Phoenix Suns and the panic level: 3 players who have to step up

Phoenix Suns, Chris Paul (Photo by Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports)
Phoenix Suns, Chris Paul (Photo by Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports) /

The Phoenix Suns are officially on notice.

When Giannis Antetokounmpo blocked Deandre Ayton’s field-goal attempt late in Wednesday’s Game 4 at Milwaukee, the feelings of dread moved quickly into the minds of Suns fans.

If the Phoenix Suns are to answer Milwaukee’s recent one-two punch, there are three players who have to answer the bell in Game 5 Saturday night in Phoenix.

The Bucks pulled out a dramatic victory by using the long-expected “Khris Middleton Game” and the continued primary Giannis problem. And the Bucks didn’t even need much on offense from Jrue Holiday, who hit four of his 20 field-goal attempts.

Something’s gotta give.

Phoenix Suns player 1: Chris Paul

No doubt Chris Paul, the guy who began this NBA Finals series in the “top point guard of all time” conversation has regressed abruptly, capping his slide with an awful performance in Game 4.

Paul, who was 4 for 12 prior to a garbage-time layup, had only seven assists and was a game-worst minus-10 in plus/minus.

His handle looked messed up from the get-go, and he could be seen clutching at his left hand throughout the game. Whether this is a lingering injury certainly should concern Suns backers, because he helped waste an iconic performance by Devin Booker.

Maybe it was the fallout from his friend LeBron James talking about a reunion with his buddy.

He said he just has to be better, and Phoenix had better hope it’s all about execution rather than recovery from injury.

Phoenix Suns player 2: Mikal Bridges

Bridges, whose 27-point performance in Game 2 was followed by back-to-back single-digit efforts, simply has to be more aggressive.

He came out swinging, playing lock-down defense and hitting two of his three first-quarter field-goal tries.

After that? He was 1-for-1.

Cam Johnson was moving more on offense, and Bridges needs to follow suit. Where is the cutting, playmaking Bridges whom Suns fans know and love? Perhaps he was spending too much time just watching Booker jack up 28 shots (and hit 17 of them).

Regardless, Bridges must be the depth anchor that helps rescue the Suns on Saturday night. His five rebounds and zero assists are symbols of a lack of involvement. He’ll need to kickstart himself.

Phoenix Suns player 3: Deandre Ayton

It’s hard to guard Giannis; and switching over to the mobile big guy Brook Lopez is no picnic.

The Suns are in a tight spot, too, with the absence of Dario Saric.

But, despite Ayton’s sensational postseason, the Suns will need more than what Ayton brought on the offensive end. He hit only 3-for-9 from the field and, despite hauling in 17 rebounds, will be counted on for a better overall showing in Game 5.

Ayton stayed out of foul trouble and blocked three shots, but after the first quarter he stayed off the scoresheet.

The cold truth: In quarters 2, 3 and 4, Ayton was 0-for-3, had no free-throw attempts and more turnovers (1) than points.

Ayton’s young — and learning — but these opportunities don’t come along every year. In fact, if the Suns fail to win and then take as long to get back their next Finals as they did last time, Ayton will be 50 years old.

And he’d likely regret not producing enough in Game 5.

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There’s one way to avoid that unpleasant fate. Get after it — hard — on both ends on Saturday night.