Chris Paul dribbled the basketball into the frontcourt, looking to set his team’s offense for a critical possession.
Trailing by two, the Phoenix Suns’ All-star guard stopped above the left elbow — arguably his favorite spot — ready to make a move. He threw the ball between his legs, crossed it over to his right hand and appeared to be set to make a big shot for the Suns, just like he had all season long.
Instead, Paul tripped over his own feet. The ball slipped out of his hands and into the arms of Milwaukee Bucks point guard Jrue Holiday, leading to a 3-on-1 possession in which Bucks starting forward Khris Middleton finished a contested left-handed layup over Suns All-Star guard Devin Booker.
Not the Chris Paul we're used to seeing. pic.twitter.com/y08exgDzMi— Trevor Booth (@TrevorMBooth) July 15, 2021
At that point, Milwaukee improved its lead to two possessions with 27.2 seconds left. Phoenix, which led by as many as nine with 11:42 to go in the period, had a seven-point edge with 8:39 left and clung to a two-point lead with 2:30 remaining, was behind for good. It was a reality that stupefied the Suns on the floor, with Paul lowering his head and starting center Deandre Ayton punching the ball toward the baseline.
The play encapsulated how Phoenix let a crucial win fall through its hands in its 109-103 loss to the Bucks in Game 4 of the NBA Finals on Thursday night at Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee. Paul’s late turnover was one of his five for the game and 17 for the Suns as a whole. Those mistakes led to 15 fastbreak points for the Bucks, who also dominated the Suns in points in the paint (48 to 40) and second-chance points (19 to seven) for the third straight contest.
“We shot 50 percent from the field but they got 19 more possessions,” Suns coach Monty Williams said. “Over the course of the game when you just give it up that many times, the turnovers and offensive rebounding was a bit of a hill for us to climb.”
Phoenix had five of its turnovers and gave up eight offensive rebounds to Milwaukee in the fourth quarter, which it won 33-21 while overcoming a nine-point deficit and using a 12-4 run over the last 2:30 to win. Despite those numbers, the Suns still had a chance to win late.
Booker, who had 42 points on 18-of-29 shooting and eclipsed Hall-of-Famer Rick Barry for the most points by a player in their first postseason run, committed his fifth foul with 10:50 remaining and the Suns leading 85-79. Over the next 4:55, Phoenix survived without him, taking a 93-90 lead into the final minutes.
Backup forward Cameron Johnson then hit a corner jumper on a baseline-out-of-bounds play, and Milwaukee backup guard Pat Connaughton responded with a tip-in over Ayton with 5:22 to go. Over the next 2:42, neither team scored before a tip-in from Bucks superstar forward Giannis Antetokounmpo, who finished with 26 points on 11-of-19 shooting along with 14 rebounds and eight assists in 43 minutes.
After a block from Antetokounmpo on Paul, the Bucks found Connaughton for a corner 3-pointer, giving them their first lead since 3:39 remained in the third quarter. The Suns responded with a pull-up jumper from Booker, and starting forward Jae Crowder subsequently hit two free throws to give them a 99-97 edge with 2:30 to go.
But unlike other times this postseason, Phoenix could not close the game out. Milwaukee starting forward Khris Middleton, who had a playoff career-high 40 points on 15-of-33 shooting with six rebounds and four assists, hit a shot over Suns starting forward Mikal Bridges to tie the game with 2:07 left. He then hit a go-ahead jumper with 1:28 remaining, preceding his layup over Booker with 27.2 seconds left.
Middleton had the Bucks’ final 10 points in the last 2:07, including four free throws in the final 20.8 seconds to seal the game. But that was not where Phoenix felt like it lost.
All night long, the Suns struggled to take care of the basketball. They had five turnovers in all but one quarter (the second) and could not keep the Bucks off the offensive glass, even with Ayton staying out of foul trouble and recording six points, 17 boards and five assists in 39 minutes played.
Four different Bucks players had at least three offensive rebounds (Antetokounmpo, Connaughton, starting forward PJ Tucker and starting guard Jrue Holiday) and they won the overall rebounding battle 48-40. Milwaukee now has a 188-172 edge in rebounding, 65-35 lead in second-chance points and 65-33 advantage in fastbreak points this series.
“In games like this, such high stakes when you give them run-out points, that’s big swings,” Johnson said. “Those are tough.”
Milwaukee’s extra possessions negated what could have been an even greater night for Booker, who had 20 of his points in the first half and a remarkable 18-point third-quarter on 7-of-7 shooting. Williams said his scoring output would have increased considerably without the Suns’ self-inflicted mistakes, regardless of Booker’s own foul trouble.
“He could have gone for 50-plus tonight,” Williams said. “I wanted to get him in maybe a minute earlier than I did. You’re just holding on trying to get as many stops and solid possessions as you can, but it’s not an ideal situation.”
Booker outscored the rest of the Suns’ starters, who had 38 combined points on 23-of-50 (46.0 percent) shooting. Paul had a particularly uncharacteristic performance, recording five turnovers with just 10 points on 5-of-13 from the field, seven assists and four rebounds. He was observed with tape around his left wrist, which is not the one he said he played through torn ligaments with in the Western Conference Finals.
“It was bad decision-making,” Paul said. “That time we were down two (in the final minute of the fourth quarter) and I tried to cross over right there, slipped, turned it over. I had some bad passes in the first half. They got a significant amount more shots than us, so for me I got to take care of the ball. We got 17 turnovers, we shoot the ball too well not to have those opportunities to score.”
According to Statmuse, the Suns are the first team in NBA history to lose a Finals game despite shooting better than 50 percent from the field and holding their opponent below 42 percent. They shot 40-of-78 (51.3 percent) overall and just 7-of-23 (30.4 percent) from 3-point range.
“The thing that’s on my mind more than anything is how many possessions we gave them tonight, especially with us shooting the ball as well as we did,” Williams said. “Certainly didn’t generate enough threes, only 23.”
With the series tied at two games each, the Suns will have to hold home-court advantage as the Finals transition to Phoenix for Game 5 on Saturday. It’s something that Williams reminded his team of after its Game 4 loss.
To get back on track, the Suns will have to limit their mistakes and get more out of Paul and others. It’s something they said they do not doubt will happen.
“There’s no panic,” Johnson said. “You go back home and look at it and adjust. I think we did some things better this game than we did last game. Just ultimately wasn’t enough to finish the deal. You come close sometimes but obviously it’s not enough.”