The Phoenix Suns have lost three consecutive games to the Milwaukee Bucks in the NBA Finals and are now down 3-2 in the best-of-seven series. If they lose a fourth straight, the season will be over and the Suns will once again come up short of winning a championship.
So many things have happened to the Suns in these last three games to give you a feeling of doom and gloom. First it was the Bucks owning the possession battle, winning games by generating 8 more shots per contest on second-chance points and back court steals. The Suns (largely) fixed that in Game 5, but lost anyway due to crazy contested shotmaking by the Bucks.
Even with all this doom and gloom, and the Bucks one win away from their first NBA title in 48 years, they have still only outscored the Suns by 7 total points in the whole series. The Suns are still very good on both ends of the court, just not good enough yet to beat a Bucks team that has made all the right adjustments to maximize their personnel.
Assuming the Suns can continue to level the possession count, and assuming the Bucks won’t make 60% of their tightly contested shots again, does that solve all the Suns problems?
One big problem still exists: the Bucks defensive scheme has turned Devin Booker and Chris Paul into Monsters of the Iso.
The Bucks have turned the Suns greatest strength into the way to beat them.
The Suns have a good predatory offense that blitzed through the regular season and the first three rounds of the playoffs. A good, predatory offense schemes every half-court possession into getting the defense’s weakest player on an island against your best playmaker. The playmaker proceeds to break down the weak link and either scores on them or forces help from other defenders which opens up weak side shooters for back-breaking threes or cutting dunks.
The Suns almost always hunt Brook Lopez or Pat Connaughton or Bobby Portis, using a series of screens to isolate them on Booker or Paul out past the three-point line. The Suns other players then spread out as wide as possible to wait for the kick-out, opening the floor for a drive-and-score or drive-and-dish. Booker (30.1 points on 47% field goal, 56% True Shooting) and Paul (21 points on 54% FG, 62% TS) have been feasting on these iso’s, but the Bucks defense has forced them to shoot more and pass less.
The Bucks have decided to leave Connaughton/Lopez/Portis on the island to fend for themselves, and fan out to cut off passing lanes to shooters. The only help they bring is at the rim, with whoever of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Lopez or PJ Tucker is on the back line. But even then, Booker and Paul are not rim-attackers so the Bucks scheme basically forces a middy on every possession.
“Just take what the defense gives you,” Booker said after practice yesterday. “Just read what’s going on. Just try to make the right play.”
Check out Zach Lowe’s cool breakdown of this scheme.
Booker is saving the Suns, not killing them
Let me iterate and re-iterate: this is NOT a Devin Booker hero-ball problem. Booker scoring 40+ in losses these last two games is not the reason the Suns lost those games. The Bucks are cutting off his passing lanes, so he’s taking the best available shot which is usually getting to his best spots against a poor defender. And they’re winning his minutes.
“That’s what our offense tries to do,” Booker said of how the Suns are reacting to the Bucks’ stay-at-home scheme. “Whether it’s an open shot for somebody else or a mismatch we feel Deandre has with a smaller opponent or if it’s somebody that I feel couldn’t guard me that possession or whatever it is, it’s just trying to get the best available shot for our team in that possession.”
In the 42 minutes Booker played in Game 5, the Suns outscored the Bucks by 12 points.
In the 6 minutes Booker rested on the bench, however, the Bucks outscored the Suns by 16 points, most of that in the first six minutes of the dreadful second quarter (the Bucks had 29 points in 6.5 minutes!).
Whatever you do, wherever you go to get off your hot takes, do NOT blame Devin Booker’s ‘hero ball’ for the Suns losing Game 4 or 5 of the NBA Finals. Booker’s play gave the Suns a chance to win, and they would have won if Booker had played a bit more than his 42 minutes.
Even so, Booker knows the Suns need to adjust their offense to add more diversity and keep the Bucks guessing. The Suns only got off 19 threes in Game 5, a far cry from their mid-30s average and a big reason they are struggling to outscore a good-shooting Bucks team.
“Yeah, I think with the team and the capabilities of the shooters that we have on this team that we need to generate more threes,” Booker said. “Obviously, they’re switching a lot and staying home on shooters. So there’s just a way of figuring it out. Putting pressure, causing gravity to open up opportunities, easier opportunities for everybody on this team, because we have a lot of really good shooters on this team.”
While midrange shots by Paul and Booker are a strength of Suns basketball, that’s not the point of the Suns ‘point-five’ offense. Middys by Paul and Book are supposed to be the fallback when normal passing, movement and screening doesn’t free up an open shot. On the Suns best nights, 5-7 players score 10+ points with no one but Booker exceeding 20.
But against these Bucks, who’ve been adjusting and tightening their screws for five games now, the Suns offense barely resembles itself. Devin Booker has scored 40+ points in each of the last two games, but has done so because the Bucks are cutting off all of his passing lanes.
“We have had a good balance of the kind of play that Devin brings,” coach Monty Williams said yesterday. “But we have also had the ball movement that can break you down. We have talked about that. We saw it in the fourth quarter, where the ball was whipping around the gym. That’s basically how we cut (the deficit).”
If you’re looking for silver linings today, focus on the Suns ability to cut a 14-point fourth quarter deficit to one point, with a chance to take the lead with a under a minute left, because they found their ball movement again. Ball movement generates assisted baskets, and that’s what the Suns need to get back to.
The Suns assisted on more than 50% of their made field goals in 68 of 70 regular season games and 14 of their 16 pre-Finals playoff games... but only 2 of 5 Finals games.
The Suns are STILL 4th in the 2021 Playoffs, assisting on 57.7% of made field goals even including these Finals games.
Before the Finals, they were 2nd (to the Heat, who played only 4 games) with a 60.1% assist percentage, had the second-best a 2.13 assist-to-turnover ratio (to the Nuggets) and playoffs-best 18.7% assist ratio*.
*Assist percentage: % of made field goals that were assisted; Assist ratio: % of possessions that ended in an assisted basket
But in the Finals, it’s been another story. Those numbers have dropped to 50.1% assist percentage against the Bucks in these finals with this trend, game to game.
- Game 1: 45% — W
- Game 2: 60% — W
- Game 3: 52.5% — L
- Game 4: 45% — L
- Game 5: 48% — L
Let’s talk about total passes per game. Monty and the team have said they aren’t always playing ‘Suns basketball’ in these Finals, which was epitomized by that 10-pass sequence in Game 2 that ended in an Ayton and-one.
How are the Suns passing in these Finals?
Clearly, you can see that over the last three games the Suns passing offense has been squeezed. Some of that due to tunnel vision, some of it due to player spacing issues and some due to the Bucks simply clamping down all over the place.
Now let’s look at the Bucks. These past three games, they have passed more than ever and gotten back close to their assist efficiency of the regular season. And their offense is absolutely humming in part because of the passing but also because they’re making a lot of tough shots. A lot — to the tune of making 60% of their tightly contested shots in Game 5, which is generally unheard of.
This is The Finals. Both teams are very good. The Bucks were statistically about even with the Suns this year on offense and defense — 116.5 to 116.3 on offense, 110.4 to 110.7 on defense.
And again, they’ve scored a grand total of seven more points than the Suns in five games.
If the suns can just straighten themselves out a bit on offensive flow, keep the possession battle even and be the ones to make the clutch plays this time, they can win Game 6 and send it back to Phoenix on Thursday for a winner-take-all.
To see if the Suns are making good adjustments to get back to Suns basketball, watch the shot attempts and the assist-to-field-goal ratio. If the Suns are keeping the shot attempts even and generating assists on more than half their shots, they will be in good shape.