Is Chris Paul OK?
That was the overarching question behind the Phoenix Suns’ 109-103 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 4 of the NBA Finals on Wednesday night. Paul finished with five turnovers, 10 points on 5-of-13 shooting and seven assists, a continuation of his struggles to take care of the ball this series.
Paul has now committed 15 turnovers in the last three games and 17 for this series. That’s already eight more than he recorded in any other round this postseason (nine against the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs).
“It was bad decision-making,” Paul said. “...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.”
Paul had two turnovers each in the first and fourth quarter, negating an early Suns run and an opportunity for them to close the game. His giveaway with approximately 33 seconds left led to a layup for Bucks All-Star forward Khris Middleton, who gave his team a two-possession lead with 27.2 seconds to go.
When asked about his starting point guard’s performance, Suns coach Monty Williams said there is nothing wrong with Paul physically.
“He’s fine,” Williams said. “Great players have games like that. We expect him to bounce back.”
It appeared that Paul was having some issues with his left wrist, which is not the hand he said he suffered partially torn ligaments with during the Western Conference Finals. He was loose with his dribble and not as disciplined on dribble-drives off the Suns’ sets.
But more than that, Paul’s decision-making was — as he noted — not good. Let’s take a closer look at his performance here.
First Quarter Woes
Paul’s first quarters this series have not been great. Aside from a six-point, three-assist effort on 3-of-4 shooting with zero turnovers in Game 3, he combined for four points on 2-of-7 shooting with five of his 17 turnovers in Games 1, 2 and 4.
On Wednesday, Paul had two of his game-high five giveaways in the first quarter, limiting his team from expanding a lead as large as nine points. His first turnover came with 8:05 remaining in the period, trying to go between his legs to create space from Bucks starting center Brook Lopez in drop coverage.
We’ve seen Paul pull this move before — a la, Game 4 of the Western Conference semifinals against the Denver Nuggets — but it’s unnecessary in this circumstance. Paul has a rare situation in which he has Bucks starting guard Jrue Holiday dusted in a pick-and-roll set, leaving only Lopez to guard him. But instead of pulling up from inside the free-throw line, Paul takes an extra dribble, allowing Milwaukee starting forward PJ Tucker to bait as the strong-side help defender and force Paul to lose control.
Regardless of his additional dribble, Paul still could have made this play work had he realized that Suns starting forward Mikal Bridges successfully pulled himself to the perimeter for a 3-pointer. Instead, Paul is thinking score, Suns starting forward Jae Crowder doesn’t rotate to where Bridges left and Paul forces a jump-pass giveaway.
Paul’s second turnover was more careless. With Holiday playing him from the backcourt, Paul rejects an elbow screen from Ayton and plays into Milwaukee icing him toward the baseline. The Bucks’ defenders are all in help position, and Paul for some reason tries to make a cross-court jump pass that lands far beyond Crowder or Bridges.
That’s not to say that Paul wasn’t the only Phoenix player who made bad mistakes in the opening period. This is an awful read by Crowder, throwing an overhead bounce-pass to Bucks superstar forward Giannis Antetokounmpo with Suns starting shooting guard Devin Booker open, negating a 2-on-1 after a fantastic out-of-bounds save from starting center Deandre Ayton.
Phoenix only led 23-20 after the first quarter despite Milwaukee shooting 8-of-25 from the field and Antetokounmpo scoring only four points. Missed opportunity? Definitely seemed like it.
A Cleaner Second
The Suns had a productive second period against the Bucks, though it was overshadowed by a 32-point quarter from Milwaukee, which shot 10-of-15 (66.7 percent) from inside the arc and got at least seven points from Holiday, Antetokounmpo, Lopez and All-Star forward Khris Middleton.
Booker began to find a rhythm — he had 12 of his game-high 42 points on 5-of-8 shooting in the quarter — but Paul was a non-factor. He was a team-worst minus-nine in just over seven minutes, missing both of his field-goal attempts and recording three assists.
Part of this was due to how the Bucks were playing him. With Holiday and backup point guard Jeff Teague guarding Paul the full length of the floor, he had less space and was rushed to get into his team’s sets. That does not bode well for a player who plays naturally at a slower pace, looking to develop the Suns’ offense rather than speed it up.
We saw that coverage in this play with Phoenix backup forward Torrey Craig. After Paul is hounded by Teague, he looks for a pick-and-roll set, which Milwaukee plays with Teague — who is not nearly as good of a defender as Holiday — playing over the screen and Bucks backup forward Bobby Portis playing higher on his drop. Teague takes way too long to recover from the screen of Craig and the Suns make them pay.
What’s surprising is that the Suns did not go after Milwaukee more in this rotation. The Bucks are caught scrambling in this position, yet Paul bails them out by taking a deep 3-pointer over Portis. Compare this to Game 1, when he would have attacked the size advantage and gotten to his spot for an easier shot.
Paul did not have a turnover in this quarter and the Suns only had two as a team. But they were tough ones. Here, Crowder makes a dump-off pass much more flashy than it needs to be after a beautiful cut, leading to another transition opportunity for the Bucks.
And here, Ayton throws an overhead pass that is way too hard for backup forward Cameron Johnson off a curl action.
Almost There in the Third
The Suns found a rhythm during the third quarter, building a six-point edge at the end of the period after leading by as many as seven.
But again, there were missed opportunities. Phoenix had five turnovers in the third, preventing it from potentially blowing the game open. It shot 12-of-17 as a team (Booker had 18 points on 7-of-7 shooting) while Milwaukee made just eight of its 22 shot attempts.
Paul had a better quarter, making back-to-back shots after Booker went out with his fourth foul. However, Paul himself had three fouls in the period and could not help the Suns take over when they needed it.
This was certainly one of his most frustrating plays of the night. After a 3-pointer from Crowder, Paul was unable to extend Phoenix’s lead further on this close shot attempt.
His lone turnover of the period came just minutes later, trying to find Ayton while facing Milwaukee’s ice coverage toward the baseline. Rather than pulling back his dribble and allowing Ayton a cleaner dive, Paul blindly throws a pass that ends up in the hands of Tucker, negating Phoenix from pushing its lead.
He also missed some chances to get himself involved. The Bucks get back slowly on defense here, leading to a high pick-and-roll that Paul can attack effectively. But he passes out an opportunity to score against Lopez.
Same here, with the following reaction coming minutes later.
Here was another turnover that plagued the Suns in the quarter.
Leading 89-82 with 8:39 remaining, it appeared the Suns were on their way to a 3-1 lead in the NBA Finals. But it was not meant to be.
Phoenix gave up a 27-14 run from that point forward, including a 12-4 stretch from the Bucks over the final 2:30 to pull away. Middleton had 10 of Milwaukee’s final 12 points, featuring three mid-range shots to boost their lead to two possessions with 27.2 seconds to go.
Despite that collapse, that was not where the Suns felt like the game was lost. They were outscored 33-21 in the period, making just seven of their 19 field-goal attempts and recording another five turnovers. Paul had two of them, and they were crucial.
With Phoenix leading by three with 3:46 to go, Paul threw an off-target jump pass over the hands of Ayton. It was a much more complicated play than what should have been a jump-stop, turn and dish to Ayton for a slam.
And then, there was this. Who could have expected it, given all the times that Paul saved the Suns in the past?
It was a frustrating turn of events that closed a frustrating night for the Suns, who now turn back to Phoenix with an even series rather than a chance to win a championship at home.
“The turnovers just crushed us tonight,” Williams said. “We shot 50 percent from the field but they got 19 more possessions. 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.”
It was clear that Paul was not and has not been his usual self. That can’t happen as the Suns look to win two of the next three games and capture their first title in franchise history.
The good news for Phoenix is that it has several mistakes it can correct on its own. The bad news is that its margin of error has grown thinner, and there’s a hungry team on the other end of the floor looking to accomplish the same goal.