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Friday, July 09, 2021

Suns Overcome Antetokounmpo's 42 Points, Take 2-0 Lead

Giannis Antetokounmpo was brilliant, but the Phoenix Suns were balanced, and they were blazing hot from three point range as they defeated the Milwaukee Bucks 118-108 to take a 2-0 lead in the NBA Finals. Devin Booker led the Suns with 31 points on 12-25 field goal shooting, including 7-12 from three point range. He also had six assists and five rebounds. Mikal Bridges scored 27 points, while Chris Paul added 23 points plus eight assists and four rebounds as all five Suns starters scored in double figures. Deandre Ayton had a subpar offensive game (10 points on 4-10 field goal shooting) but he made his presence felt defensively and he grabbed a team-high 11 rebounds.

Antetokounmpo finished with 42 points on 15-22 field goal shooting, plus a game-high 12 rebounds, four assists, and three blocked shots in 40 minutes. Of the 10 Bucks who played, he was the only one with a positive plus/minus number (+3). The Bucks are better than the Suns when Antetokounmpo is in the game--this was also true during his 35 minutes of game one action--but the Bucks lose a lot of ground very quickly when he is not in the game. Unless he gets more help, it seems like he may have to play 45 minutes and score 50 points for the Bucks to win. Of course, that is an overreaction, because each game is an entity unto itself, and we know (or should know) that after the series shifts to Milwaukee many of the Bucks players will most likely perform better while at least some of the Suns players will most likely perform worse. 

Two players who have to step up for the Bucks to have a chance are Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday. They are playing hard and they are taking their shots, but--as Jeff Van Gundy often says--the Bucks need "makers," not "shooters." Middleton scored just 11 points on 5-16 field goal shooting, while Holiday finished with 17 points on 7-21 field goal shooting. Holiday missed several layups and point blank shots in the paint, and many of his misses were not close. He played excellent defense, and he notched seven assists with just one turnover in 39 minutes, but .333 field goal shooting is not going to cut it unless you are completely shutting down your counterpart, which is not the case in his matchup versus Paul.

The Bucks started the game with the right attitude and the right actions; they fought aggressively through screens, they attacked the paint, and they jumped out to a 21-12 lead. Antetokounmpo had six points during that opening blitz, and all three of his field goals were dunks. At that moment, it would have been difficult to believe that the Bucks would lose by double figures, but the Suns nailed eight three pointers during the first quarter to briefly take a 26-24 lead before the Bucks went back on top 29-26 by the end of the stanza. The Bucks outscored the Suns 20-0 in the paint during the first quarter. When the Bucks attack the paint on offense and do not overreact/overhelp in response to dribble penetration they are better than the Suns, but the key for Milwaukee is to do both of those things consistently for 48 minutes.

By halftime, the Suns led 56-45, and they did not trail in the second half. Their final points of the first half came on a three point play by Ayton that punctuated a beautiful possession during which the Suns crisply passed the ball all over the court until Ayton broke free under the hoop. Paul and Booker are the team's primary playmakers, but every Suns player is a willing and able passer. The Suns are masters at giving up good shots to get great shots. They are fun to watch, and it looks like it would be fun to play for this team as well. 

In the first half, Antetokounmpo had 12 points on 5-10 field goal shooting plus eight rebounds, but Middleton and Holiday combined to shoot just 5-24 from the field, which is obviously not nearly good enough. 

During the third quarter, Antetokounmpo--whose playing status was in doubt until just prior to game one of the NBA Finals in the wake of the knee injury that he suffered in game four of the Eastern Conference Finals--went on a scoring tear not seen in the NBA Finals since Michael Jordan had a 22 point quarter versus the Suns in the 1993 Finals. Antetokounmpo scored 13 straight Milwaukee points en route to pouring in 20 points during the quarter; since Jordan's outburst 28 years ago, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James each had one 19 point Finals quarter but no player had a 20 point quarter on the sport's biggest stage. The Finals record for points in a quarter is 25, set by Julius Erving during the 1976 ABA Finals and tied by Isiah Thomas during the 1988 NBA Finals.

Despite Antetokounmpo's heroics, the Suns led 88-78 heading into the fourth quarter. The Bucks never got closer than five points the rest of the way. The Bucks outscored the Suns 54-38 in the paint, but the Suns shot 20-40 from three point range while the Bucks shot just 9-31 from long distance. The three pointer is a high variance shot, but when one team gets hot the other team is in trouble, at least in that game.

Many of ESPN's talking heads have been obsessed for years with "in game adjustments" but Jeff Van Gundy is one of the few ESPN commentators who downplays such talk, perhaps because he is the only current ESPN commentator who has actually coached in the NBA Finals. During the 2010 NBA Finals, Van Gundy explained that playoff series are not decided by in game adjustments because "You are who you are by this time of the year and you have to go with your best stuff and expect them to go with their best stuff." During last night's telecast, Van Gundy made similar points, and after the game he mentioned that NBA games are often decided by one or two key plays, or simply by shots made/missed, and that there are not adjustments that can change those things.
Bill Russell refuted the in game adjustment nonsense years ago, cautioning, "You have to make adjustments that your team can make" and explaining, "When I played, when we had to make adjustments we would adjust not to what we did wrong but we would try to get back to what we did right and do that. That is the only way you can take control of the game," to which I added, "The idea that a coach can come up with something completely new between games--let alone during a 15 minute halftime break--is absurd and that is why San Antonio Coach Gregg Popovich gives snarky answers when media members ask him stupid questions about what kind of adjustments he is going to make." 
Unfortunately, many NBA commentators do not understand what they are watching, and are incapable of coming up with anything other than declaring that a team lost because that team's coach did not make the right adjustments. Stephen A. Smith repeats this tired refrain after almost every game, not realizing that his nickname is "Screamin' A", not "Strategy A" (though "Strategy F" would be an accurate assessment of what passes for analysis by him). 

Perhaps when someone is paid millions of dollars per year to pose as an expert about something for which he does not have anything approaching expert level understanding there is pressure--self-imposed and/or from the bosses who sign those checks--to make bold statements and assertions. 
The NBA must be so thrilled that ESPN is broadcasting the league's showcase event instead of TNT. If only this were the Gong Show, and we could just push ESPN's clown show off of the stage so that the first stringers could take over. ESPN's well publicized grade school infighting among on-air "talent" is embarrassing, and the quality of the pre-game, halftime, and post-game analysis is inconsistent at best (Van Gundy and Mark Jackson provide excellent in game analysis). Tim Legler is very good at breaking down tape, and Jalen Rose is solid, but ESPN trots out a lot of people who generate more heat than light. For example, Jay Williams recently praised the Boston Celtics for hiring the first Black coach in team history, forgetting that the Celtics not only hired the first Black coach in NBA history more than 50 years ago but also that the franchise has had several other Black coaches since Bill Russell, including championship winning coaches K.C. Jones and Doc Rivers. Such lack of historical knowledge and perspective is as inexplicable as it is inexcusable. Williams has a big obsession with the in game adjustments that he thinks that Milwaukee Coach Mike Budenholzer should make. As a former NBA player, Williams should know better.
The first two games of the NBA Finals have not been decided by adjustments and/or in game adjustments. Mike Budenholzer and his Phoenix counterpart Monty Williams cannot grab loose balls or make open shots. Their job is to come up with game plans that put their teams in the best possible position to succeed. The persistent notion that Budenholzer does not know what he is doing is silly, if not pernicious. Are the commentators who keep promoting that false notion angling for a coaching job for themselves or for one of their friends? The Bucks had the best record in the East two years in a row, and then this year they reached the Finals after posting the third best record in the East. They have won playoff series by taking command from the start, and they have won playoff series by coming back from deficits. All of those accomplishments are tributes not only to the players' skill and hard work, but also to the game plan preparation of Budenholzer and his staff. 
During the 2021 playoffs, the Bucks are 7-1 at home and 5-6 on the road. It is not shocking that they are trailing 2-0 after playing two games in Phoenix, nor would it be shocking if they win two home games to turn this into a three game series.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:44 AM



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