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5 observations from Suns' feel-good blowout of Bucks

Gerald Bourguet Avatar
February 11, 2022

Nothing will ever heal the sting of losing in last year’s NBA Finals, but the Phoenix Suns got as close as you can get to payback in the regular season on Thursday. In a dominant 131-107 victory, the Suns smashed the Milwaukee Bucks in a game that would’ve had a playoff feel to it if the proceedings hadn’t been so lopsided.

This is just one more game out of 82, but after a resilient 3-1 road trip featuring wins over the Chicago Bulls and Philadelphia 76ers, demolishing a mostly healthy Milwaukee team at home served as quite the statement.

“They’re the defending champs,” head coach Monty Williams said. “We still hurt, but from a confidence standpoint, for sure. I think it was a big game for us. I can admit it now. I think you circle games, I’m sure they have it circled when we go up there. It’s just the competitive nature that we all have. But I do feel like when you win against a really good team like that, it does build confidence.”

Because there was a lot to digest from the first matchup between these two contenders since last year’s Finals series, here are five things that stuck out from Thursday night’s beatdown.

1. Deandre Ayton passes first test against the Greek Freak

It’s no secret the difference in last year’s Finals was Giannis Antetokounmpo playing like a Greek god. Deandre Ayton has often lamented how he played in that series, and in Thursday’s revenge game, he answered the bell.

“DA was the reason we won this game, both offensively and defensively,” Chris Paul said.

Finishing with a game-high 27 points, 7 rebounds and 1 block, Ayton also helped limit Antetokounmpo to 18 points on 5-of-14 shooting. Before the game, Williams had pointed out Giannis’ 85 free throws over six games in the Finals, stressing the importance of keeping him off the line.

The Greek Freak still got there 14 times on Thursday, but Ayton was a rock in the paint, keeping Antetokounmpo from getting to his spots or wreaking havoc on the Suns’ defense, which gave up 50 the last time they met.

“It’s tough, but that’s what we want out of DA,” Mikal Bridges said. “Doing that and also going 12-for-14 on the other end is just crazy. So him doing it on both ends is what we’ve been asking from him for years now, and he just keeps getting better every day, every year, and it shows.”

Coming off a game in which he contained Joel Embiid late in crunch-time, DA has been rising to the occasion lately. Literally.

“That’s a big-time week for DA, and then offensively, I thought he was pretty dominant in the paint, his ability to seal and get to his jump hook,” Williams said. “His rebounding is always something that we can rely on, but I thought his seals tonight were about as good as he’s ever been since I’ve been here.”

All in all, exacting a little revenge on the guy who sent your team home empty-handed on basketball’s biggest stage had to feel gratifying. VindicAYTON, if you will.

“You know me, I love competing,” Ayton said. “If they the best, I want to be in front of them and I’m gonna test it out.”

2. Ayton’s seals are a weapon in this matchup

At the center of DA’s success, as Williams alluded to, was Ayton’s focus on rolling and sealing with purpose. Although the Suns struggled to shoot for most of the night from beyond the arc, Ayton absolutely brutalized Milwaukee’s smaller frontcourt, which was missing Brook Lopez and neglected to put Giannis on him until it was too late.

The result? An unstoppable force in the paint who made 12 of his 14 shots, mostly by sealing smaller defenders on switches and punishing mismatches.

“Man, you should’ve heard, he was just in the locker room talking about it,” Chris Paul chuckled. “I think that’s the coolest part of when you get a chance to build things together with teammates and as a team. It’s taken us a while to get here, and we still got a ways to go, but the building part is cool, ’cause last year, I’d say this, ‘Hit the box’ or something, and he’d, ‘Come on, C, what? What?’ And then during the game tonight, he was like, ‘Talk to me, C, talk to me!’ So it’s cool when you get to build like that with good guys.”

Ayton’s grown leaps and bounds navigating the pick-and-roll, but his effort in jamming his butt into guys, backing them down and stuffing them through the hoop represents its own kind of improvement. This aspect is key for the “Feed DA” crowd: It’s a lot easier to feed the big fella when he’s imposing his will and carving out space like that.

Williams credited Chris Paul’s passing, the Suns’ floor-spacers and assistant coach Mark Bryant with aiding Ayton’s progress on his seals and his hyper-efficient hook shot. But at the end of the day, DA’s work ethic to improve on those fronts and his mentality about taking it to those smaller defenders makes all the difference.

“It worked for us tonight, but I think his ability to continue to grow as a player,” Williams said. “Our first year here, we didn’t see that, and now he’s starting to understand that that jump hook in the paint or just powering over people is a lot better than fading away. He can make that shot, the fade, but when you have a small down there and you can just put ’em in the basket, it’s a productive play for us, and for me, to flatten out the defense.”

It’s easy to see the results. When Ayton is rolling with intent like this:

Or when he’s aggressively sealing his man like this:

The Suns will live with the results, even if there were a couple of instances where he settled for the spot-up jumper.

“Last year, that was one of the things I was not exhausting, just constantly putting my body on them dudes when they switch in that and just not letting them off the hook,” Ayton described. “This offensive end, helping my guys out, get extra possessions, crashing the glass, just getting easy hook shots down low, taking advantage of the mismatches, that’s the main thing that I’ve been wanting to try to emphasize throughout this season, especially when we play against good teams when they switch.”

3. The Point God’s brilliance

Ayton was the star of the show Thursday night, but Chris Paul’s spectacular performance shouldn’t be overlooked. Finishing with 17 points, 19 assists, 7 rebounds and 2 steals, the Point God continued to prove why he belongs in the MVP conversation.

Yes, you read that right: 19 assists. To only 2 turnovers. Paul racked up more assists by himself than the Bucks did as a team.

“Offensively, to have 35 assists and 8 turnovers, like, that’s an unreal ratio,” Williams said.

In Games 1-2 of the Finals (both wins), the Suns outscored Milwaukee 31-26 in points off turnovers and only coughed it up 22 times. In Games 3-6 (all losses), they got demolished 67-48 in points off turnovers, giving the ball away 56 times.

Suffice it to say Phoenix was satisfied watching the Bucks cough it up 14 times for 22 points off turnovers, compared to just 8 Suns turnovers and 11 points off turnovers for Milwaukee.

Paul was the centerpiece of that dominant aspect of the win, and it’s only fitting this game gave him his 500th career double-double, making him just the 31st player in NBA history to reach that benchmark. The only other guards to get there? John Stockton, Magic Johnson and Oscar Robertson.

4. Backup bigs come in handy

No offense to Dario Saric or Frank Kaminsky, but backing DA up with the likes of JaVale McGee and Bismack Biyombo is a totally different animal when you’re talking about matching the size and physicality of Milwaukee’s frontcourt.

Well, well, well. How the turntables

We’ve already covered how Ayton was a two-way force, but Biyombo (9 points, 2 rebounds, 4-of-5 shooting) and McGee (12 points, 4 rebounds, 3 steals, 6-of-9 shooting) played their part too. The Bucks obviously missed Lopez and the newly acquired Serge Ibaka in this respect, but it was quite the change of pace compared to last year’s Finals.

In Games 1-2 of that fateful series, the Suns tied Milwaukee 26-26 in second-chance points. They lost 27-17 in offensive rebounds but were only a -7 on the glass overall. In Games 3-6, the script flipped. Phoenix was dismantled 65-28 in second-chance points, 52-25 in offensive rebounds and 185-148 in total rebounds over that stretch. Overall, they were outscored by 46 points in the paint for the series.

Thursday night featured a complete role reversal thanks to Ayton, Biyombo and McGee:

  • Rebounds: Suns win 43-39
  • Second-chance points: Suns win 21-15
  • Points in the paint: Suns win 68-50

It’s only one game, but we saw a few Twin Towers lineups, and when McGee didn’t work against Giannis early, Monty was able to switch it up with a more agile big in Biyombo.

“Man, I wish this was last season,” Ayton said with a laugh. “I needed it last season, but I’m glad we got it now. But yeah, this is the thing we’ve been trying to emphasize. Me being the only big last year and now I got pieces where if I get in foul trouble early or I’m just not having that game, I got dudes that could back me up. And I could just sit and learn from the older guys and see how they adjust.”

Second-chance points is a key stat to keep an eye on for the Suns the rest of the season, and having two true centers behind Ayton will help, even if both of them won’t see the floor on most nights. Throw in Torrey Craig’s rebounding as a rangy wing and small-ball 5, and the Suns seem better poised to deal with a Milwaukee rematch should both teams meet again in the Finals.

5. A great win, but too early for any sweeping statements about the matchup

Suns fans should be feeling good about Thursday. Not only did they prove themselves as winners on the margins at the 2022 NBA Trade Deadline by bringing back Craig and adding Aaron Holiday, but they waxed the defending champs despite only shooting 9-for-30 from 3-point range while Devin Booker went 6-for-19 overall.

This team is simply built different.

Exorcising demons against a fellow title contender had to feel good, especially after Paul had called it a “barometer” earlier in the day…right?

“I think we did well. We played well. For it to be a regular-season game in, what, February? We’re still a work-in-progress, still building, and just trying to make sure our habits stay stay there.”

Um, okay. We should’ve expected CP3 to take that kind of approach though. How about you, Mikal?

“I don’t know, I think we beat ’em twice last year in the regular season,” Bridges said. “So it’s just, the playoffs and the especially the Finals are different. So I got nothing to say, we just played harder tonight. Got our next one on Saturday.”

Hmm. All right, well what about DA?

“Comfortable win, but we tried not to get comfortable,” Ayton said. “C was emphasizing the whole game, ‘Don’t celebrate after your shots, get your ass back on D.’ He exhausted that the whole night, and that’s just finding those playoffs mentality where you can’t really get happy on the farm. You’re in the middle of war.”

Long story short: This team recognizes that as good as payback felt, and as convincing a victory as it was, it’s still a relatively meaningless regular-season win. It’s one game out of 82, and the slate gets wiped clean in just a few months.

“It’s cool, but man, I’m so big picture,” Paul said. “When you get to the playoffs, it ain’t like that. You can game-plan for different teams every night, but when you get to the playoffs, it’s the same team. You gotta beat that team four outta seven, so we’re just trying to make sure we got the right habits.”

The Suns had more reason to want that game Thursday night. It meant more to them. That alone doesn’t explain the massive margin of victory, but ultimately, it’s too soon for any sweeping declarations about this particular matchup.

What we can say, however, is this: So far, the Phoenix Suns are the best team in the NBA, and they should be considered the title favorites until someone proves to be on their level.

This group is now 45-10, which is the best 55-game start in the league and in franchise history. They own the NBA’s best point differential, best record against winning teams and are the only team to rank in the top five for both offensive and defensive rating.

This win only reinforced what we’ve been seeing all season, but as we learned last year, those final 16 wins are all that matter.

Bonus: What Mikal Bridges actually said

After Mikal Bridges’ and-1 in the fourth quarter, he stood still, slowly turning his head toward the Suns’ bench with a gigantic grin on his face. His eyes bulged as he nodded, mouthing something in celebration. The camera caught him in slow motion, but what was he saying?

“He mad”? “Lean back”?

Social media was ablaze trying to figure out how to properly caption the latest Mikal meme.

So, as only a true investigative journalist can do, I asked him.

“Oh no, I think I said, ‘Get it back,'” Bridges clarified. “‘Cause I missed two 3s. I think Cam [Johnson] get the O-board off my missed 3 or something. That’s when I cut, so I was looking at C-Payne, and I told him, ‘Trust me, I’m gonna get it back! I’m gonna get my three points the hard way.’”

A comparative letdown, to be sure, but still amusing nonetheless. It’s not as reusable as “he mad,’ but “get it back” will surely circulate around the interwebs if Phoenix can get Milwaukee back four times in June.

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