PHOENIX — Devin Booker curled off an elbow screen from Deandre Ayton and launched a 3-pointer over Milwaukee Bucks starting point guard Jrue Holiday. The shot went in, and Phoenix Suns Arena went into a frenzy.
The Suns — their deficit cut to 120-117 at the time — were in the midst of a late flurry, a 10-3 run to cut the Bucks’ lead with 1:24 to go. It followed some haymakers from Milwaukee after Phoenix came out strong from the opening tip, building a 16-point first-quarter lead only for the Bucks to flip it to a double-digit advantage of their own.
Despite all that, the Suns still had a chance. Bucks superstar forward Giannis Antetokounmpo missed a pair of free throws, and Phoenix starting point guard Chris Paul scored a baseline shot on the other end. Holiday could not hit a floater, and the Suns had an opportunity to win, the ball in Booker’s hands with under 30 seconds left.
But the Suns’ young star could not deliver a final gut-punch. Holiday ripped the ball from Booker’s hands, and the Bucks were out running in transition again. Holiday threw a lob to Milwaukee superstar forward Giannis Antetokounmpo, who dunked over Paul for a crushing blow.
The Suns ended up knocked down hard by the Bucks for the second straight game, falling 123-119 in Game 5 of the NBA Finals on Saturday night at Footprint Center. Phoenix trails the series three games to two and has one last opportunity to respond, or its season will be down for the count.
“You have to have that determination that you’re willing to do whatever it takes to put them back on the plane,” Suns coach Monty Williams said. “So, we can call it what we want to, mental toughness, all of that stuff, but it’s going to be needed and our guys are capable of doing it.”
Fighting until the end, the Suns were first shockingly thrown into an uphill battle in the second quarter. Milwaukee outscored Phoenix 43-24 in that period, shattering a picturesque first quarter in which the Suns shot 14-of-19 from the field, forced six Bucks turnovers and looked like they were on their way to a runaway victory.
That narrative changed quickly. Milwaukee started the second on a 16-3 run, cutting the Suns’ advantage to three within a manner of 3:19. The Bucks tied the game at 42 with 7:48 left in the period and took the lead with 5:46 in the quarter, upending entirely what Phoenix had built.
At that point, the deafening roar inside the newly-named Footprint Center turned to a communal silence, with anxiety and unease crawling over the home fans. It was a feeling the Suns seemed to carry, too.
“We came out and did what we intended to do, get off to a great start and we let it go,” Booker said. “They stayed resilient and they kept playing through.”
Stunned by Milwaukee’s run, Phoenix was out of sorts thereafter. Booker, who did not play for nearly the first six minutes of the second quarter, came out swinging when he returned, taking four shot attempts in the final five minutes before halftime.
That continued in the third quarter, as Booker scored 12 of the Suns’ first 14 points of the period and took six of their first 10 shot attempts. He shot more than half (11) of Phoenix’s tries (21) in the quarter, but they were not within the smooth, free-flowing confines of the Suns’ “point-five” offensive principles, in which they emphasize ball movement by shooting, dribbling or passing within half a second.
Instead, Phoenix had several of its attempts in isolation. According to Cleaning the Glass, the Suns had 47 percent of their shots from mid-range, a better mark considering they shot 53 percent of their attempts from mid-range in Game 4 with 28.9 percent of their shots coming from 3-point range.
The Suns shot a high percentage (68.4) from beyond the arc in Game 5 but had just 19 of their 87 attempts (21.8 percent) from there. They also assisted just 23 of their 48 made shots (47.9 percent), which is the third time this series in which they have assisted fewer than 50 percent of their makes.
Tonight, the #Suns assisted 23 of their 48 made shots (47.9%). It was the fourth time this postseason in which they have assisted fewer than 50 percent of their makes, three of which have come in this series.— Trevor Booth (@TrevorMBooth) July 18, 2021
G1: 18 of 41 (43.9%)
G4: 18 of 40 (45%)
G5: (Listed above)
“We got to move it around,” Williams said. “We know what Book can do with the ball, but the one thing we talked about was getting to the paint, finding guys on the back side. We feel like that’s a formula.”
Meanwhile, the Bucks seemed to hit every shot they could take. They combined to shoot a sizzling 32-of-45 (71 percent) clip in the second and third quarters, outscoring the Suns 79-53 in that stretch. And they got production from seemingly everybody.
Holiday, who shot 33 percent over the first four games of this series, made 12 of his 20 attempts (60 percent) for 27 points, tying his second-best mark this postseason. He had 14 of his points in the second quarter on 6-of-7 shooting, a mark that put the Suns in a bind along with his stingy defense on Paul.
Milwaukee All-Star forward Khris Middleton, who torched the Suns with 40 points in Game 3, had 17 of his 29 points in the second and third quarters on 8-of-11 shooting (72.7 percent) and made 12 of his 23 (52.2 percent) of his attempts for the game.
And then Antetokounmpo — who is the first player in NBA history to average 30 points, 10 rebounds and five assists on 60 percent shooting in the Finals, according to Statmuse — had 12 of his 32 points on 5-of-7 shooting in the second and third quarters.
It was a combined effort that had the Suns stifled.
“It felt a little on and off,” Ayton said. “We was playing hard in some spurts and when it got to a point where we still in this thing and long stretch of the game we kind of picked it back up. But games like this you can’t really take no plays off.”
Despite their structure being knocked down, the Suns tried to make things upright late. Trailing 108-94 with 9:08 to play, Phoenix kept chipping at the Bucks’ lead, thinning it to 113-107 with 5:13 to go following a fadeaway shot from Paul.
Milwaukee scored the next four points to rebuild its lead to double digits but the Suns kept coming, shrinking the lead to six following a 3-pointer from Paul, two free throws from Ayton and a jumper with Booker on the other side of a Middleton 3-pointer.
Once Booker connected on a triple to cut the Suns’ lead to three, they were improbably in the mix of things again.
“We were just defending, finding each other,” Suns starting forward Mikal Bridges said. “We was just playing Suns basketball.”
After Paul’s shot, Booker — who is reportedly the first player in Finals history to record back-to-back 40-point efforts and lose both games — had a chance to push the Suns to victory, isolating on Bucks forward PJ Tucker with 23 seconds remaining. Booker dribbled from the right elbow to the left block, picking up his dribble before turning and having Holiday swipe the ball away.
Antetokounmpo finished a thunderous lob dunk on the other end, and after he grabbed his own rebound after a missed free throw, the Suns’ chances were shot.
“That was a horrible miss,” Ayton said of Antetokounmpo’s missed free throw. “It was just an athletic play, you know, he tipped it behind him knowing that his teammates are there. It was a bad miss.”
According to Statmuse, Phoenix became the first team in league history to lose a playoff game while shooting at least 55 percent from the field and 60 percent from 3-point range. The Suns shot 48-of-87 from the field (55.2 percent) and 13-of-19 (68.4 percent) from beyond the arc.
They also lost their first game this postseason after leading by double digits, winning their previous 13 contests while doing so.
Troubled by struggles with turnovers and rebounding in Games 3 and 4, Phoenix partly negated those concerns by having three fewer turnovers than Milwaukee (eight to 11). It only lost the rebounding battle 37-35 and gave up 11 offensive rebounds, though five of those came for the Bucks in the fourth quarter.
“I just think that the turnovers and the offensive rebounding, we corrected that but they shot 50 percent from 3(-point range),” Williams said. “That was something that kind of gave them the edge. So, they didn’t get those points off of turnovers and offensive rebounding, but they got it from the three-point line.”
The Bucks shot 14-of-28 (50 percent) from beyond the arc in Game 5, their best percentage of the series.
Trailing three games to two, the Suns will have to win their first road contest of the series on Tuesday in order to extend their season. Phoenix lost its third consecutive game for the first time since late January on Saturday night and has not lost four straight at any point this season.
Asked about the challenge ahead, Bridges said his team is embracing it.
“If you sulk about it, [in] the blink of an eye the season is going to be over,” Bridges said. “So, we’ll learn from it, coach is going to show clips and what we have to do better, but we know what we have to do.”
The Suns have one last opportunity to extend their championship run, something that will be extremely hard to do. But they’re fighting for what’s on the other side of it, something that Williams has preached and said he will continue to emphasize to his players.
“Head space, mental stamina, all that stuff, like it boils down to getting it done,” Williams said. “We got to win one game to put them back on the plane. That’s it.”