NBA FINALS GAME FIVE (Series tied 2-2)
When: Saturday, July 17 at 6:00 PM AZ/Pacific
Where: Footprint Center (new sponsor of Phoenix Suns Arena)
Listen: 98.7 FM
The Phoenix Suns return home on a two-game losing streak that evened the best-of-seven series at two games apiece. The first loss was not a surprise, given the Bucks were desperate to get back into the series after the Suns had taken a 2-0 lead. But the second loss, on Wednesday night, was tough to handle.
Immediately after the game, watching his players hang their heads in frustration, Suns coach Monty Williams decided it was time to pull out a lucky-to-be-here speech.
“The human tendency, the natural tendency, is to drift, not count your blessings,” Williams said on Friday of that motivational speech. “That was a tough loss. But any loss in the Finals is a tough loss. So I didn’t really put much thought into it, which is usually what I struggle with (laughter). But our guys have accomplished so much, and we have something right in front of us that I didn’t want them to lose sight of even in that moment. I hope it served them and us well.”
The Suns won 51 games this season, which helped them earn home court advantage all the way through the playoffs. The team with the better regular-season record gets the home court advantage, which includes Games 1, 2, 5 and 7 at home while Games 3, 4 and 6 are on the road.
Going into Wednesday’s game, the Suns had one loss and three wins in Game 3s but always had taken that second road game, winning all three (vs. Lakers, Nuggets and Clippers). Then Wednesday’s Game 4 happened. The Suns had a 9-point lead early in the 4th quarter, and even a two-point lead with 2:30 left, but got badly outscored in the clutch.
The Suns had been a league-best 25-12 in the regular season in clutch games — defined as games within 5 points in the last 5 minutes — and were 4-1 in the playoffs, but went up against a Bucks team that was at home, with a raucous crowd, and had their own 4-2 clutch record these playoffs.
The Bucks are now not only 5-2 in the clutch, but also 8-1 at home in these playoffs, while the Suns are now 4-2 in the clutch and 8-2 at home.
Now the Suns return home, hoping to use their crowd and familiar surroundings to take the lead back in the Finals.
“It’s going to be huge to take care of the ball,” Bucks guard Jrue Holiday says of winning Game 5. “The Suns at home are — are they undefeated at home, the Suns? They’re virtually undefeated at home. They play very, very well here. They have so much confidence here. The crowd is crazy.”
News flash: This is the Finals. Both teams are very good.
Injuries: nothing new to report. Both teams are down a rotation player that’s not coming back (Dario Saric, Donte Divincenzo).
The game will likely go to the team whose best players play best.
In the Suns two wins, their Big Three of Chris Paul, Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton collectively outplayed the threesome of two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday.
In the Suns two losses, that flipped. Ayton played hesitantly both games, worried about foul trouble, and Paul and Booker took turns laying duds. On the other side, the Bucks big three all played 43 of 48 minutes in Game 4 and closed out the win with their excellent play in clutch minutes.
The Suns will need to flip that script back in their favor on their home floor.
And the rest...
Neither team can win the game with just three players though. The Suns will need more collective effort from the rest of the rotation than the Bucks get from theirs. Both teams are down to an 8-man rotation, so those other five guys on each team need to be spot-on to get the win.
Role players have a tendency to play better at home, in front of their adoring fans, than on the road in a hostile environment.
The Suns key role player who needs to improve is Mikal Bridges. Bridges scored only 11 total points on 8 shots over TWO games in Milwaukee. That’s a 5.5 point average from a guy who’d averaged 13.5 points per game in the regular season and 11.5 points in the playoffs — including 27 in Game 2 of these Finals — until those two road games. He depends on the offensive scheme to get him looks, but he also needs to be more aggressive when he does touch the ball. Bridges has recently admitted that he boxes himself into being the catch-and-shoot guy too often, and needs to remind himself to be aggressive. Hopefully, he’s done that before Game 5.
Meanwhile, all the Bucks role players were excellent in Milwaukee after being spotty in Phoenix in Games 1 and 2.
The Suns need to recapture their magic of Games 1 and 2, and the best way to do that is for all the players, star AND role, to have excellent games.
The Suns are losing a lot of the statistical battles, and by a wide margin. Losing Dario Saric, even though he played just 11 minutes per game, has been tough. Deandre Ayton is still a plus in this series, but the Suns are big minus when he’s on the bench. A big big minus.
The Suns have outscored the Bucks by 10 points with Ayton on the court in these four games (144 minutes), but have overall been outscored by 13 with him on the bench (48 minutes). Similar statements can be said for the other starters, who all contribute, which indicts the bench guys as a group.
“We’re motivated,” Booker said before Game 5. “We’re embracing this moment. I don’t think at the beginning of the season anybody in this room or anybody in this league expected us to be in the situation that we’re in. We’re excited for it.”
This is a must-win for both teams.
Let’s get it!