The Phoenix Suns have a two-games-to-one lead in the NBA Finals and hold home court advantage in the series, but after an eye-opening 20-point loss in Game 3 the Suns have to fear the Bucks have discovered the perfect scheme to steamroll to the title.
That scheme is to use their incredible size advantage on the front line, including the unique skills of the Greek Freak, to muscle their way to domination on offense and defense by absolutely owning the paint.
The Suns only hope to combat that scheme is for 22-year old Deandre Ayton to “dominate with force”, as coach Williams puts it, among the Bucks’ horses. Here’s a snapshot of Ayton’s vision on the court in these Finals.
The Bucks always prefer to play two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo (6’11” with a 10-foot wingspan or so) with another big man alongside him in the lineup. One of Brook Lopez (7’0”, 280 pounds) or Bobby Portis (6’10”, 240 pounds) sets screens and crashes the boards on both ends while Giannis flies all around to disrupt the other team’s ball movement. The Bucks have the best defense in the 2021 Playoffs (16 teams).
The Suns, on the other hand, prefer to — and have no choice but to — play one big man at a time, surrounded by active wings and guards. The Suns combat your size with their supreme effort and the special talents of Ayton to cover for most any paint-protection needs. The Suns have the third-best defense in the 2021 Playoffs.
The ‘overwhelm them’ scheme failed to translate to victories in the first two games of the Finals, but has gained enough momentum to give the Suns cause for concern after the Game 3 blowout.
Ayton began the series with a resounding 22-and-19 line but has been uneven in the two games since.
- Game 1: 22 points (8-for-10 shooting), 19 rebounds, 1 steal, 3 fouls in 39 minutes — +13 plus/minus in a 13-point win
- Game 2: 10 points (4-for-10 shooting), 11 rebounds, 4 assists, 3 steals, 2 blocks, 4 fouls in 40 minutes — +10 plus/minus in a 10-point win
- Game 3: 18 points (8-for-11 shooting), 9 rebounds, 2 steals, 5 fouls in 24 minutes — -6 plus/minus in a 20-point loss
The Suns go as Ayton goes. And now that the Bucks smell blood, the Suns fail when Ayton sits.
The team was a collective +23 with Ayton on the court (80 total minutes) in Games 1 and 2 and net-zero with him off (16 total minutes), but that changed in Game 3 to -6 with him on the court (24 minutes) and -14 with him off (24 minutes).
Note the increase in foul totals. Ayton had never been tagged with five fouls in 18 career playoff games before Sunday night, and had only once gotten three fouls by halftime. Ayton has gone up against former-MVP LeBron James, MVP-candidate Anthony Davis and current MVP Nikola Jokic in these playoffs before proving his versatility against the small-ball Clippers, and not once gotten into game-impeding foul trouble while allowing only 37.5% shooting against him.
But MVP Giannis is a different animal, and the series is far from over. He dribble-drives into the defender from the free-throw line constantly, forcing you to decide whether to take him straight on to draw a charge, or let him glide past you to the cup. His Euro-step is so long, he can pick up the dribble just inside the three-point line, avoid the charge and lay it in — or even dunk it — within two-and-a-half steps.
“Giannis has an awareness where he does put his head down going in for fouls and he’s really lengthy and strong,” Ayton said of the matchup. “You just have to keep up, match the physicality and not really back down or try to brace contact. That’s where the fouls come in. But he is a difficult dude to contest when he’s in rhythm.”
Your only chance as the point-of-attack defender is to get to a spot before he does. He’s got a plan in mind before he unloads on you, and can be disrupted if you guess right on that plan and move into where he’s going before he gets there. Once disrupted, he usually ends up with a very difficult shot attempt.
That’s why Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer used the word ‘random’ in his speeches the last few days. He’s got Giannis planning different paths — even including dump-offs when he knows a double-team is coming — on every possession to make it harder for the Suns defenders to beat him to a spot.
The rest of this series will depend on Suns coaches’ ability to sniff out randomness. Because nothing is ever really random. Nothing. Giannis can’t actually be random or he and his team will be out of synch. They all have to know what’s coming while hoping the Suns don’t. The key here is the Suns coaches figuring out the ‘tells’ enough for the Suns to pick up on them at a moment’s notice. I’m really glad there’s three days between games, to allow for this kind of video analysis.
“Just being sturdy on defense and making sure we show our hands and not really getting into foul trouble as a team,” Ayton said of the message in the locker room. “Making sure we have a strong defense and we’re all back on defense.”
At a player level, the rest of the series might lean most heavily on the shoulders of Deandre Ayton, all of 22 years old, who leads all players in Win Shares in the 2021 Finals so far.
I mention the age thing because the last time an NBA Champion was led in Win Shares by a player age 22 or younger were the 2001 Lakers. That was 21-year old Kobe Bryant edging out Finals-MVP Shaquille O’Neal in the first of the Lakers’ three-peat.
And that’s the last time such a young player has led an NBA Champion in win shares in the Finals.
It may seem unfair to put all this pressure on Ayton, considering he was not even in All-Star consideration this year let alone the MVP race. But Ayton has been excellent in these playoffs and has become their single most important player.
The Suns go as Ayton goes. If the Suns are going to win two more games against the Bucks, Ayton will have to be one of their best players if not THE best.
“I’m not going to let none of those foul calls change my aggression,” Ayton said at practice on Tuesday. “Mainly just show my hands early, letting the refs know where I’m at.”
He says he needs to figure out how the officials are calling the game, and adjust as needed.
“Feeling the refs out throughout the game, on my physicality, how I’m playing my defense,” he said of his plan. “But it was pretty frustrating. We really wanted that game, and I just felt that as a team we needed a little bit more effort. They played harder than us, and yep, that was the results.”
The Suns also have All-Star leading scorer Devin Booker who closed out the Lakers and Nuggets series with more points (81) in their first two closeout opportunities since Michael Jordan, and he followed that up with a first career triple-double to help the Suns take a 1-0 lead in the Western Conference Finals when Paul missed the game due to COVID-19.
But Paul can only do so much, and Booker has been hindered by a broken nose since the Western Conference Finals.
Devin Booker before he broke his nose (11 playoff games):— Matt Petersen (@TheMattPetersen) July 13, 2021
Booker after breaking his nose (8 playoff games)
Those two will have to be excellent as well, and likely will get the most headlines if the Suns win the championship in the next week.
But Ayton will likely have be the most indispensable person in those games. He will have to stay out of foul trouble and “dominate with force”.
“Now we’re back to business,” Ayton said after the Suns came out a bit flat in Game 3. “I got a taste of losing in the Finals, now it’s — I’m awake a little bit more, not really on just happy to be here, but let’s get the job done.”