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The Phoenix Suns’ second NBA Finals rematch of the 2021-22 season lost a bit of its luster without Devin Booker, Chris Paul and Cam Johnson on the court, but their absence didn’t stop it from being a phenomenal game.
While the Suns came up short against the Milwaukee Bucks on the road, 132-122, the game was far closer than the final score indicated. During this period of learning and growth without some key players, let’s take a look at some of the biggest takeaways from Sunday’s matinee matchup, which could be a Finals preview for the second straight year.
1. Suns frustrated by free-throw discrepancy
A simple look at the stat sheet shows the Bucks out-shot Phoenix 29-11 in free-throw attempts. The extra 18 attempts and 15 points they scored from the foul line certainly made a difference down the stretch, and while coach Monty Williams was sure to give his opponent credit for their high-level shot-making, he had a bone to pick with this recurring trend.
“Our guys fought their tails off, and the pattern that we’re having to deal with from a free-throw perspective, it’s just getting old,” Williams said. “It was 29-11. In six games in the Finals, Giannis [Antetokounmpo] had 85 free throws. We had one more shot than them in the paint. So that’s where the frustration, for me, I’m telling our guys to continue to go to the paint and play physical basketball, that’s something that is a struggle, for sure.”
When guarding a guy like Antetokounmpo, you expect there to be some foul calls, but for once, it wasn’t the Greek Freak that was killing Phoenix slowly at the foul line. Giannis only had six free-throw attempts (making three) and actually fouled out himself, uncharacteristically getting whistled for two offensive fouls.
Unfortunately, Khris Middleton also had seven, Jrue Holiday got six and the Bucks as a team had 29.
“We’re in the paint too,” Jae Crowder lamented. “I mean, we were banging, we’re doing the same type deal. We just didn’t get the benefit of the call, I felt like. We did a good job of just mixing it up, taking shots and putting pressure on the rim, and we didn’t get the benefit of the doubt with the whistle.”
In six Finals games, the Bucks shot 140 free throws to the Suns’ 105. It’s become a waking nightmare against this particular team, but the Suns are trying not to dwell on it.
“Can’t put it on the refs, man, we out there playing the game,” Payne said. “We gotta find ways to win the game. It don’t matter how the game’s getting called, we just gotta figure it out. I mean, we on the road. That’s how it is sometimes. It’s just on the road, but hey, we gave ourselves an opportunity at the end. That’s all we could ask for.”
2. Rebounding is becoming an issue again
Even without Brook Lopez, the Bucks just seem to bring out the worst in the Suns in the free throw and rebounding departments. Unfortunately, Phoenix has been struggling with the offensive rebounding issue since the All-Star break, which Williams called a “bit of a pattern.”
“We gave up 14 tonight, and that’s what they do, but Serge [Ibaka] came off the bench and had six,” he said. “You expect Giannis to get a couple just because he’s so doggone long and athletic and around the basket, but Serge came off the bench and got six tonight. So 14 is just too high of a number. You think about how good they are, and the percentage that they shot, they don’t need extra possessions. So we gotta keep the grit, the toughness, the ball movement, the hard way we play, and now we gotta figure out a way to cut down on these offensive rebounds.”
Since the break, the Suns are giving opponents 11.3 offensive rebounds and 15.7 second-chance points per game, the latter of which ranks 26th in the NBA…all while averaging a league-worst 7.8 second-chance points per game themselves.
Lately, most of that blame has fallen on Deandre Ayton, who is averaging just 6.5 rebounds per game in that span. The big fella isn’t shying away from it either.
“It’s just the rebounding, man, especially starting with me,” he said. “I ain’t been rebounding the way I’m supposed to be rebounding, and it’s giving teams the momentum to really crash and get their pace going on the offensive end.”
Not all of the Suns’ rebounding woes can be squarely placed on Ayton’s shoulders. He’s got to be better about putting bodies on opponents instead of simply trying to out-jump them, but quite a few times, with the Suns’ switching or blitzing defense, he’s found himself pulled away from the rim, and the rest of his teammates have struggled to keep opposing bigs off the glass when they crash.
Ayton said he has to be better about recovering in those instances and being a part of the play after the shot goes up if he’s out on the perimeter, but Crowder believes it’s a team issue that’s correctable.
“It’s just a detail type thing,” Crowder said. “We gotta focus in more on it. We have personnel to do it. We just gotta make it a higher emphasis. I think it’s the middle-of-the-pack with our emphasis right now. We gotta bring that to the forefront more, we gotta talk about it more and be more aware of it.”
3. Don’t let this overshadow a terrific Suns performance
Crowder made sure to tell his team one thing in the locker room after Sunday’s loss: “There’s no moral victories.”
However, we should probably take a lighter approach, because even in defeat, that was one heck of an effort. Playing without their two leading scorers, and then losing Cam Johnson, after he was coming off a career-high 38-point performance on Friday, all while facing the defending champs on the road, in a building where they last played in their Game 6 defeat in the Finals?
This matchup had every reason to be a total blowout, but the Suns led for most of the night and were right in it until Milwaukee’s shot-makers took over late.
The defense wasn’t up to par, especially in the fourth quarter, but managing 122 points and 33 assists without your two leading playmakers and one key scorer is incredibly impressive.
“I mean, we had 33 assists in a tough game on the road,” Williams said. “Like, that’s who we are. Who steps up or who’s got a uniform on, it does matter, but the style of play is always there, and the grit and toughness is there. And it was there tonight, we just couldn’t come up with enough plays down the stretch to win.”
In just his third game back, Cam Payne put up 23 points and 8 assists on 9-of-19 shooting. After starting his day 0-for-5, Mikal Bridges finished with 14 points and made six of his last nine shots. Jae Crowder chipped in 19.
Perhaps most eyebrow-raising of all were the assist totals. Payne led the way, but Crowder (7), Bridges (6), Landry Shamet (5) and Aaron Holiday (4) were right behind him.
“That’s just how we play, that’s our culture: 0.5 basketball,” Payne explained. “Move the ball and be selfless, help your teammate get a shot, and big-time screening from DA and [Bismack Biyombo] and [JaVale McGee]. They screen, and that’s unselfish play, and they did a heck of a job. And we was moving the ball, as per usual. We do that. Thirty-three assists, that’s big-time. We just play Phoenix Suns basketball, and we live with the results.”
4. Rebounding woes shouldn’t overshadow Deandre Ayton’s big night either
Without his two main distributors around to feed him the rock, a much larger portion of Deandre Ayton’s shot attempts have come from the midrange lately. Settling for the “middy” is one thing, but on Sunday, it felt like he struck the perfect balance.
“He was dominant in the paint, he was knocking down his short roll,” Williams said. “That’s how we need him to play, and I don’t want him backing off from that kind of intensity and that kind of paint play. And then he can step out and knock down the 15-footer. He can play on those two levels, and then from time to time, he can step out and knock down the 3. So I’m proud of the way he battled today.”
Ayton finished with a season-high 30 points on 14-of-19 shooting, finishing just 3 points shy of tying his career high. He made the only 3-pointer he took, but Williams liked that he was chiefly operating from the free-throw line in when he caught the ball and looked to score.
“I’m doing what the defense gives me,” Ayton said. “A lot of teams are used to me rolling, but I’m just finding the open spaces on the court and just taking advantage of them the best way I can, but quick. Just making sure I get my guys open, especially on the offensive end in pick-and-rolls to free up somebody when it comes down to that pick-and-roll.”
Payne called that midrange jumper a “big-time release valve,” and it absolutely has been for a Suns offense trying to survive without Booker and Paul’s shot-making ability.
“We was hitting him in the pocket, he was knocking that floater down, knocking that middy down,” Payne said. “It kinda is like a ‘phew!’, like a breath-taker every time he knock it down.”
Even his superstar opponent gave him props on his high-scoring night:
5. Landry Shamet, is that you?
Don’t say it too loud, lest we scare him off, but with each passing game, Landry Shamet is starting to make us do our best Isley Brothers impression.
A little bit louder now: It feels like Landry Shamet is finally working himself into a groove. As a career 39 percent 3-point sniper, we often wondered at what point the Law of Averages would outweigh Murphy’s Law for Shamet, who was only making 35.3 percent of his 3s before the All-Star break.
But in the last three games, he’s knocked down seven of his 16 attempts (43.8 percent). It’s a small sample size, to be sure, but it was encouraging watching Shamet put up 17 points on 3-of-6 shooting from deep against the defending champs.
“He’s another guy that I don’t want backing off from that attitude when we start getting guys back,” Williams said. “Like, that’s how we need him to play. When he has a shot, take it. When he has a chance to get to the rack, go. Just play free and utilize his game.”
“Playing free” is exactly what Crowder told Shamet to do before facing the Bucks, which was only his sixth game back after missing almost a month with an ankle sprain.
“It just looked like he’s playing more free, he’s not thinking as much,” Crowder said. “I just told him before the game, ‘Play free and be you.’ I think he’s gotten away from that a little bit, just trying to fit in and at the same time not step on toes and stuff like that. It’s a tough deal when you come to a good team like us, but at the same time, we trust him. He works at his craft, we know what he brings to the table, and we just want him to play free.”
Bonus 1: Jae Crowder vs. Bobby Portis
In Sunday’s dying moments, Middleton hit a side-step 3 over Ayton to put the final nail in the coffin with about 22 seconds left. Bobby Portis corralled the ball and handed it to Crowder, who took exception to it.
When asked about the scuffle, Crowder was straight about it.
“They hit a shot, he brought the ball, put it in my chest, I didn’t like it,” Crowder said with a smile. “It’s all good. I was a little bitter. He knew I was a little bitter. Just getting into it. But it’s all good, two guys playing hard and I respect Bobby and what he brings.”
Bonus 2: Suns contain Giannis, but Middleton and Holiday go off
In two meetings so far this season, the Suns have done a tremendous job on Antetokounmpo, who averaged 35.2 points per game against them in the Finals:
Antetokounmpo only had 19 points on Sunday, albeit on 8-of-13 shooting.
Unfortunately, Middleton shellacked Phoenix for 44 points on 16-of-27 shooting. If the rebounding struggles and free-throw discrepancy felt familiar, Middleton going crazy was outright PTSD for Suns fans.
Jrue Holiday was held in check by his brother Aaron for most of the night, but he went ballistic with 17 of his 24 points in the fourth quarter.
“Jrue Holiday, I gotta give him love,” Payne said. “He played well, man. He picked me up, he’s just showing me where I gotta be better, and I give him his flowers today.”
The Suns kept the most important member of Milwaukee’s Big 3 in check, but there’s still work to do on that front should they meet again. There’s not enough time to get into the intricacies of how the Ayton-Antetokounmpo matchup feels different from last year, but we’ll do that in a separate space…literally tomorrow morning. Stay tuned.
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