard Jrue Holiday. Even so, there seemed to be a lack of burst and energy from the Suns’ star guard, an unexpected demeanor given his 31-point outing on 12-of-25 shooting in Game 2 on Thursday.
Booker, who was one of the NBA’s top first-quarter scorers during the regular season, struggled immensely with a 1-of-7 start in the opening period on Sunday. It mirrored his performance in Game 2, when he shot 2-of-8 in the first quarter and 2-of-10 overall to start.
But Booker never got himself going. He had just seven points on 2-of-11 shooting by halftime and was a non-factor during the Suns’ 25-14 run to start the third quarter, scoring just three points in that span. He was subbed out with 4:02 left in the period, re-inserted with 2:37 remaining and then checked out with 48.0 seconds left in the quarter and did not return.
“It wasn’t well, obviously,” Booker said of his performance. “But there’s nights like that. The most important part to me is winning the game and we didn’t do that, so I’m more frustrated about that.”
Milwaukee’s defensive scheme on Booker did not appear much different than Game 2. Tucker was his primary defender, sticking close to his chest even in help-side scenarios in which the ball was two passes away. In this possession, Tucker never gives Booker more than a few inches of space. The Suns free him momentarily with a pindown screen from starting forward Jae Crowder into a pick angled toward the baseline, but Holiday tags Booker nicely, pokes the ball loose and forces a contested jumper.
After the play, Booker appeared to be jawing with the Bucks’ bench, a reaction that has tended to set him off in this postseason (see his 47-point performance in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs against the Los Angeles Lakers). Instead, he never got going.
After a steal from starting center Deandre Ayton, the Suns get an action here in which Holiday is on Booker, not picking him up as closely as Tucker. Phoenix smartly puts Booker in a pick-and-roll set with Crowder, leading to an opportunity against Bucks center Brook Lopez in drop coverage. But instead of attacking the elbow — which he and Paul did at will in Game 1 — Booker hesitates and pulls back his dribble, negating a clean scoring chance.
That wasn’t the only time Booker seemed out-of-tune with his spots. After making his first field goal with 3:43 left in the first quarter, Booker began to shot-hunt — akin to Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals — and missed teammates for open opportunities.
Notice how the Bucks guarded Booker in this action. With Milwaukee using its small-ball lineup with superstar forward Giannis Antetokounmpo at the five, it has much more defensive versatility to mix its coverages. Bucks backup guard Pat Connaughton fights over a screen from Crowder, backup forward Bobby Portis moves into an extended drop near the free-throw line and Antetokounmpo is very tight in help with Ayton diving late toward the rim.
There’s a few options that Phoenix could attack on this play. One, it could opt for a pull-up 3-pointer from Booker, which is what occurs and leads to a miss with Connaughton and Antetokounmpo contesting. But was it the best option? Probably not.
Once Antetokounmpo is forced to play on the perimeter, Portis is now responsible for the back-line of Milwaukee’s defense. He has to pick up Ayton, but nobody tags Crowder, who smartly pops to the right elbow for a 3-pointer. Booker could either pass to Crowder or hit Ayton, who could turn and get the ball to Crowder for a triple. Booker missed both looks, which is something that did not occur in Game 2 like this play below.
This is not to say that Booker forced every look he got. He missed some good ones, too. While positioned under the basket on this possession, Booker smartly calls for Ayton to set a screen for Suns backup point guard Cameron Payne, knowing the Bucks adjusted to trapping the pick-and-roll after a hot offensive start from Ayton.
It leads to a switch on to 6-foot-3 Jeff Teague, who does not have the length or athleticism to contest Booker effectively. But rather than attacking the right side of the floor, Booker gives Teague an opportunity to stay with him, backing him down inside the free-throw line before shooting a floater over the contested arms of Portis.
Again, it was a much different scenario than Game 2, when he did not hesitate to attack matchup advantages (despite the miss here).
With Booker off the floor for the first four minutes and 40 seconds of the second quarter, the Suns at one point went on an 8-0 run to take a 36-30 lead with 9:05 left in the period. When he subbed back in, they led 38-37, looking to thwart a 7-2 Bucks run over the last 2:45.
Again, there were some good looks in his next stretch. He took a screen from Kaminsky, saw Holiday caught with Paul screening Bucks starting center Brook Lopez and fired an open step-back 3-pointer. He just didn’t make it.
Same with this play. Paul pushes the pace and Booker screens as part of a guard-to-guard set, giving him some space to operate near midcourt. Suns backup center Frank Kaminsky sets a good pick, Booker finds his spot and hits an elbow jumper.
Here, Booker curls toward the perimeter and gets Middleton on him, creating a one-on-one opportunity he can attack. You can argue with the shot quality, but there’s no doubt that Middleton has his hands all over Booker and could have been called for a foul.
There probably should have been a call here, too, given some of the whistles that Antetokounmpo received (he had 17 free throws compared to the Suns’ 16 total as a team).
This is Booker’s last made shot of the game. It was a good, quick action in which he used his body to create separation. It probably could have been a foul on Tucker too, but not with the way the game was flowing on Sunday.
Booker checked out with 48.0 seconds left in the third quarter and did not return, something that normally wouldn’t be a surprise in a blowout performance but perhaps was since the rest of the Suns’ starters — Paul, Crowder, Ayton and starting forward Mikal Bridges — were on the floor along with backup forward Cameron Johnson.
Booker did not elaborate more on what was said between him and Williams at the end of the third quarter.
“I don’t mean it to be like that, but that’s between me and coach,” he said. “We have that relationship, so we keep that in-house.”
So, how can the Suns get Booker more involved in Game 4? First, let’s think about exactly how Game 3 unfolded.
Much like previous games of the Western Conference Finals, the Suns prioritized Ayton from the jump. He had 12 first-quarter points — exceeding his point total (10) from Game 2 — but finished with 18 points and nine rebounds, in large part due to foul trouble. Suit yourself to see if you agree with some of these calls.
Without Ayton involved later on, the Suns did not have a reliable big to force attention to Milwaukee’s defense. That led to a lot more focus on Booker, who was certainly the primary scorer without Ayton on the floor for most of the third quarter.
It will be easier said than done, but the Suns need Ayton or another wing to take pressure off of Booker so he can create. See how things worked on this play, after Ayton had gotten involved.
Much like the Clippers, the Bucks have multiple defenders who can pose trouble for Booker with their length and aggression. Middleton and Tucker can match Booker from a size perspective — unlike Clippers’ backup guard Patrick Beverley — so some weak-side actions in which he can attack more of the floor would be optimal.
Lastly, there needs to be some urgency. In comparison to Game 2, Booker was not nearly as aggressive in locating his spots and targeting his rhythm. He may have started with the same shooting clip in Game 3, but it wasn’t with the same effective pursuit.
The Suns are facing adversity for the first time in these NBA Finals. They responded to double-digit losses in Game 3 against the Lakers and Clippers, respectively, with gritty victories in Game 4. Booker said he and his team can draw from those experiences.
“Just like I said, it’s a series, and understanding that and understanding it’s the NBA Finals,” Booker said. “I said after last game, this team (Milwaukee) 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.”
That effort starts with Booker, the Suns’ elder statesman who has waited to prove himself in moments like these.