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MILWAUKEE — Elimination games are all about mentality, and the Milwaukee Bucks are acclimating to the demands of finishing while the Phoenix Suns attempt to embrace the underdog role.
“You have to embrace it,” Suns forward Jae Crowder said Monday after the team’s tune-up practice for Game 6 on Tuesday night. “You have to embrace where you are in the series and from there you have to focus and channel your emotions and energy towards the next game, and that’s tomorrow night. We just know it’s going to be a dogfight. … It’s win or go home. The words speak for (themselves).”
Where the Suns are right now is one win from being dispatched from the NBA Finals after leading 2-0. Milwaukee claimed three games in a row, with late-game heroics to capture Game 4 at home and Game 5 in Phoenix on Saturday night.
Phoenix had the best record in the NBA on the road — 24-12 — in the regular season. But Milwaukee, with a 26-10 mark in the regular season, tied for the fifth-best home mark in the league with the Los Angeles Clippers.
The Suns are focused on patching up a defense that allowed a pair of 40-point games to Giannis Antetokounmpo, another to Khris Middleton and a memorable Game 5 effort from Jrue Holiday.
“Our guys have always wanted it, but I think when you’re in these moments like this, this is different,” Suns head coach Monty Williams said. “This is different than the first time against the Lakers, where it was just 2-1. This is it. I think we’re just going to see more, like we have throughout the playoffs.”
While the Bucks have shared the leading role to win three straight in the series, the Suns continue to lean heavily on Devin Booker. He has 82 of the team’s 222 points in the past two games in a pair of 40-point efforts in losses. Williams allowed that Booker wants to “win the moment” but the Suns need more of the team attack to dismantle Milwaukee’s defense.
“We have had a good balance of the kind of play that Devin brings, but we have also had the ball movement that can break you down,” Williams said. “We have talked about that. We saw it in the fourth quarter, where the ball was whipping around the gym. That’s basically how we cut (the deficit). And so the balance of that, but at the same time I do not want to get in the way of the gift that our one-on-one players have, because that’s why we are here. We wouldn’t be in this position if Chris (Paul) and Devin couldn’t create their own shots. That’s a fact.”
The Bucks continued to dominate inside even without Antetokounmpo carrying the scoring load and ran out for 21 fast-break points in Game 5. Milwaukee head coach Mike Budenholzer credits the open-floor decision-making with unifying his group and promoting the level of unselfishness the Bucks have showcased the past two games.
Decisions are not coming as easily or naturally for Paul, the Suns point guard who is averaging 3.6 turnovers per game in the series as the focus of the Bucks’ full-court pressure. The idea, Holiday said, is to make Paul work on every dribble and hope that pays off with missed shots or rushed decisions in the fourth quarter.
Paul said on Monday he’s not down. He’s excited to know the Suns can flip the script in Game 6.
“It’s definitely exciting,” Paul said, denying there was any added pressure. “Something that coach and everybody has been saying: If you went to the beginning of the season and said we had a chance to be where we are right now, would you take it? Absolutely. Absolutely. And we get a chance to determine the outcome. It’s not like the game is going to be simulated or somebody else got to play. We get a chance. We control our own destiny.”
For Milwaukee, winning at home Tuesday brings the Larry O’Brien Trophy to the Bucks’ organization for the first time since 1971. It helps soothe a recent history of playoff failure, and might loosen the criticism of Budenholzer, who insists nothing in the past has been referenced to motivate his team to get to this point.
“Every team’s journey is a little bit different. Every player’s journey is a little bit different,” Budenholzer said. “I think what we have been through the last few years and where we are today, it’s all part of it. It goes into making us who we are, and I think hopefully better prepared whether it’s from a technical standpoint, from a mental standpoint, from a physical standpoint. Your experiences, they go into making you who you are.
“At the end of the day it doesn’t really matter. We got to go play a Game 6. We got to get ready to execute and play good basketball. But, yeah, those things have contributed to where we are today.”
Antetokounmpo signed a long-term deal to continue his marriage with Milwaukee and is eager to take the court on Tuesday night with a chance to seal the series. He’s also reminding himself that if the script doesn’t follow his own plan, the Bucks have another chance in their back pocket.
“We got to be in the present as much as possible. I can’t focus on celebrating,” he said. “I can’t focus on that right now because I feel like you get too ahead of yourself. We got to focus. I got to focus right now, and then when the game comes tomorrow, focus on each possession at a time, a possession at a time. As I said, play good basketball, compete as hard as possible and put ourselves in a position to be able to win that game. That’s all can you ask for. Hopefully we win. If we win, great. If we don’t, we have one more chance. But if we win, it would be nice to celebrate with the fans inside and outside and with our families, because this is something historical that is happening in the city right now.”
–By Jeff Reynolds, Field Level Media