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Monday, July 12, 2021

Antetokounmpo Dominates as Bucks Rout Suns in Game Three, 120-100

Giannis Antetokounmpo has not only bounced back from what looked like a possibly devastating knee injury, but he has clearly established himself as the best player in the 2021 NBA Finals. In game three, Antetokounmpo erupted for 41 points on 14-23 field goal shooting, plus a game-high 13 rebounds, and six assists while leading the Milwaukee Bucks to a 120-100 win over the Phoenix Suns. This gem came on the heels of his 42 point, 12 rebound game two masterpiece as Antetokounmpo became just the fourth player in Finals history with back to back games of at least 40 points and at least 10 rebounds, joining Shaquille O'Neal, Julius Erving (who accomplished this feat in the 1976 ABA Finals), and Connie Hawkins (1968 ABA Finals). Erving and O'Neal are Pantheon members, and Antetokounmpo is putting together a body of work that may well merit his addition to that select company. This is Antetokounmpo's 11th playoff game this year with at least 30 points and at least 10 rebounds. With last night's performance he not only broke the single-postseason franchise record for such games set by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1974, but he trails only Shaquille O'Neal (13 such games in 2000) and Elgin Baylor (12 in 1962) on the all-time list. Antetokounmpo also ranks fourth for most points scored in a player's first three career NBA Finals games (103), behind only Rick Barry (122), Allen Iverson (106), and Willis Reed (104). Erving scored 103 points in his first three ABA Finals games

Antetokounmpo dominates the paint like elite centers Abdul-Jabbar and O'Neal, but he also has ball-handling skills and open court flair reminiscent of Baylor and Erving. The word unicorn has perhaps become overused--if everyone is a unicorn then the description loses its distinction--but Antetokounmpo's combination of size, strength, and skill set is one of a kind.

The main difference between game three and game two is that Antetokounmpo received little support from his teammates in game two but he received a lot of support in game three as Jrue Holiday (21 points, nine assists, and five rebounds) and Khris Middleton (18 points, seven rebounds, six assists) played not only aggressively at both ends of the court but they also were much more efficient than they had been during the first two games in Phoenix. Holiday (+22) and Antetokounmpo (+20) were the only two players whose plus/minus numbers matched or exceeded the final margin of victory.

Chris Paul had a solid, if not spectacular, game, leading the Suns in scoring (19 points) and assists (nine). Deandre Ayton played well (18 points on 8-11 field goal shooting, nine rebounds) but foul trouble limited him to 24 minutes (the Suns were -6 during those minutes). Jae Crowder added 18 points on 6-7 field goal shooting, but Devin Booker had just 10 points on 3-14 field goal shooting as he and Middleton reversed roles as All-Stars not playing well or efficiently on the road.

The game was close for the first 12 minutes, but the Bucks stuck with their plan to pound the ball inside, and they ended the second quarter with a 30-9 run. Then, they concluded the third quarter with a 16-0 run that made the score 98-76 Bucks with 12 minutes left. The Suns never seriously threatened in the fourth quarter. Overall, the Bucks outscored the Suns in the paint 54-40, and they outrebounded the Suns 47-36. 

This was a must-win game for the Bucks, and they won in convincing fashion, but it is just as much a mistake to overreact to this game as it was to overreact to the Suns' wins in the first two games. If the Suns win game four then they are in the driver's seat, with a chance to clinch the title at home in game five. We do not yet know if this is going to be a series in which home court proves to be the decisive factor, or if the Bucks have turned things around after a slow start, or if the final narrative will be something else altogether. I picked the Bucks to win the title not only prior to this series, but in my 2021 NBA Playoff Predictions, because I think that the Bucks are the league's best all-around team led by the league's best all-around player (though I have no problem with Nikola Jokic winning the 2021 NBA regular season MVP). I see no reason to back down from my initial analysis/prediction, but I also recognize and acknowledge that the Suns are a better team than I thought they were prior to the playoffs.

During the ABC telecast, Jeff Van Gundy decried what he termed "slanderous" comments by people "who don't know anything" about coaching criticizing the alleged "lack of adjustments" by Milwaukee Coach Mike Budenholzer. Van Gundy termed Budenholzer the "punching bag" of the 2021 playoffs. Citing the poet Joseph Brodsky, Van Gundy said that there are only "bad" and "worse" options to defend Chris Paul in screen/roll actions when Paul is hitting his shots, Ayton is so highly efficient, and Booker is a major threat who draws attention from the defense.

Van Gundy did not identify by name the people "who don't know anything" about coaching, but if criticizing Budenholzer for a supposed "lack of adjustments" is proof that someone does not understand the NBA game--and I agree with Van Gundy that it is--then the group of people who Van Gundy is talking about includes but is not limited to his ESPN/ABC colleagues Stephen A. Smith, Mike Wilbon, and Jay Williams. Unless I have missed something, Van Gundy rarely shares screen time with those three commentators; it would be fascinating to see a substantive basketball debate featuring those four, and moderated by a competent person who would keep the debate focused on substance, not bombast.

Possessions, games, and series are decided--barring injuries, suspensions, or other factors outside of the control of the coaches--by the exploitation of matchup advantages. The best coaches identify the favorable matchups for their teams, and then figure out how to maximize their advantageous matchups while minimizing the impact of the matchups that are not favorable. These matchups take place within the framework of the overall offensive and defensive game plans that the coaches installed during the preseason. Sure, there may be more than option to attack in a given offensive situation, or to react in a given defensive situation, but no coach is coming up with a brand new offense or defense between games or at halftime, much less during a timeout.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:06 AM



At Tuesday, July 13, 2021 8:00:00 PM, Anonymous Eric said...

Hi David,

Just wanted to chime in and say hello. I've been reading your blog since the late 2000s and am glad you're still around to provide my favorite objective analysis. Thanks for all the insight. I've learned a ton from your posts throughout the years.

Regarding Giannis, it is incredible that he's been able to dominate after suffering that hyperextension in less than two weeks. He's not 100% but giving it out 110% on the hardwood. Younger fans should take note of his leadership and mentality. It is refreshing to see him stick it out in Milwaukee, and I am also in the camp believing that the Bucks can overcome the 0-2 deficit to win their second franchise title.


At Wednesday, July 14, 2021 12:34:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Hi Eric,

Thank you for your kind words. Writing about basketball is a labor of love for me. My schedule does not permit me to write as often as I did when I started this site, but I still produce a lot of content.

Giannis' recovery is remarkable, but after the Bucks announced that he had no structural damage I expected that he would come back at a high level. Sometimes basketball (and life) is a game of inches. If Giannis' knee had bent just a little more, he might have torn all of his ligaments; if Kawhi's knee had bent just a little less, he might have come back and led the Clippers to the Finals. Instead, Giannis is dominating while Kawhi is recovering from a partially torn ACL.

Game four is huge. I think that the game four winner will win the series. I picked Bucks in six, so in a sense we are "on schedule," though before the series I thought that the Bucks could get a split in Phoenix.


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