It has been an interesting NBA Finals thus far between the Phoenix Suns and the Milwaukee Bucks. Interesting in the fact that no game has been decided by less than 10 points. In each of the first three games thus far in the series, the home team has done what Canadian rock group Bachman-Turner Overdrive hit the airwaves with back in 1973: they’ve been takin’ care of business.
After a pair of 118-point showings in their home arena, the Suns scored just 100 points in their first road Finals games since beating the Bulls 108-98 on June 18, 1993. Conversely, the Bucks averaged 106.5 points in Phoenix before dropping a 120-point drubbing this past Sunday evening. Home court matters, and so far that stigma has been true.
If the Suns want to break the mold and take a commanding 3-1 lead in the Finals, the objective in Game 4 should be simple: make sure the game is close late.
Of course therein lies the problem. The Suns could not keep up with the Bucks’ scoring and momentum in Game 3, although Monty Williams’ substitution patterns negated the opportunity to do so.
With the Suns trailing 74-70 with 5:22 left in the third quarter, Monty chose not to bring Deandra Ayton back into the game. Yes, DA was kicking it on the bench with four fouls — he picked up number four with 10:25 in the third and the Suns down 14 — but the second team had done their job getting Phoenix back in the game. Reinserting Ayton could have helped temper the aggressiveness of Giannis and prevented the Bucks from ending the third on a 16-0 run.
Devin Booker was pulled from the game with the Suns down 81-73 and never saw the court again. We’ve been scratching our heads and asking why the hell not for two days since. I don’t normally agree with Skip Bayless, but...
"I am a big Monty Williams fan. But he made a bad choice last night. He tried to assert himself as the head coach on a big stage, but it was a grandstand play."— UNDISPUTED (@undisputed) July 12, 2021
— @RealSkipBayless on Williams benching Booker for the entire 4th Q pic.twitter.com/Cjax3Eba2d
We hear it all the time, but it bears repeating: in the modern NBA, you are never out of a game. Given the effectiveness of three-point shooters and the spacing on the floor, you drop 3 quick deep balls and you’re right back in it. Just look at how Milwaukee rebuilt their lead following the Suns Cam Johnson-led comeback: Jrue Holiday hit 3-of-4 from deep followed by a hit from Pat Connaughton.
We don’t know what would’ve happened if Monty had allowed Ayton to play with the four fouls earlier. We can ponder the what and the why relative to Devin Booker’s bench time in the fourth quarter of Game 3 of the NBA Finals. Could the Suns have fought back? Would the game have been closer? Did Phoenix have a chance to get to clutch -time minutes (less than 5 minutes left in the game, the teams separated by less than 5 points)? It is all a moot point now.
The past is the past and now we look forward, hoping that the seeds the Williams sowed in Game 3 grow into a fruitful performance in Game 4.
As Phoenix pulls the different levers in an effort to make the appropriate adjustments, the primary goal should be to ensure the score is close late in the game. Like, duh. But there are logical reasons outside of “well, if you score more points than the other team, you win”.
First off, the Suns own the clutch. They are 4-1 in the playoffs and 25-12 during the regular season in clutch-time games. The latter was the second best record in the NBA. When you have a dual threat like Devin Booker and Chris Paul running your offense, you keep the defense on their heels as they try to pick their poison.
The Bucks? They were 13-15, good for 20th in the Association.
Although there is muffled rumble inside the Fiserv Forum while Giannis takes his time at the line — quick shout out to all of the Suns fans who continued the counting tradition on enemy ground in Game 3 — Antetokounmpo is currently not phased taking his free throws. But when you apply pressure outside of counting, when that pressure is from the weight of the game and the gravity of the moment, Giannis becomes extremely pedestrian.
During the regular season Giannis shot 68.5% from the charity stripe. That number has dropped to 57.1% in the playoffs, although he is shooting 66% thus far in the Finals. In clutch-time situations during the regular season, his percentage dropped 11.7 points to 56.8%. In the moments in which the game is close, he is practically 1-for-2 from the line.
You want to expose Giannis? You want to see that he is indeed a human rather than some basketball-playing alien? We gotta get him on that line in a close game. Period.
Apply the pressure. Shake his confidence.
The Bucks did everything — I repeat...EVERYTHING — right in Game 3. They hit their three’s (38.9% compared to 29% by Phoenix), got to the line (26 FTA compared to 16 by Phoenix), rebounded the ball (47 compared to 36 by Phoenix), owned the paint (54 compared to 40 by Phoenix), and secured the ball (9 turnovers compared to 14 by Phoenix). They had a complete game.
Getting to clutch-time minutes on the road isn’t as hard as it may seem after that efficient Bucks’ performance in Game 3. You take away poor closes to the second (10-0 Milwaukee run) and third (16-0 Milwaukee run) and you’re in the game, plain and simple.
Get there. Win on the road. Be clutch. Take the 3-1 lead. It’s right there in front of you, Suns. Take it.