The 2021 NBA Finals are getting even more interesting.
After dropping the first two games of the series, Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks got on the board by taking care of home court in Game 3, earning a 20-point win over the visiting Phoenix Suns.
NBA FINALS GAME 3: Takeaways | Giannis' night by the numbers | Player ratings
With an opportunity to even the series at two games apiece, Milwaukee will look to replicate what went right in Game 3, while Phoenix looks to clean up a few things in order to move one win closer to the first-ever NBA title in franchise history.
That being said, there are a number of things to keep an eye on in Game 4 of the NBA Finals.
How the stars align
There is no shortage of star power in this series and up to this point, the stars have dictated the outcome of each game.
In Game 1, it was dominance from Chris Paul. In Game 2, Devin Booker did enough for the Suns to withstand a dominant performance from Antetokounmpo. Game 3 saw Giannis replicate his dominance, finishing with 41 points and 13 rebounds in a must-win situation.
Now all eyes should be on which star is set for a big performance in Game 4.
MORE: Taking stock of the Finals MVP race
NBA.com's Kyle Irving took a closer look at an uncharacteristically off night for Booker in Game 3, who is a pure scorer with the ability to shoot himself out of a perceived slump. Credit goes to Milwaukee's defence, which made life hard for the two-time All-Star, but will those tactics work again in Game 4?
Considering the fact that Antetokounmpo was listed as questionable ahead of this series, his performance through three games is nothing short of incredible. The 26-year-old is coming off of back-to-back 40-point double-doubles, joining elite company in the process.
As outlined by NBA.com's Scott Rafferty, the Suns have a big Giannis problem, and it's unclear whether or not they'll have a good enough answer as the series moves on.
It's why the focus shifts to…
One look at the box score from Game 3 shows a few big discrepancies on the inside.
|47 (13)||Rebounds (Offensive)||36 (6)|
|20||Second Chance Points||2|
|54 (27/45)||Points in the Paint||40 (20/35)|
One of the biggest contributing factors in Game 3 was the foul trouble of Suns star center Deandre Ayton, who was limited to just 24 minutes because of five fouls he picked up. Without Ayton, Phoenix experimented with some zone, which led to second-chance opportunities for Milwaukee, while man-to-man defence made way for Giannis' interior dominance.
The absence of Dario Saric, who has been lost for the series due to a torn ACL, was felt when Ayton was forced to sit. Frank Kaminsky saw just under 14 minutes of action but was unable to make much of a difference on either end of the floor.
In short, it begins with Ayton's ability to stay on the floor and extends into Phoenix's schemes and ability to build a wall to make things difficult for Antetokounmpo, who has scored 50 points in the paint (and an additional 24 points from the free throw line) in the past two games.
Is a signature Middleton game due?
Through three games, Khris Middleton has been solid, posting averages of 19.3 points, 6.7 rebounds and 6.0 assists for the Bucks.
But as always, there's more than what meets the eye with the numbers.
A 29-point performance in Game 1 was offset by a poor shooting night in Game 2 that saw Middleton score just 11 points on 5-for-16 shooting. In Game 3, Middleton again was solid, doing a little bit of everything to finish with 18 points (on 6-for-14 shooting), seven rebounds and six assists, but he hasn't had that signature game yet.
Game 3 saw Jrue Holiday step up in a major way, knocking down five triples to finish with 21 points to go along with his nine assists and five boards. Perhaps Middleton is due for that kind of night in Game 4.
In the Eastern Conference Finals, Antetokounmpo had no problem admitting that Middleton is this team's closer when things get tight down the stretch. With Milwaukee expecting Phoenix to punch back, Game 4 might be the perfect stage for Middleton to deliver another one of his signature performances, especially if things go down to the wire.
In these playoffs, Middleton has scored 20 or more points on 11 separate occasions. After scoring 18 points in Game 3, Middleton has registered back-to-back games of under 20 points for just the third time this postseason.
The previous two occasions? He responded with 30-point nights, scoring 35 in Game 3 against the Brooklyn Nets and 38 in Game 3 against the Atlanta Hawks. If history is any indicator, another 30-ball could be on the way.
The game is often decided in the margins, and outside of the star power present on both rosters, there are a few key X-Factors who can star in their roles.
After a monster Game 2, Mikal Bridges was pretty quiet in Game 3, finishing with four points (on 2-for-4 shooting). Cameron Johnson came off the bench to deliver big moments for Phoenix and Jae Crowder seemingly couldn't miss, but can those two do that again in Game 4?
For Milwaukee, Bobby Portis brought juice and energy, finishing with 11 points and eight rebounds to register a +11 in the box score in his 18 minutes off the bench. Pat Connaughton again stepped up to make big plays on both ends of the floor, finishing with eight points and four assists in 30 minutes off of the bench.
Looking at the Bucks rotation, it will have to be Portis and Connaughton to step up once again, while Jeff Teague can improve upon his 14 minutes of action in Game 3. Of course, there's also P.J. Tucker, who is much more than a role-playing X-Factor, as his defensive ability had a hand in Phoenix's off night.
Given his impact on the Suns' stars, Tucker will look to reprise his role as a disruptor defensively.
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