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Game Preview: League-leading Bucks visit Suns on mutual back-to-back

The Bucks enjoyed a big win over the Kings last night, while the Suns got pummeled early by the Warriors

NBA: Phoenix Suns at Milwaukee Bucks Michael McLoone-USA TODAY Sports

What: Milwaukee Bucks (49-19, 1st in East) at Phoenix Suns (37-31, 4th in West)

When: 7:00 PM AZ time

Where: Footprint Center, Phoenix, AZ (Suns home record: 22-11)

Watch: Bally Sports Arizona

Listen: 98.7 FM

One of the most entertaining games of the year occurred just two weeks ago in Milwaukee, where the Phoenix Suns visited the Bucks in a game that flashed a lot of the same intensity as the 2021 Finals — or at least great intensity relative to usual February regular season games.

And par for the course in recent highly contested matchups between these two teams, the Bucks won it with Jrue Holiday making key plays on offense and defense in the final seconds. That win was part of a club record 16 straight wins, even while Giannis played less than 10 minutes in three of them (including the win over the Suns).

This time the Suns hope to return the favor on their own home court.

Tonight, both teams are on the back end of a back-to-back, traveling from California, with the Bucks coming from Sacramento and the Suns from San Fransisco. The Bucks did their thing, absorbing an early 15-point deficit and storming back for a decisive win in the final minutes. The Suns got down too, at Golden State, and nearly came back but then couldn’t make enough shots to close the deal.

Probable Starting Lineups


  • Suns: Kevin Durant (ankle), Landry Shamet (foot) are OUT
  • Bucks: Joe Ingles missed Monday’s game for right-knee management

Key to the game: Better Suns shooting, worse opponent shooting

Analysis. That’s what you come here for.

Devin Booker has been on a tear lately, averaging 35 points per game on 60% shooting over the past 6 games, including 32 in the loss to Golden State on Monday. In these two losses, even, he’s averaging 30 points on 59% shooting.

The rest of the team has forgotten how to shoot though. As a team, the Suns made only 26% of their threes against the Kings and Warriors while giving up 46% three point shooting on the other end. That’s not gonna win you a lot of games.

Suns opponents are giving uncontested shots to guys like Chris Paul, Josh Okogie, Torrey Craig and Ish Wainright. Daring them to take threes. That should not be a great choice, considering Paul makes 36% of his threes, Craig 39%, Okogie 37% since a bad first month, and Ish 34%. That’s at least passable. But those guys shooting threes in the last two games? 8 makes on 37 attempts (21%). Ugly.

If the Suns are going to survive this non-KD stretch, they will need the weak side wide three point shooters to make the normal 35+%. They only made 21% against two below-average defenses. Let’s see if they can shoot better against the Bucks 3rd-best defense.

It would help to get Terrence Ross (39%) and Damion Lee (44%) more open looks in the second unit, at least to make up for their bad defense. The worst-case scenarios are playing out too often: Ross or Lee getting worked on one end, only to have Craig/Ish clank a three on the other.

Key to the game, Part Two: Come back, Cam Payne!

Yes, the Suns need Kevin Durant back first and foremost. Without him, the Suns are really down three good rotation wings, which points back to the prior section when those guys go cold from the floor.

But it sure would help to get the good Cam Payne back. Remember way back in the first couple months of the season when he even started for a few weeks as the Suns posted a 16-7 record (largely) without Chris Paul? Me neither.

  • Payne before the foot injury: 26 games (14 starts), 24.8 minutes, 12.7 points (41/39/76 shooting splits), 2.6:1 assist to turnover ratio
  • Payne before the foot injury (off bench only): 16 minutes, 9 points (43/38/83 splits), 2.6:1 assist to turnover ratio
  • Payne since returning: 8 games (0 starts), 14 minutes, 7 points (41/26/40 shooting splits), 1.4:1 assist to turnover ratio

He doesn’t run a good offense anymore — he dribbles outside the three-point arc, scans the defense, and either makes a weak pass into the post or drives left for a floater against a sagging defense that wants him to take floaters. Then on the other end, he’s committing fouls trying to get through a screener on the pick and roll. The defense has him pegged — guard his left hand to the three point line, entice him to drive but then cut off the paint. He makes one of two decisions: the floater or a wild interior pass to his big man among multiple defenders in the paint.

He’s been bad. So bad that Monty Williams continually has to put back in a 37-year old Chris Paul to get the Suns back into a rhythm.

To unlock him, the Suns need to get the offense moving more when Payne has the ball. He’s better in a herky jerky situation, so get more people moving, cutting, setting screens. And ready for his wild passes.

Fun Fact

While we likely won’t see any players acquired in trade by the Suns last month (Durant is injured, Warren and Bazley are out of rotation), you most likely will finally get to see season-long holdout Jae Crowder back in the Footprint Center for the first time since Game 7 of the second round of the 2022 playoffs.

Crowder was traded to the Bucks as part of the Durant trade, and he’s working his way slowly back into game condition. He’s appeared in 10 games since being activated by the Bucks on 2/24 and here’s his stats:

  • 18.1 minutes, 5.1 points on 45/34/77 splits with 4.1 rebounds and 1.4 assists per game
  • He’s hit 2 threes in 5 of his 10 games, and 0 threes in the other 5
  • His season high in points is 15, versus Orlando
  • His season high in minutes is 24, versus the Suns in his second game for them where he made a pair of game-deciding threes because of course

My guess is the cruising Bucks give Jae some good run tonight at the Foot.

Key Stats


Oof. The Suns are not trending well these last few games, while the Bucks are just rolling right along on their merry way to the top overall playoff seed.

Sorry guys and gals. I just can’t predict a win.

Prediction: Bucks 120, Suns 110.

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