MILWAUKEE — Game 4 of the NBA Finals became a pendulum event in the best-of-seven NBA Finals when the Milwaukee Bucks buried the Phoenix Suns in a 20-point rout Sunday.
The 120-100 victory sets up the opportunity for the Bucks to even the series 2-all on Wednesday night and sent the Suns searching for answers to critical concerns that arose in Game 3.
“They took it to us. No other way to look at it,” Suns coach Monty Williams said of his takeaway from reviewing the game film preparing for Game 4.
“When we get five guys back (on defense) along with attacking the offensive glass, I know we’re playing with force. Both ends, just the relentless sprinting, getting to the corners on offense and building the wall (on defense). When we do it, we give our self a chance to be successful.”
After scoring 118 points to win games 1 and 2, the Suns were overwhelmed in the second quarter of Game 3 and couldn’t find their footing. They also had no answer for Giannis Antetokounmpo.
“I have to do better,” Williams said. “Our players get in line with that. Across the board, we have to have a better understanding of the type of team we’re going to play from here on out.”
Antetokounmpo continues to take treatment for a hyperextended left knee, but the Suns wouldn’t know he’s hurting.
“We’re going to keep trying to build a wall. He’s coming full speed every play, downhill like a running back,” Suns guard Chris Paul said.
Antetokounmpo scored 20 points in Game 1, his first game in a week due to the knee injury incurred in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Atlanta Hawks. Since then, the 26-year-old flipped to bulldog mode. He turned in back-to-back 40-point games (83 total), the first to do so in the Finals since LeBron James. Only Michael Jordan, with four consecutive 40-plus point efforts in the Finals, has sustained a higher level of scoring production.
“I’m not trying to focus on what people have to say about my game and how I should play. It always comes back to me,” Antetokounmpo said. “It always comes back to me. … I know there’s a bigger picture. I know how I am. Going down the line, down the road, I think I can get better. I don’t feel like I’m there yet. I feel like I can get better. I feel like I can get way better.”
Even when primary defender Jae Crowder does keep him from getting to the basket, Antetokounmpo has 46 points in the paint since the start of Game 2, making 23 of 25 attempts within 6 feet of the rim.
“We want more. That’s more the mindset,” Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer offered as an appraisal of Antetokounmpo’s Finals. “We’re fortunate Giannis likes being pushed. I don’t reflect on how great he is enough or probably very often.”
Defensive breakdowns were only one concern for the Suns in Game 3.
Star Suns guard Devin Booker was off from the opening tip on Sunday. He didn’t play in the fourth quarter and was 3 of 14 from the field, 1 of 7 from 3-point range, for 10 points.
“Simply, you just have to be better if you want to win the game,” Booker said of his mindset entering Wednesday’s game. “It’s a good pressure. These are the moments you prepare for, train for, is what we’re in right now. You have to be prepared for it.”
Paul was dogged for a full 94 feet by Jrue Holiday in Game 3 with the Bucks taking Budenholzer’s father’s advice and picking the Suns up full court. He has 10 turnovers the past two games, but continues to thrive in the mid-range game, even when shooting over the long reach of Antetokounmpo.
The Bucks kept Booker close and ratcheted up physicality to keep him from making clean cuts or releasing from screens unchecked. P.J. Tucker has drawn the assignment for Milwaukee, but a clear team focus in Game 3 was bumping and grinding Booker with and without the ball. He didn’t respond favorably, which invites more of the same Wednesday.
“Defensively, the connectivity of the group was where we need it to be,” Budenholzer said Tuesday of how Booker was slowed in Game 3. “We had all five guys more connected on both ends of the court.”
Suns center Deandre Ayton said people who know Booker and see him work daily have no doubt what’s coming.
“Knowing his mentality,” Ayton said. “Knowing that games like that don’t really slow him down … I definitely know he’ll step up. And we’ll definitely step up as a team as well.
“Book puts in work when no one is watching. Knowing the game, knowing how he approaches the game, I wish the world could see how hard he works.”
Milwaukee doesn’t need to rewind far to find the most recent instance of a team rebounding from a 2-0 Finals hole. In 2006, the Cavaliers fell behind 2-0 and 3-1 to the 73-win Golden State Warriors, then rallied for the O’Brien Trophy.
The Miami Heat climbed back from 0-2 in 2006 and it has happened 35 times in Finals history.
–By Jeff Reynolds, Field Level Media