Giannis Unlocks Legend Status in All-Time Great Finals Performance
Welcome to The Data Day, 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.
If a hyperextended left knee wasn’t going to slow down the runaway freight train Giannis Antetokounmpo became during these NBA Finals, the Phoenix Suns never had a prayer of stopping him.
After what the two-time MVP did in a championship series performance for the ages, it’s hard to believe anyone could have.
Antetokounmpo scored 50 points to lift the Bucks to a 105-98 Game 6 win, delivering Milwaukee its first championship since 1971. It was his loudest exclamation point in a series where he kept one-upping himself. Back-to-back 40-point games not enough for you? How about a potential series-saving block in Game 4. Need more than that aerodynamic-defying alley-oop to essentially ice Game 5? No problem, Giannis will just tie Bob Pettit’s 63-year-old record for the most points in a Finals clincher.
Where do we begin? At various points in the series, Antetokounmpo did stuff that only the likes of Shaquille O’Neal, Michael Jordan and LeBron James had done. In Game 6, he had his second 20-point quarter of the series. No one else had even had one since Jordan in 1993.
None of those guys dropped 50 in a performance that cemented the title, and he’s now moved into rarified historical air that goes beyond the game-to-game. Jordan, James, Kareem, Wilt, Bird, Magic, Duncan and Moses were the only guys to win multiple regular-season MVPs and a Finals MVP before Game 6. Now Giannis joins Kareem and Duncan as the only ones to do it by age 26.
His 211 total points in the series matched Pettit for third most in an NBA Finals debut behind Rick Barry (245) and Jerry West (218), while only West and Jordan have managed more games with 40 or more points in a single Finals.
The Bucks weren’t supposed to be here, and neither was Giannis. Milwaukee rallied from an 0-2 deficit against Brooklyn in the second round, then escaped Game 7 in overtime after a second life thanks to Kevin Durant’s size 18 sneakers. Then Antetokounmpo went down in a heap with an ugly-looking knee injury in Game 4 against Atlanta, but Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday put the Bucks on their back with a little help from Brook Lopez and Bobby Portis and closed out Atlanta in six.
Giannis somehow playing in Game 1 of the Finals just nine days after suffering what appeared to be a long-term injury will ultimately be a footnote in this series because no one will believe he wasn’t at the absolute peak of his powers from the get-go. He went 53 for 63 (84.1%) in the restricted area in the Finals, and he waved off his only weakness in Game 6 by going 17 of 19 from the free-throw line.
As iconic as Giannis’ Finals coming-out party was, the Bucks were able to get back in this series because the most dominant player on planet Earth had help. Middleton’s shot-making saved Milwaukee at times in Games 4 and 5, while Holiday’s Velcro-like defense on Chris Paul and anyone else he was asked to check began to shift things in favor of the Bucks as the series wore on.
There were the unsung heroes as well. Pat Connaughton totaled 25 points in Games 4 and 5, knocking down seven 3-pointers while posting a combined plus-31. In Game 6 it was Portis coming through, once again feeding off the home crowd and dropping 16 points in 23 enormous minutes off the bench.
Aside from Devin Booker’s individual brilliance, which quietly disappeared into the warm Wisconsin night Tuesday, the Suns didn’t have anything they could consistently go back to. Paul finally rediscovered his mid-range magic in Game 6 – he wound up shooting 59.5% between the paint and 3-point line in the series – but no one else chimed in with any regularity. Deandre Ayton, brilliant in the first half of the Finals, looked worn down by Game 6 both physically and mentally from being Phoenix’s only real option to defend Antetokounmpo. Mikal Bridges was largely MIA on offense, clearly taxed from having to consistently keep Middleton or Holiday in front of him at the other end. Jae Crowder has certainly improved as a shooter, but he’s not meant to be firing 39 3s as a team’s only true long-distance threat in a six-game series.
So there goes Paul’s best chance at winning the title that’s eluded him throughout his 16-year career. The cynic would say that the Suns aren’t likely to return to this stage – they benefited from key injuries to all three opponents in their run through the West – but the optimist would point to Ayton, Booker, Bridges and Cam Johnson all being 25 or younger and beg to differ. Paul has to pick up his player option or re-sign first, but Phoenix should be in good shape for the short term if he does.
The East, though, might be in trouble. Giannis always seemed to be on the cusp of unlocking every aspect of his physical tools, but his lack of range made it hard to envision him becoming a player that could truly put a team on his back deep into the postseason.
Well, he went 9 for 35 outside the paint in the Finals and just capped off one of the most dominant series in NBA history. Milwaukee took a flyer on a guy eight years ago in the draft who it thought had rare physical tools, then watched him blossom into a completely unique amalgamation of some of the best players who have ever played.
Not even the Bucks saw that transformation coming. Like most stars before him who have won big, it just took Giannis time. Now, and for the foreseeable future, it’s Giannis’ time.
For Milwaukee, a half century was worth the wait.
Research support by Stats Perform’s Sam Hovland.
Pregame: How the Suns’ Stars Can Flip the Script and Force Game 7
For the second straight game, a late, pivotal defensive play helped steer the Milwaukee Bucks toward a win.
This time, Jrue Holiday, with his team leading by one and fewer than 20 seconds remaining, wrangled the ball away from Devin Booker, surveyed the fast break and lofted an audacious alley-oop to Giannis Antetokounmpo, who promptly converted through contract.
Following stellar outings from their star triad of Giannis, Holiday and Khris Middleton, the Bucks now sit on the precipice of their first NBA title in 50 years. The Phoenix Suns, meanwhile, are in the midst of just their second three-game losing streak of the season and first since late January. Extending the season means avoiding their first four-game losing streak of the year.
How Phoenix proceeds following Game 5 feels tricky. Losing at home when Booker scores 40, the entire team shoots 68.0% (13 of 19) beyond the arc and you only log eight turnovers can be crushing. If a few possessions result in their favor the last two games, perhaps this series is already over in five. But those hypothetical possessions preferred Milwaukee and here are the Suns, staring at elimination for the first time in the playoffs.
The optimistic lens, though, counters with the fact that Holiday’s most superb postseason outing and 61 points between Giannis and Middleton, including a bevy of Giannis jumpers, were all required for Milwaukee to squeak out a victory. Yet the playoffs are not the setting to patiently await sustainability and regression to the mean, nor does the notion of an outlier provide any solace or change the circumstances.
Phoenix needs Chris Paul and Deandre Ayton to be better on both ends. Remedying to the defensive struggles of Game 5 and the offensive lethargy outside of Booker from the past two games are the path to a Game 7.
Offensively, Paul’s impact resembles that of found money or slot machine variance rather than a steady stream of income; it’s unpredictable and unsustainable. Led by Holiday, Milwaukee’s defense affords him less space to navigate and mismatches to exploit (documented here). The partially torn ligaments in his right hand seem to be encroaching on his ball control, affecting his handle and the accuracy of his passes.
Consider these two miscues that produced turnovers. The first one wasn’t attributed to him, but it’s unmistakable who is responsible and both are atypical for the 36-year-old all-time great point guard.
The Game 5 numbers were quite good – 21 points (9-of-15 shooting), 11 assists and one turnover – but ever since Game 3, he has not induced the avalanche of creation or strung together possession after possession of influence.
Paul’s not casting the defense into rotation and that’s forced Phoenix to rearrange its offense, leaning heavily on Booker’s self-creation. His inability to consistently function in the halfcourt, largely finding his spots in early offense instead, relegated him to an off-ball role for a lengthy stretch of Game 5 – a usage that doesn’t serve him well.
Paul isn’t an imposing off-ball threat due to his size, declining athletic tools and methodical nature, which has established some “your turn, my turn” dynamic between the two stars and an absence of concordance. There are some diminishing returns in the offense, even if it prospered Saturday.
While putting the ball in the bucket wasn’t a problem, relying so significantly on Booker’s diet of elite and laborious shot-making for the third consecutive game is a risky proposition. Either Paul or Ayton must rekindle their Game 1 personas, and increase Booker’s margin of error. Provide him room to be good, not great, and still keep the game competitive.
Also, widen the scope of creation and protect against any Booker letdown by ensuring two of Booker, Paul and Cameron Payne are always on the floor. There were about 4.5 minutes with only Paul in Game 5 and the Suns were outscored by 10 points over that span. Payne brings vital off-the-bounce juice and transition volume. Expecting Booker to keep buoying the offense via 40-burgers won’t suffice (and it didn’t in Game 4 when the offense was dreadful).
For Paul, that requires an emphasis to push the tempo and draw up side pick-and-rolls before Milwaukee’s defense is settled, which is a strategy that led to some success in the first half Saturday. When he’s off the ball, utilizing him as a screener and someone who can lift and migrate around the arc are workarounds for his catch-and-shoot apprehension. But advantages for Paul are slim in this series. He can’t squander them because they’re not entirely harmonic with his ethos.
As for Ayton, he seemed to drift aimlessly for far too long in Game 5. Despite a shiny 20-10-2-1-1 line, he didn’t plant himself into undersized switches succeeding ball screens and demand touches deep in the paint. He fumbled a couple passes in the first half that led to turnovers.
Although his performance wasn’t outright poor, he’s become such an invaluable rising star through his capacity to influence the game independent of box-score numbers and by maintaining a footprint at all times. Those were not the phrases that would be used to describe him in Game 5 and it almost appeared to be the opposite. His presence was overwhelmingly tied to the raw production (and was notable, nonetheless).
Ayton played a career-high 45 minutes in Game 5, including the entire second half. He’s played more than 40 minutes in six playoff games after doing so just three times prior to this run. The Suns have been outscored by 23 points during his 51 minutes on the bench in this series. Their small-ball lineups are getting run off the floor, particularly Saturday when they were a minus-8 in 2.5 minutes to open the second quarter. Some of that was tied to hurried offensive decision-making and unlucky shooting, yet the defense couldn’t hold up against the Bucks’ tall-ball brigade.
Expected to slow Giannis, fend off Milwaukee’s gang rebounding and serve as the lone prevalent interior scorer, Ayton is probably being overextended. That load is seemingly wearing on him to the point of preventing him from maximizing every possession, one of the hallmarks of this postseason dominance.
Any sort of credible reserve big to briefly spell him and not bleed points would be a massive boon. The only available option is for him to elevate his play. Again. For the third or fourth time in the playoffs. It’s a lot with which to task a 22-year-old big man in his playoff debut.
Even acknowledging and addressing Ayton and Paul’s offensive inconsistencies, the foremost factor behind Phoenix’s Game 5 loss was its defense. Paul was repeatedly targeted and bested by both Holiday and Middleton. He was unable to thwart Holiday’s dribble penetration and ineffectively wiggled around screens and Middleton seamlessly discarded him on post-ups for rhythm jumpers.
Paul’s emergence as a glaringly deficient defender complicates the Suns’ title equation. When they gave him the P.J. Tucker assignment, Tucker roasted him on the offensive glass and his frame mitigated his impact as the low man helping in pick-and-rolls. When he tangled with Holiday, he was bullied or involved in screening actions to let Middleton cook him.
This is suddenly a daunting problem that doesn’t look easily correctable. The best route is probably to keep him on Tucker or Pat Connaughton and refuse to let Milwaukee’s vital complementary scorers isolate him for advantageous matchups. It won’t solve everything, but the alternative is Holiday and Middleton frequenting their comfort zones. That’s the antithesis of practical defense. As fruitless and hopeless as it sounds, counting on Giannis, Holiday and Middleton to not align their big games again, featuring many contested jumpers, could be the most likely response – though, that isn’t to suggest not shifting around some coverage and matchups.
To frame everything from Game 5 as a failure of Phoenix misplaces credit and ignores Milwaukee’s brilliance. Middleton muscled and maneuvered himself to pull-up after pull-up for 29 points on 59.6% true shooting. With 27 points on 67.5% true shooting, Holiday didn’t spam 3s, and instead, smartly operated in his sanctuaries of the paint and mid-range, the latter of which empowered the Bucks to puncture the Suns’ drop pick-and-roll coverage. Giannis buried an assortment of jumpers and stuffed a hearty 32-9-6 onto the stat sheet.
Firing complex, timely and accurate reads, Holiday (13 assists) and Giannis (six assists) were consummate playmakers. Middleton dotted jumpers in the face of every defender Phoenix cycled through against him. Milwaukee’s dudes severely outplayed Phoenix’s dudes.
Broadly speaking, the story of these NBA Finals has been authored through the tug of war between each Big 3. Phoenix’s wins occurred when at least two of Booker, Paul and Ayton delivered, while Milwaukee’s trio couldn’t match them. The Bucks’ victories coincided with Giannis, Holiday and Middleton meeting or exceeding expectations, while the Suns failed to reciprocate.
There remain nuances to why those happenings transpire, of course. The script of this series, though, is written when one team’s studs pick up the pen and dictates the narrative. Lately, Milwaukee’s done a whole lot of scribbling.
Data modeling by Matt Scott. Design by Matt Sisneros.