Phoenix Suns: Establishing an Edge Ahead NBA Finals Game 3

Phoenix Suns (Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images)
Phoenix Suns (Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images) /

Two down…two to go.

It feels nuts to think that the ride may almost be over, but regardless here we sit Phoenix Suns fans—at the tail end of this dream season, with our team up two games to none in the NBA Finals.

Now, let’s not get it twisted, this is no reason to get comfortable and start popping bottles. However, I would wager that the Suns have remained in control even through moments of doubt during this series, making any current fan confidence well-warranted.

Watching Game 1 was certainly an experience, you saw the Bucks essentially throw their entire tool box at Phoenix’s head, only for it to ultimately mean very little in the end. Once the final buzzer sounded, you could have heard Thanos’s epic “all that for a drop of blood,” quote echoing through the streets. It was just that ugly.

Now, I must stress that both of Phoenix’s wins so far have not been by large point margins. But still with the way that Game 1 especially was won, you could feel a futility in Milwaukee’s struggle throughout, as Chris Paul and Devin Booker time after time made those trying to defend them look foolish.

Early on, you could see Milwaukee attempt to give the Phoenix backcourt vey little breathing room. With PJ Tucker matched up against Paul, and Jrue Holiday on Booker, you would expect them to play man-defense, looking to smother their assignments as much as possible.

But instead, Milwaukee looked to switch on everything. In doing this, every time either Booker or Paul received a screen, the Bucks hoped to take away the easy, pull-up jumpers from the elbow which they used to dominate the Los Angeles Clippers. They aimed to close off gaps in the mid-range, and force each player to pass the ball, collectively taking them out of rhythm.

This backfired miserably though, as Paul and Booker both immediately recognized this intent, and started head-hunting whoever was in at center. Early on, this was more oriented towards playmaking.

Once Booker or Paul drew a center following a switch, they could drive to hoop, force some help defense to collapse in, and then kick it out to a consequently open corner or wing jump shooter. Not to mention, each defender’s determination to not let Booker get space for a pull-up jumper prompted them to get over-physical at times. This only allowed Booker to draw foul after foul, going 6-6 from the line in the first quarter alone.

Milwaukee’s switching also allowed Ayton to get loose all game. He was fully able to take advantage of his size during Game 1, as if he was playing against small ball once again. He went 5-6 from the field in the first half, and 8-10 across the entire contest.

Things only got worse for Milwaukee as the game proceeded, with Paul really starting to find his groove. Even as the Suns continued with their same opportunistic drive-and-kick principles on offense, CP3 started calling straight isolations on Lopez almost every time down.

Fully in his bag, Paul exploited the ultimate mismatch with his speed and touch, just as we have seen so do many times before. This forced Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer to go with a drop-center on defense midway through the third quarter. That backfired as well, with CP3 able to still snake around screens for fading jumpers and set Ayton up for lobs.

Bud’s final attempt to stop the onslaught was subbing in Bobby Portis and allowing him to switch onto guards, hoping that he would fare better. However, the Suns still found success. Iso-bucket after iso-bucket ensued, with Portis also unable to keep up with Phoenix’s ball-handlers.

Between the second and third quarters, Paul scored 26 points, finishing with a 32-point total while shooting 63.0 percent from the field. He eventually put the game out of reach, with Phoenix holding too much momentum despite Milwaukee’s more stable efforts with Giannis Antetokounmpo at the center spot during the final period.

Game 2 told a similar story of hopelessness, but for different reasons. These teams honestly could not have been bigger polar opposites in this contest. The Bucks started hammering the ball inside, with an onslaught of inside pressure, while the Suns started off with a  barrage of 3-pointers.

But more importantly, the Bucks were almost entirely a one-man show, while nearly everybody on the Suns stepped up. The entire Suns starting five finished in double figures, while Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday left Giannis out to dry, shooting a combined 12-37 with 28 points between the two of them.

Giannis scored 42 points, with 20 coming during the third period alone. That right there is the reason the Suns felt in control from start to finish. They absolutely controlled the flow of the points.

Although Giannis was cooking Phoenix left and right, dunking on them, hitting turn arounds, and drawing fouls, the Suns did not seem to mind. You would almost rather that be the case than have a game where pressure is coming at you from several different angles.

Milwaukee’s offense as a whole was unthreatening, and felt likely to slow down at some point. That is why even despite Giannis’s insane efficiency and constant scoring, you never really saw Phoenix send a double at him. The Suns made sure to not allow his supporting pieces to get warm add-ons to Milwaukee’s offense, making them less ready for the moment when it came.

We have seen this exact trend work time and time again in NBA history, like with Michael Jordan vs Larry Bird’s Celtics, LeBron James in ’07 and ’18, and even Luka Doncic earlier this year. One man cannot cover every situation, and it is much more likely that one man misses a shot, when compared to the threat of five players who can all contribute on offense.

So, if you let his already cold teammates get iced out even further, you can eventually overcome the one-man onslaught. That is exactly what the Suns did, thanks to the combined efforts of everyone. Special shoutouts to Booker for his efficient 31-point bomb, and Mikal Bridges as an x-factor, scoring 27 points himself.

CP3 and Ayton were slowed down in this game mostly due to Milwaukee’s shifted coverage. Holiday often picked up Paul early down the court each time he brought the ball up, and worked  far more aggressively when recovering off screens. This prevented a lot of Paul’s typical mid-range jumpers.

Holiday staying attached allowed Lopez to maintain his drop coverage and avoid stepping up, making it not so easy for Ayton to complete easy dunks and layups. CP3 finished with six turnovers as a result, and Ayton went just 4-10 from the field, his worst outing in a long time.

Going forward, I do think that the aggression and determination Holiday has displayed might become an issue because it takes away a major component of Phoenix’s offense: Paul’s mid-range jumpers. If CP3 cannot get Holiday in foul trouble as a product of him playing that tight, then the Suns will have to rely on Booker to stay hot.

With all things considered, it feels unlikely that Bridges will go for an efficient 27 points again. At the very least, the Suns should not rely on him to do so going forward. Perhaps Monty Williams could use Paul as a decoy to take Holiday out of the play while Booker and Ayton run similar pick-and-roll sets without the protection of Holiday’s defense that allows Lopez to drop. This would thereby force Budenholzer to stick Holiday on Booker, then freeing up Paul. It really comes down to “picking your poison.”

The Suns could also just let Ayton go to work on his own, as there were some possessions from Game 2 where his fight for position in the post was not rewarded. If the pick-and-roll is shut down by any means, they will need to get him in rhythm.

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Those are just some ideas, but regardless, it will be tougher from this point forward for Phoenix. The Bucks are 7-1 at home, and Middleton has consistently played better in Milwaukee. Role players should bounce back in some form as well. We will have to see how the Suns handle a potential gut punch from the Bucks tonight.