It’s a make-or-miss league.
It’s an often quoted — and often misused — NBA cliche, but it’s a cliche for a reason.
The Milwaukee Bucks are down 0-2 in the NBA Finals despite their MVP dominating and a better overall defensive effort because Bucks not named Antetokounmpo could not hit a shot when it mattered. Milwaukee missed. A lot.
Antetokounmpo finished with 42 points on 15-of-22 shooting, getting into the paint, and having the kind of Finals performance expected from a top-five (maybe top-three) player in the league.
The Bucks’ other two All-Stars and Olympians — Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday — piled up the misses. They shot a combined 12-of-37 (32.4%) and were 2-of-9 on 3-pointers. As a team, the Bucks shot 29% from three.
“I think I did a good job of being aggressive, especially early when we got a little lead, but it went dry for a bit,” Holiday said. “I have to stay aggressive, keep attacking the rim. It’s the only thing I can do.”
Eric Bledsoe playoff shooting splits with the Bucks:
— 41.1 FG%
— 25.4 3P%
— 73.2 FT%
Jrue Holiday playoff shooting splits with the Bucks:
— 41.1 FG%
— 28.9 3P%
— 67.3 FT% pic.twitter.com/1PRn67M4k2
— StatMuse (@statmuse) July 9, 2021
Devin Booker (31 points and seven made 3s) and Chris Paul (23 points) got rolling in the second half, Phoenix’s role players stepped up, as epitomized by Mikal Bridges, who had 27 points on 15 shots, and the Suns took a lead in the second quarter they never surrendered.
The Suns beat the Bucks 118-108 to take a 2-0 lead in the NBA Finals. The games shift back to Milwaukee for Game 3 on Sunday.
The first quarter almost played out the way Bucks’ coach Mike Budenholzer scripted: 20 points in the paint, the team didn’t commit one foul (no Suns free throws), they were more aggressive on Paul and Booker in the pick and roll, and Antetokounmpo was 3-of-4 from the floor.
Still, they only led by three because the Suns were 8-of-14 on 3-pointers in the quarter. The Bucks helped on Paul and Booker by coming off Jae Crowder and Bridges, but those two Suns started 4-of-7 on the 3s in the first quarter. The Suns’ stars got help.
Yeah, I mean the first quarter was a storm of aggression from them attacking the paint, offensive rebounding and we talked about it all morning,” Suns coach Monty Williams said. “We studied Game 2 versus Atlanta and that was their way to attack Atlanta in that Game 2 after a loss, was to just get to the paint. So, we knew that was coming.”
The second quarter saw the Bucks shooting woes come front and center: Holiday and Middleton were a combined 5-of-24 in the first half.
“You always give credit to the defense. Those guys do a good job,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said postgame.” There’s probably a few looks that I think they got to go in when you’re playing against a good defensive team — you get a good, clean one. Jrue was getting to the paint a lot. I liked his aggressiveness. I think we need all three of those guys. I think if they just keep working, they will come good.”
The Suns took advantage of the stalled out Bucks offense to go on an 8-0 run and lead 56-45 at the half. Milwaukee played good, hard defense, but the Suns’ ball movement eventually found quality shots.
Great defense throughout the possession.. but the @Suns find a way! #ThatsGame
Phoenix ends the 1st half on a 15-4 run.#NBAFinals on ABC pic.twitter.com/7Fq27zFMq4
— NBA (@NBA) July 9, 2021
Bottom line, while the Bucks were missing, the Suns were making. Look at Phoenix’s shot chart for the game.
Antetokounmpo would not let his team fade and took over in the third, scoring 13 straight Bucks points in one stretch and going on to score 20 in the quarter, on 5-of-6 shooting, with him going 9-of-14 during the counted-down-by-the-crowd free throws. That’s the most points scored by a player in a Finals quarter since Michael Jordan had 22 in Game 3 against the Suns in 1993.
The Bucks made some runs, getting the lead down to five in the third, but never closer because Booker and Paul lit it up in the quarter with 22 combined points, finding more space against the Bucks defense and just hitting some great shots.
Plus, the Bucks gave Antetokounmpo no help.
“It just felt like all night they were a step faster to those 50/50 balls… that’s usually our bread and butter,” Pat Connaughton said.
The Bucks made another push in the fourth, cutting the lead to six, but a missed good-look 3 by Connaughton and some timely buckets from the Suns, and that was the ballgame.
The Bucks went down 0-2 to the Brooklyn Nets in the second round and came back to win in seven. There is hope. However, it also took a rash of injuries to Brooklyn’s stars for that to happen, and if Kevin Durant‘s shoes were two-sizes smaller the Nets would have won that series.
The Suns are healthy, confident, athletic, and they have a leader in Chris Paul who does not get rattled. This will be a much tougher test for the Bucks.