NBA Finals 2021: What to watch for in this massive Bucks-Suns Game 5

Game 5 of these grinding and seesawing NBA Finals might be the biggest game since Game 7 between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors in 2016.

You could argue for Game 7 of the 2018 Western Conference finals between the Warriors and the Houston Rockets. Both the 2019 and 2020 Finals went to Game 6, but the eventual champions — the Toronto Raptors and Los Angeles Lakers — piled up 3-1 leads before dropping Game 5s.

Those two Finals didn’t feature anyone quite like Chris Paulan all-time great on the precipice after a career of heartbreak. Paul did not play in Games 6 or 7 of the 2018 conference finals after injuring a hamstring. This is the biggest game of Paul’s illustrious career, and it comes right after one of his worst.

Paul has 15 turnovers in the past three games. He ceded the offense to Cameron Payne on an alarming number of possessions in Game 4 while Devin Booker sat with foul trouble. The Suns are not winning this series unless the Point God reappears.

Game 5 is tonight at 9 p.m. ET. Let’s bounce around the big questions:

Can Phoenix reverse math?

The Suns have one big mathematical edge: home-court advantage. Every other statistical trend is tilting more toward the Bucks with each game.

Milwaukee is walloping the Suns in the possession game, peaking in Game 4 on Wednesday, when the Bucks somehow attempted 19 more field goals and 10 more free throws than Phoenix. It is very hard to win with that kind of deficit — as evidenced by Phoenix outshooting the Bucks 51% to 40% and losing.


Milwaukee has turned the ball over on only 9.5% of its possessions, a mark that would have led the league by a mile. Meanwhile, the Bucks have Phoenix — one of the league’s lowest-turnover teams — coughing it up at a league-average rate.

Those turnovers don’t just short-circuit the Suns’ offense. They get the Bucks out in transition, and the Bucks need to get out in transition a lot. They have managed only 93.3 points per 100 possessions in the half court against Phoenix — equivalent to a bottom-five mark in the regular season, per Cleaning the Glass data. They are roasting the Suns in transition.

Phoenix helped ignite the Bucks in Game 3 by getting lax with floor balance — guys lingering around the paint instead of getting back, or chasing offensive rebounds they had little chance of snaring.

The Suns’ lack of size hurts in transition defense. Unless Deandre Ayton is back — and he’s rarely the first one retreating given his positioning on offense — there is no defender who can bother Giannis AntetokounmpoJrue Holiday, or Khris Middleton.

The size issue also manifests on the glass. The Bucks have rebounded 30.7% of their misses, a rate that would have also led the league.

Despite all the ire directed at coach Mike Budenholzer for being stubborn, he and his staff deserve credit for reimagining the Bucks — once cautious on the glass in deference to transition defense — into a voracious offensive rebounding team.

Some of that is the somewhat accidental result of Milwaukee’s move to slot one player in the dunker spot. Some of it is Bobby Portis. But some of it is the coaching staff spotting an opportunity.

I’m not sure the Suns have an answer. I mentioned often during the season that the Suns might want to test the Dario Saric-Ayton pairing for this kind of matchup, but that’s out with Saric injured. P.J. Tucker is trucking Paul everywhere, but who else might Paul guard? Do you want him expending more energy on Holiday or Middleton?

Brook Lopez towers over Jae Crowder, but the only alternative is sliding Crowder onto Antetokounmpo. Gulp.

Frank Kaminsky isn’t helping. Zone defense is an interesting counter against Milwaukee’s shakier shooting lineups — including its starting five — but it might exacerbate rebounding leakage. (I’d still use it in spurts; it protects from foul trouble.)

The only answer is to box out more diligently, and plead with the basketball gods for friendlier bounces.

How does Phoenix defend Giannis: The Screener?

Antetokounmpo is setting ball screens at a career-high rate — and has been doing so since the second round — and the Bucks are feasting: 1.12 points per possession when any pick-and-roll with Giannis screening leads directly to a shot, and 1.21 points overall on such possessions, per Second Spectrum tracking.

Slowly and steadily, Antetokounmpo has reinvented himself into the player the Bucks need him to be. You can find pieces of that player in legendary archetypes, but the full product is something new — just Antetokounmpo himself, fully formed, attacking the rim in lots of different ways and from different directions.

Milwaukee’s go-to is the Middleton-Antetokounmpo two-man game — often on the left side, with no other Buck nearby so as to complicate help assignments. The Bucks relied on that in wresting away Game 4. Middleton hit tough shots, but he also drained one or two easy ones and had little trouble getting to his sweet spots.

In Game 3, the Suns pressured Middleton by having Antetokoumpo’s man (Ayton or Crowder) meet him almost at the point of the screen. That opened rim runs for Antetokounmpo.

In Game 4, Phoenix dialed down the frenzy. Ayton hung in the paint, hoping to corral Middleton while staying in front of Antetokounmpo. If the Suns sensed Ayton needed help, they sent a third defender from one of Milwaukee’s so-so shooters — preferably on the wing instead of in the corner:

You can live with most of the players around Middleton and Antetokounmpo beating you on semi-contested wing 3s. Pat Connaughton shooting 11-of-24 from deep has been massive.

But if you swarm Giannis, do it with enough force that he can’t flick up hooks:

Avoid overhelping from the wrong places:

Booker loiters in no-man’s land. He is responsible for Portis, who has hit 40% on 3s over the past three seasons.

The threat of Portis’ shooting has changed this series. The absence of Donte DiVincenzo makes it harder for Milwaukee to balance shooting and defense. The Suns have played Bryn Forbes off the floor. Holiday is shooting 29.5% from deep in the playoffs. Tucker has been a borderline non-threat. Lopez is at 33%.

The Suns flashed double-teams at Antetokounmpo on the left block for the first time in Game 4, and the Bucks had to work to get anything good because their spacing was so bad; three Suns players had no problem guarding four Bucks.

Enter the Antetokounmpo-Portis frontcourt. The Bucks are plus-53 in 151 postseason minutes with that pairing, and plus-25 in 42 minutes against Phoenix. The lineup of Holiday, Middleton, Connaughton, Antetokounmpo and Portis is plus-20 in only 17 postseason minutes; six of those 17 came in Game 4. I’d expect to see that lineup again, and maybe for longer. The same lineup with Lopez in place of Portis might merit more run too.

Neither features Tucker, whose defense and rebounding are important — though not as important as they were against Kevin Durant. Tucker has done a nice job on Booker. When Tucker sits, the Bucks shift Holiday from Paul to Booker — leaving (usually) Middleton to guard Paul. That works. With Paul struggling in Game 4 and Booker scorching, it made sense to have Holiday on Booker.

The Suns target Portis on the other end, and whether he holds his own will be a swing factor. He was mostly fine in Game 4 — including against Paul on a key late possession — but struggled against super-small Phoenix lineups without Ayton. Those groups operate in too much space for Portis to cover. It will be interesting to see if Budenholzer removes Portis during those stints — and perhaps goes smaller, with Antetokounmpo at center. (Portis could also just switch everything against those alignments.)

Back to the Middleton/Antetokounmpo pick-and-roll: On one late possession, the Suns improvised (maybe) a late switch — with Ayton jetting up onto Middleton, and Mikal Bridges taking Antetokounmpo. I wonder if we might see more of that.

It brings obvious dangers. Antetokounmpo devours Bridges. Ayton has nimble feet, but guarding Middleton takes him away from the basket — removing the Suns’ only rim protector and by far the best rebounder on a team already hemorrhaging rebounds.

But the right strategy against any deadly two-man game is a mix of strategies. That can include more switching, particularly late in the shot clock.

The Holiday-Antetokounmpo pick-and-roll has been even more efficient (in fewer reps) than the Middleton version, per Second Spectrum. That matters, because the Suns have Booker on Holiday; Holiday can bulldoze both Booker and Paul. (It would help if Holiday remembered how to make layups.)

The Suns ducked a few picks for Holiday in Game 4. It might not have been part of the game plan, but it’s worth trying now and then.

Can Milwaukee manufacture enough in the half court?

Other things to watch here:

• If Antetokounmpo has anyone but Crowder and Ayton on him, the Bucks have to get him the damned ball. They have let way too many such opportunities pass, even with Antetokounmpo on the block calling for the ball.

• Let’s get random — to use one of Budenholzer’s favorite words! Antetokounmpo has found traction whenever he adds zip and misdirection — a fake handoff, maybe — to his screening game. Varying up his cadence — more hard slips to the rim than in Game 3 — is healthy.

Antetokounmpo was the league’s most efficient pick-and-roll ball handler this season, but has run only 14 in this series, per Second Spectrum tracking. Yeah, the Suns try to stall those plays by scurrying under picks. They won’t get under all of them, especially if you disguise them or set them in semi-transition. Even using an unfamiliar combination — like reversing the Antetokounmpo-Middleton dance — can catch defenses off guard:

How about this bad boy, with Antetokoumpo and Lopez setting a high-flying double-drag for Middleton — an unusual look for Milwaukee:

Antetokounmpo gets the ball with a long runway, and creates a drive-and-kick opportunity for Middleton.

• The Bucks could involve Lopez more, and not just as a post-up threat — though they might scrounge points by giving him one or two post touches against Crowder.

Crowder is not a deterrent dropping back against the pick-and-roll; the Bucks might attack that. The Holiday-Lopez two-man game triggered a nice sequence — starting with an Antetokounmpo catch-and-go drive — in Game 3:

Milwaukee’s spacing is never great with Antetokounmpo off the ball, but going early and with decisiveness can open creases.

• The Suns have been switching both Paul and Booker onto Middleton and Holiday whenever Milwaukee runs screening action to get those switches. So, like, why not do that more — and play bully ball? They can also be even more aggressive hunting Payne.

Can the Suns find their verve?

The Suns’ second math problem: trading shots at the rim and corner 3s for midrangers. The Suns are midrange assassins, but Milwaukee has coaxed them toward an unhealthy extreme.

In the regular season, about 27% of Suns shots came at the basket — dead last. That figure has cratered to 22% in this series, and 19.5% in Games 3 and 4. The Bucks have an enormous edge in shot quality based on Second Spectrum’s tracking. The series is 2-2 because the Suns have outrageous shot-makers. They only need two more outrageous shooting games, but it’s a lot to ask of both Paul and Booker to have consistent outlier performances against an elite defense.

The Suns scored only 104.6 points per 100 possessions in Games 3 and 4 — equivalent to the 29th-ranked offense. Interestingly, their half-court offense was solid, producing at a borderline top-10 rate — below usual Phoenix standards, but pretty good, per Cleaning the Glass.

They are getting zippo in transition — the cleanest pathway to shots at the basket. The Bucks wagered they could rampage the offensive glass without risking fast breaks, and they have been right.

But the Suns have had better luck when they get into their actions early — when they screen for Booker or Paul with 19 on the shot clock, and the Bucks backpedaling. Phoenix is cagey shifting screens around — from midcourt to down around the foul line.

Milwaukee has inched toward the right balance containing those pick-and-rolls. Lopez is dropping back, but not so far as to concede easy 15-footers. Milwaukee’s perimeter defenders are trusting Lopez more than they did in Game 2, when they overhelped on some Phoenix 3s:

Phoenix has attempted 28 corner 3s in this series — seven per game, down from 9.6 in the regular season. A whopping 17 came in Game 2. Milwaukee has otherwise erased Phoenix’s bellwether shot. It’s not a coincidence Bridges felt invisible in games when the Suns could not unlock corner 3s.

Lopez has been able to help on Phoenix ball handlers and skitter back to meet Ayton at the charge circle:

But the margins are so tiny. Even this ramped-up version of Milwaukee’s base defense risks death by midrange unless perimeter defenders escape screens unscathed. Tucker is relentless. Holiday is bodying up Paul and Booker everywhere.

(Watch the officiating in Game 5. You could see Suns coach Monty Williams asking for fouls as Holiday jostled Booker.)

Lineups without Lopez switch almost everything, vaporizing corner 3s and forcing Paul and Booker to create one-on-one. Phoenix wasn’t quite as vicious hunting preferred mismatches in Game 4. Booker and Paul can get good shots against Portis, Connaughton, and even Middleton. They don’t have to back out and wait forever, either. Cement the mismatch, give the ball up, get it back, and sprint-dribble off the catch. They might create some of the drive-and-kick 3s they got that way in Games 1 and 2.

Other tidbits:

• Ayton has to engage smash mode on slips to the rim and against switches. He has done it here and there — including before his foul trouble in Game 3 — but he can’t let up. He has to minimize the fading hooks and tentative layups. Even finagling four free throws instead of zero could be a big deal. More than one offensive rebound would be nice.

• The Suns are plus-24 with Booker and Paul on the floor, minus-9 in Booker-only minutes, and minus-21 in Paul-only time. Payne has been the placeholder secondary creator all season, and he’s often their best bet to pressure the rim — in the half court and transition. He has been quiet since Game 1.

• The Suns could use some randomness too. Want to get Bridges going? Have him set a ball screen out of nowhere. No team has more variety to its pick-and-roll game than Phoenix. Switching takes the air out of that stuff, but Phoenix can still lean into what it does best.

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