MILWAUKEE - On the brink of winning their franchise's first NBA championship in 50 years, the Milwaukee Bucks will have a lot on their side entering Game 6 (9 ET, ABC) Thursday at Fiserv Forum.
They lead the best-of-seven series 3-2. They hold home court for what could be the clincher, with a 9-1 mark at their arena in the postseason. They deploy the best player in the series, Giannis Antetokounmpo. They even have an intangible that's tough to measure but impossible to deny: A rabid crowd inside and out, 17,000 in the former, an expected 65,000 in the latter in the burgeoning "Deer District" plaza pandemonium.
The Phoenix Suns, however, have one thing the Bucks do not: Desperation.
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Answering a question about close-out games, veteran Milwaukee guard Jrue Holiday flipped the script and answered from the side of a team trailing or facing elimination. Remember, the Bucks trailed 2-0 to start these Finals and were down 3-2 against Brooklyn in the East finals.
"Honestly, I think it's about playing desperate," he said. "Playing like it's the last game of the season. Like our backs [are] against the wall. Like we said, we got a good win that fifth game, but the job is not done."
The Bucks can feign desperation, playing a mental game to sharpen their focus when in fact they have another opportunity if they need it. Maybe they can trick themselves, maybe they can't.
The Suns have the real stuff. Real desperation. Genuine, not from concentrate, nothing artificial.
Jrue Holiday's steal & lob to Giannis to help seal the @Bucks win, through the lens of our slo-mo #PhantomCam! 🔥- NBA (@NBA) July 18, 2021
Jrue: 27 PTS, 13 AST, 3 STL
Giannis: 32 PTS#ThatsGame #NBAFinals pic.twitter.com/AQxRy4ITOW
"The difference is basically, it's win or go home," Suns forward Jae Crowder said. "I think the words speak for itself. As a player, it brings out a sense of urgency. It brings a sense of collectiveness within your group, knowing what you're battling and knowing what you're going up against."
This is only the second time this postseason Phoenix has trailed in a series. They were down 2-1 to the Lakers in the first round and turned that bit of urgency into nine consecutive victories, eliminating LeBron James and his crew in six games, sweeping Denver, then taking a 2-0 lead against the Clippers.
Crowder, as a member of the Miami Heat last year in the Orlando bubble, got beat by the Lakers in six games, facing the same 3-2 deficit the Suns face.
"It's not going to be pretty," he said. "You're not looking to play a perfect game. You're just looking to try to come out with a win. I think those two games we had on the road previously in the series, we gave ourselves a chance to win the game."
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Less so in Game 3 (a 120-100 Milwaukee victory) than Game 4, when Antetokounmpo came up with one of the best blocked shots in Finals history. His denial of Suns center Deandre Ayton at the rim on an alley-oop with 1:14 left protected a two-point lead in what became a 109-103 Bucks victory.
Game 5 in Phoenix, the first time in this series the road team won, had a similar feel late. Milwaukee fell behind by 16 early, erased all of that to lead by halftime, pushed its own margin to double digits, then had to hang on via a stunning sequence in the final minute.
Holiday was the hub of all that, ripping the ball out of Devin Booker's hands when the Suns wing seemed in position to put his team in front. Then he dribbled into the frontcourt and fired a high-risk lob pass to the streaking Antetokounmpo to bump Milwaukee's lead to 122-119. When the Greek Freak missed his and-1 free throw, it was Holiday again, batting the ball loose after Antetokounmpo's tip until Khris Middleton secured the ball and was fouled.
Middleton missed one foul shot, made the next with 9.8 seconds left to win the game and swing the series.
🎥 Poetry in Motion Thread 🎥- NBA (@NBA) July 18, 2021
Watch the incredible shot-making down the stretch of Game 5 through our #PhantomCam lens... starting with Khris Middleton's and-1 jumper with 3:25 remaining! pic.twitter.com/cDU3DEv6hk
As big a blow as that defeat was, as lacking as these relatively tender Suns are in battle scars and callouses, coach Monty Williams said he thinks they have a resiliency to go with their single-mindedness now of just winning one game. One for now, anyway.
"I saw yesterday when we got on the plane, the guys had the same look in their eyes," Williams said. "When I came down this morning for meetings, guys were down there talking, having breakfast. It was pretty cool to watch. Those kinds of losses are hard, but if you're going to do anything big, you have to overcome those kinds of hards. I don't know of any team that has won a championship that has just kind of strolled into it.
"So our guys, we have talked about that, the deep playoff hurts that happen and the ability to bounce back from that."
One area in which the Suns want to do better, or at least limit the Bucks from doing so well, is in transition. Milwaukee had a 21-12 advantage in fast-break points in Game 5, giving it an 86-45 edge through five games. As well as Phoenix plays in a half-court offense, it wants more than 12 on the run. And as much as the Bucks seem to struggle in the half court, the Suns want to make them play out more of their possessions there.
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But wait, there's more: Phoenix averaged more than 34 3-point attempts during the season but took 19 in Game 5, despite hoisting 74 in winning Games 1 and 2. Credit/blame goes to the Bucks intentionally wanting to run them off the line and the Suns for leaning too heavily on the mid-range games of Booker and Paul.
"I think we just got to figure out a way to generate more 3s," Paul said. "That's the way we have played all season long, is penetrating the gaps, finding 'Kal [Bridges], Cam [Johnson], Jae, all the different guys on our team for 3s. And obviously when you lose a game and you look at it, you analyze it, you're like, oh, I should have shot more 3s."
So it's going to take more. More ball movement, more assists (just 23 in Game 5), more stops, more diligence on the boards, more precision in executing late and more of the hustle plays that Milwaukee slid to its side of the table the past three games.
Still, the NBA's best road team in the regular season (24-12) feels comfortable pulling success out of its suitcases, and is determined to win at least one on the Bucks' court in this series. Last chance now.
#NBAFinals Game 5 Mini-Movie 📽️- NBA (@NBA) July 19, 2021
Big nights from Jrue Holiday (27p/13a), Giannis (32p/9r/6a) & Khris Middleton (29p), highlighted by Jrue's clutch steal & oop to Giannis late, helped the @Bucks outlast Devin Booker (40p) & the Suns in Phoenix to take a 3-2 series lead! #ThatsGame pic.twitter.com/W0fx2Lh0j0
The Suns are 14-7 this postseason. It's their first brush with elimination. If nothing else, that should get the adrenaline pumping.
"We've never been in this position, and you know, you've got to embrace it," Bridges said. "You've got to feel good about it and take pride, and being down like this, making it feel great by winning two games in a row. It's going to feel good having our backs against the wall, since we haven't this whole playoffs."
Milwaukee wouldn't swap places with them, but the Bucks face a little pressure of their own. Win or go back to Phoenix has to resonate with them a little, knowing what happens if they squander this opportunity to grab their rings and the franchise's first NBA title in five decades.
It's a tricky thing: the Bucks can't play Game 6 while thinking about having Game 7 in reserve if they need it. Yet they clearly don't want to have to play Game 7 remembering what went wrong in Game 6.
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"It's hard not to get ahead of yourself," Antetokounmpo said. "But this is the time that you got to be the most disciplined. That's what I'm going to try to do. Don't get too excited. I can't play the game right now. So I don't even try to think about that. But it's very hard not to. Sometimes you sleep and you're dreaming about the game.
"But this is the time that we have to be disciplined individually. Me, Khris, Coach [Mike Budenholzer], Jrue, Brook [Lopez], all of the guys as a team, we got to be disciplined and we cannot worry about that. We cannot worry about having plans of celebrating. None of that, until it's done."
That's as good a theme as any for Game 6: Desperation vs. discipline.
Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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