Welcome to our daily NBA Finals blog where we try to make sense of what just happened, examine the key players and matchups, and identify any potential adjustments as the series progresses.

Postgame: Giannis’ Iconic Block Sends the Finals Back to Phoenix Tied at 2

We’re usually past the point of being surprised when Giannis Antetokounmpo does relatively simple things with such ease and grace, like somehow legally picking up a loose ball at halfcourt and dunking it without a single dribble.

The block, though? That was some truly mind-bending stuff.

Mike Breen wasn’t this excited since LeBron James chased down Andre Iguodala five years ago in Game 7, a play that’s etched in NBA history as one that helped deliver the Cavaliers their lone championship.

We can debate in the coming days whether Antetokounmpo’s block was better or more important, but it was certainly one of the more incredibly stunning plays in recent NBA history. James had made a cottage industry of hunting down players from halfcourt with impeccable timing to meet the ball just before it made it onto the backboard – that one just happened to come at the most important moment. Giannis was guarding Devin Booker 14 feet from the basket and somehow recovered to meet a 7-footer at the apex of his jump.

The Deandre Ayton oop from Booker’s alley would have tied the score at 101 with 1:15 left, but the Suns didn’t recover in a 109-103 Game 4 loss that will have them cursing missed opportunities on what will feel like a forever flight back to the desert.

“Giannis, that’s what he’s been doing all year,” guard Khris Middleton, who saved the Bucks’ often stagnant offense with his fifth career 40-point game, told ABC’s Malika Andrews on the floor after the game. “Coming weakside, blocking shots, altering shots.”

Middleton wasn’t even the game’s leading scorer. Phoenix wasted 42 from Booker, who delivered an outstanding bounce-back performance after his 10-point no-show in Game 3. It was Booker’s third 40-point effort of these playoffs, tying him with Wilt Chamberlain for the second most in a player’s first postseason in NBA history (Rick Barry had five in 1967). With his first basket of the third quarter, Booker broke Barry’s 54-year-old mark for the most points in a player’s first playoff run, and by the end of that period, he’d joined Stephen Curry (40 in 2019) and Allen Iverson (38) as the only players to put up 38 through three quarters in the last 25 Finals.

Speaking of The Answer, remember Iverson’s iconic step over Tyronn Lue in Game 1 of the 2001 Finals? That was the last game in the NBA’s championship round in which each team had a player hit 40.

NBA Finals Opposing Players 40 Points

The Suns shot 51.3% and held the Bucks to 40.2%, becoming the first team since the 1984 Lakers to lose a Finals game despite outshooting their opponent by at least 10% (teams had been 40-0 since). They also benefited from one of the strangest no-calls you’ll ever see. With 3:35 left, Jrue Holiday drove to the basket and was mugged by Booker for what should have been his sixth foul, but no call was made (Antetokounmpo followed with a lay-up). 

After three games that often felt close late but generally weren’t, Game 4 was a classic. Neither team led by double digits, and the series’ lowest-scoring game featured the kind of organized chaos you often see as the stakes get higher in moments that could swing a series in either direction. The Suns led 89-82 with 8:39 left after a Chris Paul pull-up jumper (more on him in a bit), then missed eight of their next 10 shots.

Milwaukee shot 27.7% (18 for 65) outside of the restricted area, yet Middleton kept finding space. In a series where Paul and Booker get most of the credit for their mid-range mastery, Middleton’s inside-the-arc game was often the Bucks’ lone effective offense, and he got to the line eight times after only shooting three free throws through Game 3.

Holiday dogged Paul and did what he could against Booker – P.J. Tucker did as well – but he was brutal offensively again, going 4 for 20 from the field to drop his Finals shooting percentage to 33.3. After starting the series as the frontrunner to win Finals MVP, Paul barely showed up in Game 4. He finished with 10 points and five turnovers, upping his total number of giveaways in the Finals to 17 after recording just 22 turnovers in the first three rounds of the playoffs.

Aside from whoever has it going from mid-range between Booker and Paul, the Suns’ most effective offensive possessions seem to end in Jae Crowder 3s. The Bucks had 17 offensive rebounds to Phoenix’s five in Game 4, while the Suns had the unwanted edge by the exact same margin in the turnover department. Milwaukee outscored Phoenix 39-9 in second-chance points in the two games at Fiserv Forum.

Pat Connaughton had 11 points and was a game-high plus-21 in 32 bench minutes for the Bucks, while Brook Lopez chipped in 14 points in 19 minutes. Aside from Ayton’s impressive first quarter in Game 3, neither he nor Mikal Bridges have done anything on the offensive end since leaving Phoenix.

If Giannis can avoid having nature call at the worst possible moment, Milwaukee may have the upper hand as this series heads back to Phoenix after rallying from an 0-2 deficit. Like the two-time MVP’s soon-to-be-iconic recovery to stuff Ayton at the rim, it’s been quite a turnaround.

–Brett Huston

Research support by Stats Perform’s Sam Hovland.

Pregame: Why the Ingredients for a Game 4 Showdown Are Cooking

Three minutes, 27 seconds is all it took for the Milwaukee Bucks to save their season and flip a game inching toward a seesaw affair into a cruise-control rout. 

They closed the third quarter of Sunday’s Game 3 on a 16-0 run, stretched an 82-76 advantage into a 98-76 bludgeoning and never allowed the Phoenix Suns any closer the rest of the way in a critical NBA Finals victory. 

For the second consecutive game, Giannis Antetokounmpo was the best player on the floor, notching 41-13-6-1 on 67.3% true shooting. Jrue Holiday (21 points and nine assists on 75.0% true shooting) and Khris Middleton (18 points and six assists on 58.7% true shooting) provided the ancillary scoring and astute decision-making sorely missed in Game 2. 

After looking overmatched in a pair of road losses to open the Finals, Milwaukee enters Game 4 with a chance to draw this series even. A number of developments unfolded Sunday that guided the Bucks to a pivotal win, the foremost of which was Holiday and Middleton’s resurgence. Schematically, though, the entire rotation was intentional in aggressive pick-up points to blanket Phoenix’s early offense.

The Suns thrive on consuming the pockets of space a defense typically concedes while a possession bubbles. Milwaukee refused to grant them that space. Holiday pressured Chris Paul upon his initial touches and many of his teammates greeted their assignment well before the 3-point arc. A standard alignment that might play out like this:

An even more pressing factor, though, was the diminished role and impact of Deandre Ayton over the game’s final 33.5 minutes. He had 16 points through 14.5 minutes, punishing switches at the rim and drilling face-up jumpers, only to register a single bucket – two points – the rest of the game.

Some of that was linked to Milwaukee’s defense. Middleton did an excellent job confronting him on dives or intended seals inside (Giannis spent much more time glued to him). There was an emphasis to avoid those advantageous mismatches he crushed in the first quarter. 

A significant portion of Ayton’s decline were his limited minutes, playing just 4.5 minutes in the second half. He picked up his fourth foul with 10:25 remaining in the third quarter and head coach Monty Williams elected to sit him for the duration of the period. Instead of trusting Ayton to be disciplined since he’s averaging just 3.9 fouls per 100 possessions in the playoffs, Williams gave extended minutes to Frank Kaminsky (14 in all), whose presence reshaped Phoenix’s identity for the worse on both ends. 

The Suns lacked rim protection against Giannis, who had 24 points on 73.2% true shooting without Ayton on the court (17 on 60.4% true shooting with him), a consistent screener to spring ball-handlers into openings – a vital component of the offense – and an interior scoring threat. No back-line help or the requisite size at the point of attack left Phoenix exposed inside and Giannis feasted, converting all 13 of his shots at the rim via mid-post touches, offensive rebounds and ball-screens.

Without an interior scorer to fret about during non-Ayton minutes, the Bucks dialed up the heat on the perimeter. They switched 1-5, crowded and enveloped the Suns beyond the arc and complicated every action by pushing them farther from the basket before a play could begin. In so many of its second-half possessions, Phoenix failed to generate a paint touch as the ball floated along the 3-point line. 

On the first play below, note how PJ Tucker is shadowing Paul, what that does for Phoenix’s offensive rhythm and when the half-court possession truly finds its legs (if ever?).

If Ayton encounters “foul trouble” (quite possibly a self-fulfilling quandary, more on this later) and Williams opts for Kaminsky again, he should be utilized to augment his strengths, not to try and emulate Ayton, as he was in Game 3. Run Double Drag with him drifting beyond the arc and Mikal Bridges darting to the key. Initiate Chicago actions for Devin Booker that feature Kaminsky as the trigger man and a floor-spacer rather than the lob threat Ayton offers on those sets.

The shrewd response, however, is to cut his minutes entirely because he is not functionally a big man. He does not provide a finishing outlet in the lane for ball-handlers, nor does he gobble up rebounds or wall off the rim defensively. Allocate minutes to the better players. Go with Torrey Craig and Jae Crowder as the back-up 5. 

The Bucks can always trot out bigger lineups, there’s no point in trying to match that. Trim the rotation – and believe that Ayton can avoid fouling out. Don’t effectively foul him out before he’s picked up six by sitting him for the majority of the second half and letting him end the game with five fouls (this occurred Sunday). 

Nine minutes with both Paul and Ayton off the floor cannot happen again either. The Suns were minus-7 in those minutes; process-wise, they were also imprudent with Booker rendered idle, going 3 of 14 for 10 points. Half of his 14 shots were 3s – a drastic spike from his playoff 3-point rate of .308 prior to Game 3. He didn’t log any attempts at the rim and he hurried many of his looks, as if he was unsure of his capacity for scoring inside the arc or against the Bucks’ defense once it was organized.

Booker’s poor outing was not solely correlated with his own decision-making. Holiday and Middleton each authored possessions that flummoxed him, which pervaded throughout much of their respective performances. Holiday buried five triples, handed out nine dimes and blanketed assignments at the point of attack, while Middleton added 18-7-6 and was vastly better defensively compared to Game 2.

Holiday’s on-ball defense has been consistently excellent, so Game 3 was not atypical, though his physicality from the outset was indicative of Milwaukee’s team-wide approach. But in addition to his four long balls during the Bucks’ third-quarter explosion, he executed a handful of reads as a facilitator that represented a stark deviation from much of his 2020-21 playoff run. 

There were still some concerning decisions and 10 3s to 14 total shots is not the ideal balance, so there remain questions about the sustainability of this showing, yet he was undoubtedly very good Sunday. Among the scoring, on-ball defense and passing refinement, he helped fuel Milwaukee’s victory.

Following a Game 2 that bore witness to considerable two-way pitfalls, Middleton rediscovered his jumper and assumed defensive duties more conducive to success. He was not asked to chase shooters off the ball or perform stunt-and-recovers. Instead, he admirably wrangled with Ayton on switches and contained ball-handlers up top.

Offensively, he produced one of his better playmaking outings of the postseason and was prompt and decisive in his reads as a creator. The Bucks needed their No. 2 man to step up and he did – on both ends.

After two losses in Phoenix, there were various tweaks available for Milwaukee. None were more prescient than its second- and third-best players simply being exactly that – its second- and third-best players. That development, plus diverse, engulfing perimeter defense, mismanagement from Williams and a Booker slump brought the Bucks halfway toward tying this series. 

For the first time in what seemed like a little while, they precisely executed the game plan to boat race an opponent. They didn’t ride outrageous shooting to a blowout. They approached a must-win contest and dominated schematically. 

Phoenix will answer. Ayton is unlikely to spend 24 minutes riding the pine again. Perhaps a Booker revival is on the horizon. But the Bucks diced them apart and with Giannis’ preeminence increasingly lording over this series, the ingredients for a delightful Game 4 showdown are cooking.

–Jackson Frank

Design by Matt Sisneros.