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Sunday, July 18, 2021

Bucks Mount Big Comeback, Win Game Five in Phoenix

The Phoenix Suns looked unbeatable while building a 16 point lead in the first quarter of game five of the NBA Finals versus the Milwaukee Bucks, but the well-coached and highly focused Bucks kept their poise, outscored the Suns 43-24 in the second quarter, and achieved a 123-119 road victory to move within one win of capturing the 2021 NBA title. The game five winner of an NBA Finals series that is tied 2-2 wins the series 72% of the time, so even though I tend to avoid referring to "legacy games" it is possible that this was the most important game in the careers of several future Hall of Famers.

Giannis Antekounmpo scored a team-high 32 points while also grabbing a team-high nine rebounds, and dishing for six assists. He shot 14-23 from the field, the 13th straight playoff game in which he has shot at least .500 from the field. Antetokounmpo is the most dominant and efficient playoff scorer in the paint since prime Shaquille O'Neal, and he is demonstrating that paint scoring/paint dominance still matter--regardless of what the "stat gurus" might say. The Suns shot .552 from the field (including .684 from three point range) and .909 from the free throw line, but they could not maintain a double digit lead at home against a bigger and more physical team. Khris Middleton added 29 points, seven rebounds, and five assists while shooting 12-23 from the field. It could be argued that the star of the game was Jrue Holiday, who not only scored 27 points on 12-20 field goal shooting but he also passed for a game-high 13 assists to become just the sixth player in NBA Finals history to score at least 25 points while also assisting on at least 30 points. Holiday played outstanding defense, punctuated by a late steal from Devin Booker that sealed the victory.

Booker scored a game-high 40 points on 17-33 field goal shooting. He is the first player in NBA Finals history to score 40 points in consecutive games but lose both games. He posted a team-best +12 plus/minus number while Chris Paul--who media members anointed the best player on the team and a candidate for regular season MVP honors--had a -6 plus/minus number. Supposedly Paul is leading the Suns, but what is actually happening is Booker is the team's best player and he needs more help from Paul, who finished with 21 points on 9-15 field goal shooting plus 11 assists. Paul's individual numbers were not bad, but he was no better than the fifth best player on the court in arguably the most important game of his career. Deandre Ayton contributed 20 points on 7-12 field goal shooting plus a game-high 10 rebounds.

The Suns made 11 straight field goals in the first quarter, tying the longest such streak in an NBA Finals game in the past 20 years. The Bucks were not impressed or rattled, and they turned a 37-21 first quarter deficit into a 64-61 halftime lead. The Bucks' 43 second quarter points is tied for the second most points in a quarter of an NBA Finals game in the past 35 years. The Bucks attack the paint on offense and focus on defending the paint on defense. They also utilize the midrange game to good effect, as both Middleton and Holiday are lethal in that area of the court. "Stat gurus" may disagree with the Bucks' approach, but there is no denying that what the Bucks are doing is working.

The Bucks led 117-107 after Middleton completed a three point play with 3:25 remaining in the fourth quarter, but the Suns answered with a 12-3 run to pull within 120-119 with 57 seconds left in the game. With the game and likely the series up for grabs, Holiday made the play of the game by not only stripping Booker, but then running point on the fast break and throwing a lob pass to Giannis Antetokounmpo that resulted in a dunk plus a Chris Paul foul. Antetokounmpo missed the free throw but he tipped the offensive rebound to Middleton, who split a pair of free throws to push Milwaukee's lead to 123-119. 

Much is made of Antetokounmpo's poor free throw shooting, but his Bucks just won a very important road playoff game despite his 4-11 free throw shooting. Bill Russell led the Boston Celtics to 11 titles despite being an awful free throw shooter, Wilt Chamberlain was the best player on two of the most dominant single season championship teams ever despite his bad free throw shooting, and Shaquille O'Neal dominated the early 2000s with four championships in seven seasons despite his well-documented free throw shooting issues. It is obviously preferable that a player shoot at least .700 from the free throw line, but the notion that bad free throw shooting by a dominant player can cost his team a championship seems a bit far-fetched. The most important thing to note down the stretch in game five is not how many free throws Antetokounmpo missed but rather (1) the impact that he had on both ends of the court and (2) his eagerness to attack the hoop even though he knew that he would be fouled hard and forced to make free throws. Antetokounmpo is not going to win a free throw shooting contest versus Paul or James Harden or other players who are adored by "stat gurus," but anyone who understands basketball would choose Antetokounmpo over Paul or Harden overall as well as down the stretch of a key NBA Finals game. Harden and Paul together in Houston were not able to win an NBA title, Harden has also now failed to win a title alongside Kevin Durant on two different teams, and Paul has hopped from team to team chasing a championship that Antetokounmpo seems likely to win without jumping around the league to team up with other stars.

It is amazing that even after such a devastating home loss there is still talk about what a great leader Chris Paul is, based on cliches that he uttered during the post-game press conference. You know who has been the best leader in this series by far? Giannis Antetokounmpo. He came back from what looked like a season-ending knee injury to establish himself as clearly the best player in this series through five games, and he has led his team to three straight victories, including a pivotal game five road win. That is leadership--actually accomplishing something, as opposed to talking about accomplishing something. 

Media members keep alluding to some mysterious Chris Paul injury, much like excuses are often made for LeBron James' many playoff failure (to James' credit, he--unlike Paul--has led his teams to four NBA titles)--but it is unlikely that Paul is dealing with an injury as severe as Antetokounmpo's knee injury. Antetokounmpo's injury has become a non-story now because (1) he does not talk about it or allude to it and (2) he has been the dominant player in the series. If Paul is truly injured, that is nothing new--a major reason that he has never won an NBA title is that he wears down and/or gets injured if his teams advance past the first round.

Phoenix could come back to win this series, so it is at least one game too soon to make broad, definitive conclusions, but it seems fair to say--barring an unlikely turn of events--what we have seen thus far in this series demonstrates that (1) Devin Booker, not Chris Paul, is clearly Phoenix' best player, (2) Paul may not be good enough to be the second best player on a championship team, and (3) two-time regular season MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo may actually be underrated as a player and as a leader.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:42 AM



At Sunday, July 18, 2021 4:13:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


From your standpoint, what are your thoughts on the Suns' offense? It seems like there was little ball movement and too much isolation. I know Booker is their best player but it's too hard to win at this stage with just iso ball from him and CP3. I know very much that if Bryant took the same amount of shots like Booker in these last two games and they lost he would have been crucified for it.

No one in the history of the game gets crucified for shooting too much as the team's best player as Bryant, Westbrook would come in second in my opinion. No one talked about James for shooting too much in the 2015 Finals or any other Finals despite his low FG%. It also baffles me that he (including the media) label him as a "pass-first" player when his average FG attempts is one of the highest all time and higher than Bryant's.

At Sunday, July 18, 2021 5:27:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Looks like a wrap, don't see how Phoenix can come back from two gut wrenching losses. If they do turn it around it'd have to be the role players as Booker has been there in mostly every game.

The title won't change my perception of CP3, win or lose but this would be devastating for him if he lost this opportunity at the title.

Giannis is a beast, no doubt about that. He's never going to be THE GUY in crunch time like people want him to look like but flawed superstars are more interesting. The BLOCK is iconic and will always be. Plus, how many game winning shots did Lebron have in the finals? (none that pop to my mind). I'm sure we all remember the iconic shot to win the finals by the famous chicago bull ...


At Sunday, July 18, 2021 8:39:00 PM, Blogger Unknown said...


In my decade plus on 20 second timeout

Ive never been scared to admit when i was wrong david

I was wrong on giannis

He is a superstar superstar

He is most dominant inside player since shaq

And his athletcism is jordaness

He has been diff in this series

And been diff all playoffs

He cant shoot or make free tgrows but his other parts are great

Jrue holiday great defender

Came on hit big shots played well at timely

Middleton inconsistent but been big in biggest games.

Chris paul choking not coming up big in clutch

Devin booker been second best player in series

He been suns best player

He too small to be 8x3 kobe bean bryant

But he is a hof level player

At Monday, July 19, 2021 4:58:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


In game five, the Suns scored 119 points with shooting splits of .552/.684/.909, so offense is not the Suns' problem. The Suns are not able to match up with the Bucks' size, strength and athleticism in the paint.

I agree with you that Bryant and Westbrook have received unfair criticism for the number and quality of their shot attempts, while other players are not subjected to the same unfair criticism.

At Monday, July 19, 2021 5:02:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


The odds are clearly in the Bucks' favor now, but I picked them to win the title before the playoffs began, and I have not wavered from that stance.

Of course, if the Suns win game six on the road then they have a great opportunity to clinch the title at home. The Bucks are well advised to not let the chance to win the championship at home slip away.

Chris Paul is supposed to be the best leader in the NBA, but in his first 15 seasons he did not come close to leading his team to a title, and in game five of the 2021 Finals he "led" his team to a loss at home after his team built a 16 point lead. If that is an example of the "best" leadership I would hate to see what bad leadership looks like.

At Monday, July 19, 2021 5:06:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Yes, this series has given the doubters an opportunity to see Giannis' greatness in terms of skill set, leadership, and toughness. Harden's quote that Giannis is just a seven footer with no skills looks particularly foolish now.

Middleton has been underrated for a while. Holiday was the perfect addition to this team.

The Bucks have an opportunity to not only win the 2021 championship but to win multiple titles if they stay healthy and keep this nucleus together.

I think that history will view Milwaukee's losses in previous years as the number one seed as the Bucks' stepping stones to greatness, much like the challenges that Isiah's Pistons and Jordan's Bulls overcame.


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