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Thursday, July 15, 2021

Antetokounmpo and Middleton Lead the Way as Bucks Defeat the Suns 109-103 to Tie the Finals at 2-2

Khris Middleton poured in a playoff career-high 40 points, and Giannis Antetokounmpo authored a brilliant all-around performance (26 points, team-high 14 rebounds, game-high eight assists, three steals, two blocked shots--including an electrifying late game snuff of Deandre Ayton) as the Milwaukee Bucks beat the Phoenix Suns 109-103. Jrue Holiday had an excellent floor game (seven rebounds, seven assists, one turnover) but he only scored 13 points on 4-20 field goal shooting. Brook Lopez contributed 14 points in just 19 minutes, though the seven foot center inexplicably only grabbed one rebound. The Bucks outrebounded the Suns 48-40, they outscored the Suns in the paint 48-40, and they led the Suns in fastbreak points 15-0. Size matters in the NBA, it matters more in the playoffs, and it matters the most in the NBA Finals. The Bucks have a seven foot center, a seven foot do-it-all elite player, and several wing players who are tall and/or strong; the Suns are relatively small, and they can be overpowered by teams that are disciplined enough to keep attacking the paint.

Devin Booker--the Suns' best player, regardless of the pro-Chris Paul narratives pushed by many media members--scored a game-high 42 points on blistering 17-28 field goal shooting, but he missed a significant amount of fourth quarter action after committing his fifth foul, and he would have fouled out several minutes before the end of the game if not for a blatantly missed call--a fact admitted by crew chief Jim Capers after the game. Deandre Ayton snared a game-high 17 rebounds, but the Bucks used their size and athleticism to good effect as they held him to 10 points on 3-9 field goal shooting. As for the "Point God," he looked more like "Point Goof" as he accumulated a team-worst -10 plus/minus number in 37 minutes; Paul scored 10 points on 5-13 field goal shooting while dishing for seven assists and coughing up a game-high five turnovers, matching the Bucks' team total in that category. Five turnovers may not sound like an outlandish number, but in an otherwise low turnover game Paul's miscues were costly, all the more so because a couple of them happened late in the fourth quarter with the outcome still in doubt. While Middleton and Antetokounmpo starred throughout the game and were at their best when it mattered most, Paul looked worn down as Milwaukee outscored Phoenix 10-4 down the stretch. 

One of the main reasons that I did not pick Phoenix to win the title is that throughout his career Paul has consistently worn down and/or gotten injured during the playoffs. This postseason, Paul avoided serious injury while each Suns' opponent suffered at least one serious injury to an All-NBA caliber player, but as the Finals progress Paul's play is regressing at a rate that has to alarm the Suns and their fans: Paul helped close out the Clippers in game six of the Western Conference Finals by dropping 41 points, but in the first four games of the NBA Finals his point totals are 32, 23, 19, and 10. He posted between seven and nine assists in each of those games, but his turnovers have gone from zero versus the Clippers in game six to two, six, four, and five against the Bucks. It has taken longer than ever before--in no small part because of the injuries suffered by Phoenix' opponents--but Paul seems to be wearing down like he always does. Maybe he will have a monster game five performance, but if he does that will not only buck the recent trend but also go against the pattern of his entire postseason career. Paul is often called the best leader in the NBA. Where has he been throughout his career when it matters the most? Where was he in the final minutes of game four, when a Phoenix victory would have all but clinched the championship?

The Bucks have recovered from a 2-0 deficit to tie a series at 2-2 for the second time this postseason. "Momentum" is often a media created and media driven narrative, but there is no doubt that the Bucks have now placed tremendous pressure on the Suns to win game five in Phoenix, because otherwise the Bucks can close out the series at home in game six. 

I picked the Bucks to win the championship before the playoffs started, and I did not waver after the Suns took a 2-0 lead. I had good analytical reasons to choose the Bucks, and the outcomes of two games did not undermine or change the basis for my analysis. I am not bragging, nor am I suggesting that the outcome is a foregone conclusion. The Suns could still win this series, but even if they do that would not necessarily prove that my analysis was unsound. I also had good reasons to pick against the Suns in each of the prior three series, but injuries to Anthony Davis, Jamal Murray, and Kawhi Leonard had a significant impact on the outcomes of those series.  

In contrast, many people who have long been touted as basketball "experts" routinely spout nonsense without factual basis, and draw unfounded conclusions. For example, the ridiculous negative assertions made by Stephen A. Smith, Mike Wilbon, Jay Williams, and others about Milwaukee Coach Mike Budenholzer's alleged deficiencies made no sense two games ago, and have aged very poorly as the Bucks have fought their way back into the series. Poorly coached teams do not recover from 2-0 deficits--and poorly coached teams do not post the best regular season record in the NBA in back to back seasons prior to making a run to the NBA Finals.

Smith proved himself to be a clown many years ago, and more recently Kwame Brown has exposed Smith as a loudmouth fraud. Why is ESPN paying Smith millions of dollars to scream at the audience while belittling people who actually are elite at what they do? Brown played in the NBA for over a decade, so he demonstrably and provably was better at playing basketball than 99% of the people in the world. Is Smith demonstrably and provably better than 99% of the people in the world at anything other than being loud, obnoxious, and often wrong? 

Over a decade ago, Wilbon cited incorrect facts to draw illogical conclusions about Kobe Bryant's efficiency as a scorer and effectiveness as a team leader. Wilbon is an excellent general sports columnist/commentator, but he is miscast as an NBA expert. 

Williams played at an elite level in college and he made it to the NBA, so he sometimes says something insightful, but he also had no clue that the Boston Celtics have a long history of hiring Black head coaches. He should be working his way up the food chain providing analysis about college games, not being portrayed as some kind of authority on the NBA game.

I am going to wait until after the NBA crowns a champion before wading into the much-discussed Rachel Nichols/Maria Taylor controversy, but can anyone honestly say that either Nichols or Taylor consistently add something meaningful and profound to the telecasts? In 20 years, NBA fans and historians will still be talking about Antetokounmpo, Middleton, Booker, and Paul, but it is doubtful that many people will remember or care who served as the pregame and halftime host for ESPN/ABC's Finals coverage. It is worth noting that Taylor, ESPN/ABC's newly anointed NBA Finals studio host, was the only one out of 100 media award voters who did not select Anthony Davis for the All-NBA Team after the 2019-20 season (Davis made the First Team after receiving 79 First Team votes and 20 Second Team votes). Taylor's excuse for leaving one of the NBA's top five players completely off of her ballot for the NBA's top 15 players is that she forgot about him. Anyone can make a mistake, and one hesitates to make extreme and/or absolute statements, but it must be asked: How can a media member who "forgets" about one of the league's elite players be elevated to a job that makes her the face of ESPN/ABC's pre-game and halftime NBA Finals coverage?

There is a glaring contrast between ESPN's NBA coverage and the coverage provided by other networks past and present. Look at archival clips of NBC's Bob Costas and Hannah Storm as studio hosts, or watch TNT's Ernie Johnson as a studio host now. Can anyone honestly say that Nichols or Taylor are even close to that level? Not every NBC studio analyst was great, but the overall quality was much higher than ESPN's, and no NBC studio analyst screamed and spewed as much nonsense as Stephen A. Smith does. TNT's studio analysts Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith, and Shaquille O'Neal are the gold standard for combining insight with humor; they do not always agree with each other, and they are sometimes wrong, but they almost always make you think and make you laugh. 

There is an oasis of sanity in ESPN/ABC's NBA coverage. Jeff Van Gundy and Mark Jackson do a first rate job as color commentators during the game telecasts, Mike Breen is an elite play by play announcer, Tim Legler is very good (and underutilized) at breaking down game film on SportsCenter, and Jalen Rose is a very good studio analyst despite his sometimes mixed or muddled messaging on racial issues. One of the reasons that I love tournament chess is that there are no self-proclaimed Experts or Masters in chess; a chess Expert is someone who attains an Expert level rating, and a chess Master is someone who attains a Master level rating--period, point blank, full stop. Who you know, who your parents are, politics, race, gender--those things are irrelevant regarding chess expertise and chess mastery. Unfortunately, in the writing business anyone can become or be proclaimed an expert, even if that person has no achieved no expertise at all.

To the extent that ESPN/ABC's 2021 NBA Finals coverage is remembered at all, it will remembered as distracting from and detracting from the greatness that we are seeing on the court.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:13 AM



At Thursday, July 15, 2021 9:06:00 AM, Anonymous Eric said...


WHAT A GAME! As you mentioned in the other day's comment of whoever wins G4 taking it all, I think the Bucks have made the necessary adjustments and have supreme confidence heading back to PHX with it all even now. I don't think MIL can expect to have Jrue Holiday put another stinker (4/20 FG) despite his tremendous defense/pressure on Chris Paul.

Speaking of Paul, he was uncharacteristically careless with the rock yesterday. Part of it can be attributed to Holiday's defense, but I think another part is fatigue as you alluded to many times. He just doesn't have the stamina/motor to perform at an elite level as a playoff series progresses. Him being 36 and this being his first Finals probably contribute to why he looks more tired than usual. That being said, I do expect him to have a statement game for G5 - I would go as far as calling the next match a legacy game for CP3.

All in all, both teams took care of homecourt. Now we'll see if the Bucks can execute just as well on the road at Phoenix. Despite my initial take on Bucks in 6, I for one wouldn't mind if this series goes the full distance.


At Thursday, July 15, 2021 6:03:00 PM, Blogger EHR said...

Your view of Rachel Nichols/Maria Taylor situation is a little simplistic. Their coverage of the NBA Finals would have involved in-depth interviews and sideline interviews with the coaches/players pre-, during, and postgame. Being a woman covering the sport dominated by men is a huge deal and gig for who covers it. That can’t be undersold. I don’t think they were ever labeled as experts much the same way their predecessors weren’t besides former players.

At Thursday, July 15, 2021 11:30:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I am hesitant to consider any one game "legacy defining." Paul just reached the Finals for the first time in 16 years. If he wins a title with Devin Booker carrying most of the weight and Deandre Ayton playing at an All-NBA level does that just wipe out all of Paul's previous postseason failures? Or, if Paul fails again does that wipe out the things that he has accomplished? "Legacy" means everything, not a cherry-picked version of a player's accomplishments and shortcomings.

It would be surprising if Paul plays as poorly at home in game five as he did on the road in game four, but there is nothing that Paul can do to contain Antetokounmpo or Middleton, and those are the players who are largely responsible for Milwaukee's wins.

At Friday, July 16, 2021 2:38:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


In what way is my view "simplistic"? In any case, I noted that I am not going to discuss the Nichols-Taylor sideshow in depth until after the Finals, but I will mention that--contrary to what you imply--Nichols and Taylor are not trailblazers. As I mentioned in my article, Hannah Storm preceded them in the studio host role (and Storm was better at it as well).

More to the point, I would prefer if the studio host and all assignments were filled without regard to race, gender, religion, or any category other than "most qualified applicant." I say that as a proud father of a daughter who I hope will achieve great things based on merit alone. A fair opportunity to compete is all that anyone should want or expect.

I will repeat the question that I asked in the article: "Can anyone honestly say that either Nichols or Taylor consistently add something meaningful and profound to the telecasts?" Feel free to cite specific examples.

It has been clear for quite some time that ESPN makes hiring decisions based on a host of factors other than "most qualified applicant."


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