After busting through so many ceilings this season, the Phoenix Suns maybe just may have finally hit a ceiling they cannot breach. They have lost three straight games and are just one loss away from losing the Finals to the Milwaukee Bucks.
The Suns now have to travel back to Milwaukee and play the Bucks in Game 6 on Tuesday night. A loss, and the Suns season is over. A win, and they force the Bucks to come back to Phoenix for Game 7.
“We got to win one game to put them back on the plane. That’s it,” Suns head coach Monty Williams said after the Game 5 loss.
That’s it. Just win on the road, in a place where the Bucks are 9-1 this postseason.
Just beat a Bucks team that’s getting better every game, making all the right clutch plays to steal the last two games of the series from the Suns in the closing minutes.
Just beat a team that’s already going down in Finals history for ‘The Block’ and the ‘The Oop’.
Just beat a veteran playoff team twice in a row with your NBA version of the Indians from Major League. Monty Williams as manager Lou Brown. Chris Paul as the venerable Jake Taylor. Devin Booker as flamethrower Ricky Vaughn. Al McCoy as Harry Doyle. I could go on.
Except these Suns not only went on to ‘win the whole damn thing’ by making the playoffs, they got all the way to the Finals before being hit with a haymaker.
How they respond to that haymaker is the big question now. They have had difficulty maintaining the necessary consistent emotional effort — which coach Monty Williams calls ‘force’ — after taking that 2-0 lead against a team loaded with playoff veterans along the lineup and the coaching staff.
They lost their focus in the NBA Finals for all of Game 3 (Devin Booker scored 10 measly points and was benched the whole fourth quarter in a 20-point loss) and the whole second and third quarters of Game 5.
They lost their poise in the clutch, committing live-ball-fast-break-score turnovers in both Game 4 and 5 with a chance to tie or take the lead with under two minutes left.
And because of that they lost their advantage in the NBA Finals.
“Head space, mental stamina, all that stuff, like it boils down to getting it done,” coach Williams said. “You have to have that determination that you’re willing to do whatever it takes to put them back on the plane. 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. This is our first time in this position and we can do it.”
The Suns have done the unexpected and unprecedented this year.
No team in NBA history has gone from a 10-year playoff drought to the NBA Finals in their first trip back to the postseason.
No team in NBA history has gone from one of the league’s bottom-two records to the NBA Finals in just two short years.
No team in NBA history posted such an awful three-year, four-year or five-year regular season record immediately preceding their NBA Finals year.
The Suns aren’t supposed to be here. You can credit injury luck if you want, but the NBA’s been around for 72 years now and injuries have been around since the dawn of time so you should give credit to the team too.
This situation is the toughest the Suns have ever faced, and we simply cannot predict how the team will respond to this level of adversity.
“Everything we want is on the other side of hard and it don’t get no harder than this,” point guard Chris Paul said after the Game 5 loss.
Paul scored 21 points, dished 11 assists and committed only one turnover. Devin Booker scored 40 points — his second straight 40+ point Finals game — and Deandre Ayton put up 20 points and 10 rebounds. They made 55% of their shots and 68% of their threes.
But the Suns just could not stop the Bucks from making virtually every shot they put up. More on that later.
So you’re saying there’s a chance
This is the 30th time that the NBA Finals was tied at 2-2.
The team that has won Game 5 has gone on to win the title 72.4% of the time (21-8). That is actually lower than the overall playoffs number, which is 82.1% all-time for all rounds.
So, the team that lost Game 5 in the Finals has come back to win both games six and seven a surprising 8 times in 30 chances.
There hasn’t even been a 2-2 tie since 2015, when the Warriors closed out LeBron’s Cavaliers in games 5 and 6 to finish off their first title. You might remember the Cavaliers had lost their second and third best players, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, to injury.
This Game 6 will seriously test the Suns mettle. Their resilience. Their relentlessness. Let’s hope the team actually takes it the way Deandre Ayton put it.
“Tables are turned now,” Ayton said after the Game 5 loss. “Now we’re the desperate team. We had our chances of being up and trying to finish the job, now we’re in the same position that they were in. They’re up and now we got to go get it. That’s why it’s a little bit more fun.”
You’re asking yourself how the heck the Suns can turn the tide on the road in Game 6, aren’t you?
The Bucks figured the Suns out. If the Suns haven’t solved the Bucks yet, it’s too late.
Evening out the possession battle
After giving up 8 more shots per game over the first four games, the Suns actually matched the Bucks in shot attempts (87) in Game 5 because they matched the offensive rebound + steals total (19 apiece).
If the Suns have solved for the Bucks getting more possessions, they have a great chance to win because the Suns are (almost always) the better shooting team.
Crazy good shotmaking by Bucks
To win Game 5, the Bucks needed every contested bucket to make the final 4-point margin. The Suns played really good defense on Saturday night despite the Bucks making so many shots. More than half the Bucks shots were tightly contested, which is well above league average.
In Game 5:
- 44 of Milwaukee’s 87 shots were tightly contested (50.5% of all shots) and they made 26 of them for a 59% FG percentage.
- 45 of Phoenix’s 87 shots were tightly contested (51% of all shots), and they made only 18 of them for a 40% FG percentage
You might say, well the Bucks contested shots are at the rim so of course they will make more!
And I would say, keep reading.
Compare that to the 4 previous Suns-Bucks games in the Finals...
- In Games 1-4, the Bucks made 90 of 195 tightly contested shots (53% of all shots) and made 46% of them
- In Games 1-4, the Suns made 60 of 122 tightly contested shots (33% of all shots) and made 49%
Dave, what does that mean?
That means the Suns have been contesting more than half the Bucks shots tightly (closest defender within 4 feet) all series, and on Saturday night the Bucks just happened to make a lot more of them (59% vs. 46%), which equated to 14 extra points because two of those extra shots were threes! On the other hand, the Suns scored eight fewer points than usual on tightly contested shots in Game 5. That’s a 20-point swing right there on contested shot-making.
Maybe the Bucks were just reverting to form from the prior playoffs series, artificially held down by the Suns until Game 5? Nah. For the playoffs, prior to Game 5, the Bucks made 46% of their contested shots, while the Suns have been making 49% of theirs all playoffs. Just like Games 1-4 of the Finals.
Game 5 was an extreme positive aberration in shooting for the Bucks and a less-extreme negative aberration for the Suns.
Just as the Suns solved for the disparity in possessions that hurt them in Games 1-4, they lost Game 5 because the Bucks shot the ball incredibly well.
“Well, I just think that the turnovers and the offensive rebounding, we corrected that,” coach Williams said after the game. “But they shot 50 percent from three. 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.”
And on contested shots from any range, coach.
To Monty’s point, the Bucks made 50% of their threes to offset a 40-point night from Booker, just like the Suns in Game 2 made 50% of threes to offset a 40-point night from Giannis and give the Suns that 2-0 lead in the series.
After five games, the Bucks have a 3-2 series lead but only scored seven more points than the Suns and their wins have come in thrilling fashion with ‘The Block’ and ‘The Oop’, both after improbable Suns turnovers in the clutch.
Clutch Kings and Road Warriors
Including the regular season and the playoffs up through the Finals, the Suns were 29-13 in the clutch* while the Bucks were 17-16.
*defined as games within 5 points in the final 5 minutes
The Bucks may be 9-1 at home in the 2021 playoffs, but the Suns had the league’s best road record this year (30-16 including playoffs) so they know how to win on the road.
In fact, the Suns are so good on the road they’ve closed out all three previous opponents on the road in these 2021 Playoffs. They beat the Lakers in Games 4 and 6, the Nuggets in Games 3 and 4, and the Clippers in Games 4 and 6.
I seriously doubt these boys will give up now.
What I’m saying here is that the Suns are not dead.
And all the Suns coaching staff has to do is show the players the film, build their spirits back up, and get them ready to work harder than they ever have before when they play Game 6 on Tuesday night.
And who knows, we might just be back in Footprint Center on Thursday after all.