The Milwaukee Bucks are down 2-0 once again this postseason, but can the Bucks find a way to rally against the Phoenix Suns as they did against the Brooklyn Nets?
For the Bucks, the health of Giannis Antetokounmpo no longer seems to be an issue, as the former two-time MVP has played exceptionally well to start the series. However, will other members of the squad like Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday step up offensively?
Our experts break down what has impressed them most, ways in which each team can win Game 3 (8 p.m. ET Sunday on ABC) and predict just how long the series will go.
1. What has been most impressive about the Suns’ 2-0 lead?
Tim Bontemps: The different ways in which Phoenix has been able to win. In Game 1, the Suns got a dominant performance from Deandre Ayton, paraded to the foul line and outscored the Bucks in fast break points. In Game 2, Ayton was a non-factor, the Suns barely got to the line and didn’t run — but went 20-for-40 from 3, got 27 points from Mikal Bridges and got huge, timely shots throughout the game. This is a complete team that plays a fun style.
Kevin Pelton: Phoenix’s foul shooting. This is no surprise, given the Suns finished second in NBA history (behind this season’s Clippers) by making 83% of their free throws during the regular season, but no team has shot so well over the first two games of the Finals as Phoenix (37-of-40, 92.5%). Particularly in Game 1, when the Suns got to the line 26 times and missed just once, those free points have added up.
Jorge Sedano: Their poise. Considering this team has virtually no playoff experience besides Chris Paul and Jae Crowder. It’s incredible to see how they responded in the first two games by taking complete control of the series from the outset.
Royce Young: The diversity of play. The Suns are far from the Chris Paul or Devin Booker show, and they have demonstrated how balanced they can be throughout the postseason. The ball moves, the offense flows and the shot quality is always good. Everyone is talking adjustments for the Bucks, but the Suns are a tough team to adjust for because they can just beat you another way.
Ohm Youngmisuk: Phoenix’s coolness under pressure and its ability to adapt to whatever Milwaukee throws at them has been impressive. Instead of this moment overwhelming him, Booker looks like he has been here before. And when Jrue Holiday tried to slow down Chris Paul in Game 2, Booker and Mikal Bridges stepped up. The Suns’ trust in each other continues to grow, as evidenced by their double-digit passing possession at the end of the first half in Game 2.
2. Who has been the most important player so far in the series?
Youngmisuk: Chris Paul. While Booker was incredible in Game 2, Paul has a way of settling down the Suns whenever Milwaukee makes a run and getting them an easy basket when they need it, whether it’s hitting a midrange shot or setting up Deandre Ayton inside. As Paul showed in Game 1, he can take over a second half when needed but also be the floor general and get his teammates better looks.
Bontemps: Jrue Holiday. It might be surprising to see this answer come from the team down 2-0 in the series, but Holiday hasn’t been nearly good enough offensively. He simply cannot be 11-for-35 through the first two games — and he was 7-for-28 through the first six quarters. Yes, his defense in Game 2 was terrific, but for Milwaukee to win this series, it needs both Holiday and Khris Middleton to join Giannis Antetokounmpo in creating consistent offense for the Bucks.
Pelton: Giannis Antetokounmpo. Both Phoenix guards have been awesome, and it’s a tough question which of the two has been most important, but Giannis’ dominant second half was the primary reason the Bucks were competitive in Game 2. The fact that Milwaukee has actually outscored the Suns with Antetokounmpo on the court is remarkable.
Sedano: This one is tough, because Chris Paul is truly the engine of the Suns. However, I’ll go with Devin Booker by a hair in this race. Every time the Suns have needed a big shot, Booker has been there to take and make it.
Young: Paul. The playoffs, and especially the Finals, make it hard to produce good possessions as defenses dig in and the scouting and preparation goes to another level. But CP3 is the one-man counter to it all, generating efficient, quality offense nearly every trip. He has shown an extra gear of assertiveness as he sniffs a championship, and with his midrange daggering, the Bucks don’t have a great adjustment available.
3. The Bucks win Game 3 if …
Young: Khris Middleton plays like he’s the Bucks’ best player for a night. The formula for Milwaukee isn’t a complicated one, with Giannis taking over games the first 42 minutes or so, dominating the paint and in transition. But they desperately need the support of Middleton, especially in crunch time, with his one-on-one shot-making ability. The Bucks have dealt with postseason inconsistency from their supporting group, but they’ve come this far because they’ve done enough. Middleton needs to lead that charge in Game 3.
Bontemps: Shot quality equates to performance on the court. Game 2 on Thursday was reminiscent of Game 2 of the Clippers-Mavericks first-round series — a game the Mavs won because they outperformed what they should’ve done from a shooting perspective. That was exactly what Phoenix did in Game 2, and with the series shifting to Milwaukee, some of the shots that went in for the Suns at home — and didn’t for the Bucks on the road — are all but certain to flip in the home team’s favor.
Youngmisuk: Holiday and Khris Middleton outplay the Suns’ backcourt. Giannis Antetokounmpo dominated by attacking the Suns in the paint. In the Western Conference finals, Paul George showed that the Suns can be vulnerable when a star drives and attacks. Those paint drives helped not only open up George’s ability to hit shots from the outside, but he was able to get teammates involved. Antetokounmpo isn’t a perimeter threat like George, and his teammates weren’t able to hit their 3s in Game 2.
Pelton: The 3-point differential between the two teams is anywhere close to what it was in Game 1, when Milwaukee was plus-5 from beyond the arc. The Bucks still lost that game because they were uncharacteristically poor in terms of taking care of the ball and avoiding fouling. If Milwaukee shoots well again, I don’t expect a repeat.
Sedano: If Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday play up to their capabilities — specifically Middleton. This postseason, when Middleton has scored 19 or more points, the Bucks are 10-2. When he scores fewer, they’re 2-5.
4. The Suns win Game 3 if …
Sedano: Deandre Ayton continues not to be tested with regularity on the defensive end. The Bucks need to put pressure on Ayton and the rim, especially when you consider how thin Phoenix is up front with the series-ending knee injury to Dario Saric.
Youngmisuk: Devin Booker and Chris Paul dominate again. So far in the first two games, the duo has combined for 59 and 54 points, respectively. In Game 2, they shot a combined 10-for-17 from behind the arc. And it’s not just the shot-making but the timeliness of when they’re hitting their shots. Milwaukee has to find a way to make it way more uncomfortable for those two.
Young: They keep making jumpers. In Game 2, Phoenix scored 84 points off jumpers, taking the idea that Milwaukee can live with midrange pull-ups and throwing it in its face. The Suns scored 47 more points than the Bucks did off jumpers in Game 2, the biggest gap in a game this postseason. If the Suns are going to keep knocking them down, it’s hard to see where Milwaukee has an answer.
Bontemps: Booker and/or Paul have an iconic performance. There’s little doubt the Bucks will bring it in Game 3, knowing their season will virtually be over with a loss. The only way the Suns will overcome that is if one of their leaders steps up and dominates. There’s no doubt about them being capable of it; just look back at how Booker played in Los Angeles in Game 6 in the first round to eliminate the Lakers and how Paul dominated the Clippers in Game 6 of the West finals. This will likely require a similar performance.
Pelton: Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton both continue to struggle with their shooting. In the playoffs, Milwaukee’s performance has mirrored the team’s secondary stars more than Giannis. The Bucks have gone 11-2 when Holiday and middleton combine for game scores of at least 25, and they’re 1-5 when they fail to reach that mark — including the first two games of these NBA Finals.
5. Fact or fiction: There will be a Game 6
Pelton: More fact than fiction. The underlying stats suggest a closer series than we’ve seen on the court thus far. Add in the value provided by the Bucks returning home, and the odds are good that they’ll win at least two of the next three games.
Sedano: Fiction. I think the Bucks get Game 3. However, the Suns look like the better team at the moment. I mentioned their poise earlier. I neglected to mention their pristine execution. Meanwhile, Milwaukee has been fairly inconsistent overall. I don’t see that changing in the larger picture of this series.
Young: Fact. The Bucks have shown the ability to bounce back in a series. Drawing conclusions after two games is premature, and Giannis looked fantastic in Game 2. The Bucks haven’t played well, and they can pin some optimism on Holiday and Middleton showing up in at least a couple of games, especially on their home floor.
Youngmisuk: Fact. This isn’t the first time Milwaukee looked like it was being outclassed in the first two games of a series. The Bucks trailed 2-0 and were blown out by 39 in Game 2 in Brooklyn in the second round. But they saved their season with their defense, holding the Nets to 83 points in Game 3 and 96 points in Game 4 to turn that series around. Milwaukee has to play like an elite defensive team, limit its breakdowns and defend like its season is at stake.
Bontemps: Fact. To assume this series is over after the Suns won a couple of games at home — and won Game 2, in particular, with an unsustainable 20 3-pointers — is short-sighted. That’s no disrespect to Phoenix, a terrific team and one that very well may win this title, but I expect this series will be headed back to Milwaukee for a Game 6.
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