As goes the rollercoaster nature of a best-of-seven series, the Milwaukee Bucks are either 48 minutes from no return or 48 minutes from being right back in the NBA Finals series with the Phoenix Suns.
As the series shifts to Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee, the Bucks will have plenty to think about during the two night break the schedule affords.
In Game 1, the Bucks were hurt in the midrange and at the free-throw line, in Game 2 the damage was shifted beyond the arc. In both games, the Bucks likely felt they should have been closer by the final buzzer but it wasn't to be, as the Suns methodically held them at bay to take a 2-0 lead.
The word pivotal gets thrown around with disregard during this time of year but Game 3 is without doubt a defining one for the Bucks and Suns. Let's take a look at some key factors to watch.
No need to panic defensively for the Bucks
One thing Mike Budenholzer and the Milwaukee coaching staff cannot be accused of in this series so far is sitting on their hands.
In fact, the Bucks have given the Suns just about every type of look they can dish out on defence. Switching, drop coverage, blitzing, we've seen it all but a close look at the numbers suggest Game 2 was a pretty good blueprint for how they should attack moving forward.
Torched by Chris Paul in Game 1, the Bucks locked down on the veteran playmaking wizard, switching 1-4 in an attempt to prevent Brook Lopez being left on an island and capatilise of the defensive brilliance of Holiday.
Paul was still a factor, but 23 points on 20 shots while committing a postseason high six turnovers has to be considered a win for the Bucks. Overall, Milwaukee held the Suns to just 28 points in the paint, down from 44 in Game 1, with Holiday, Lopez and Giannis Antetokounmpo deserving a sizable amount of credit for the turnaround.
Of course, with added attention to Paul, it did lend itself to overhelping on dribble penetration on occassions which led to open looks from beyond the arc, specificially the corners where the Suns scorched the Bucks to connect on 10 of their 17 attempts.
"I think a little bit of overhelping. CP and Book they are getting into the middle and drawing a crowd, sometimes we overhelped. Sometimes they hit tough shots but they did a good job of spreading the floor, getting to the middle, drive and kick and finding shooters," Khris Middleton said postgame.
To Middleton's point, NBA.com tracking data listed 22 of the Suns' 40 long range attempts as 'wide open', looks that they knocked down 63 percent of the time.
Suns role players shooting 2021 postseason (Via NBA.com)
|Wide open (nearest defender 6+ feet)||Open (4-6 feet)||Contested (0-4 feet)|
|Cam Johnson||20-36 (55.6%)||7-20 (35%)||0-3 (0%)|
|Mikal Bridges||20-42 (47.6%)||9-37 (27.3%)||2-8 (25%)|
|Jae Crowder||18-39 (46.2%)||12-48 (25%)||11-26 (42%)|
What about Booker you ask?
The degree of difficulty on some of the shots Booker knocked down prompted us to do a full article simply ranking the top five toughest buckets he drilled in Game 2.
Some times great players are simply great, but it does feel like Milwaukee answered some of their major problems from Game 1, now it's simply tinkering with the formula.
How far can you stretch Giannis?
I actually feel guilty putting this one to paper.
Antetokounmpo has been simply amazing to start the NBA Finals. With his availability to play at all in the series in serious doubt only days ago, the two-time MVP has racked up 62 points, 29 rebounds and three blocks in 75 minutes across two games.
Despite losing Game 1 by 13 points and Game 2 by 10, the Bucks are +4 with Antetokounmpo on the floor in this series. After extending his load from 35 minutes in Game 1 to 40 minutes in Game 2, can Budenholzer ask for any more out of his superstar?
No Giannis, no Bucks?
|Giannis on court||75||110.9||108.3||+2.6|
|Giannis off court||21||95.2||148.9||-53.7|
No, the numbers in the above table are not a typo. Yes, it's an incredibly small sample but you get the idea, the Bucks are drowning without Antetokounmpo on the floor.
Without Antetokounmpo, the pressure valve is released for Phoenix. The mere presence of the Bucks star tilts the way the Suns can attack on both ends of the floor.
Of course, improved output from Jrue Holiday on the offensive end would be another way for the Bucks to withstand the non-Giannis minutes, but we'll get back to that a little later.
Antetokounmpo will never reveal the true extent of his discomfort on the floor, but he's grimacing, limping and cramping through his dominance, but as dangerous as it feels, he and the Bucks might somehow need more.
GA - it's in the game. 🔥🏀 pic.twitter.com/NHxUN80m8y- Milwaukee Bucks (@Bucks) July 9, 2021
Suns rotation set to be tested
There has been no postseason like 2021 to remind us that the momentum of a series can shift in an instant. A simply horror stretch of injuries has continued in the NBA Finals, with Phoenix suffering a pair of knee injuries to key rotation players.
Losing Dario Saric in Game 1 to a torn acl, the Suns depth is set to be further tested with Torrey Craig listed as day-to-day with a right knee contusion.
An MRI on the right knee of Suns F Torrey Craig revealed no structural damage, source tells ESPN. Craig injured knee in Game 2 on Thursday. His status on a return is day to day.- Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) July 9, 2021
With Saric and Craig, Phoenix head coach Monty Williams was playing a nine-man rotation and now faces the prospect of running seven guys out on the floor unless he wants to dive deep into his bag and dust off Frank Kaminsky who has only played 43 total minutes across eight postseason appearances.
Clear the runway, @DeandreAyton coming😤 pic.twitter.com/2dAyJaYzkG- Phoenix Suns (@Suns) July 9, 2021
The trickle down impact of what it means for Phoenix ultimately comes down to Deandre Ayton, with the Suns 22-year-old big man potentially set for workloads he has not yet faced in his NBA career. One of the stories of the postseason, the emergence of Ayton was puncuated with a 22-point, 19-rebound effort in Game 1.
The Game 1 performance came in 38 minutes of floor time, while in Game 2 that was bumped up to 42 minutes. Averaging 36.5 minutes per night in the playoffs, it will be worth monitoring the impact of Ayton if the Bucks can extend the series with the toll of being asked to defend the relentless attack of Antetokounmpo a task of the magnitude he has not yet been asked to carry.
Jrue with the TUFF bucket. pic.twitter.com/0xVekQTeQP- Milwaukee Bucks (@Bucks) July 9, 2021
It's been a tough start to the NBA Finals on the offensive end for Holiday.
Spectacular on the defensive end in Game 2, Holiday could not capitilise on a series of excellent looks on the other end of the floor.
The 7-for-21 effort followed up from a 4-for-14 shooting night in the series opener, leaving the Bucks desperately needing more from their star guard.
"I think we had a lot of open shots that we didn't make. I know me personally there was a couple of lay-ups I usually make that kind of rimmed out. Had some good looks."
"Short term memory," Holiday continued. "Continue to be aggressive, get to the basket. You always have to apply pressure on the basket."
Holiday is just 6-for-15 (40.0 percent) from within five feet of the basket in the series, an area he was 59.0 percent from through the first three rounds.
While the early returns have been disappointing, Holiday's approach of staying aggressive is the correct one, sometimes it's as simple as making shots he normally would in the paint.
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