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Milwaukee Bucks vs. Phoenix Suns: NBA Finals Mid-Series Staff Roundtable

Tied up 2-2, the staff weighs in with their thoughts.

NBA: Finals-Phoenix Suns at Milwaukee Bucks Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome back to yet another installment of the Brew Hoop Round Table, where we ask that everybody use coasters and please don’t feed the aging pugs from the table, thanks. You thought this was it for roundtables, but this is the NBA Finals and the Milwaukee Bucks just marched back from an 0-2 hole. Again! If they can do it, we can too… time for another roundtable!

The questions:

1. It’s all tied up at 2-2, how are you feeling about the Bucks chances?

2. What’s been most surprising about how the series has played out so far?

3. Outside of Giannis, which Bucks player has impressed you?

4. Which Suns player do you fear most moving forward?

5. Anything notable you’ll be looking for in the final few games?

It’s all tied up at 2-2, how are you feeling about the Bucks chances?

Andrew: I labeled the Bucks as “finished” after Game 2 of the Brooklyn series...and as it stands, I am VERY cautiously optimistic. This team has proven me wrong throughout this postseason, and that is something I will happily eat crow on. As it stands, though, I am frightened that the Bucks won’t be able to pull out a win in Phoenix. Let’s not forget, Milwaukee has fared poorly when playing in Phoenix the last few decades. Role players play better on their home floor and the Suns have two of the next three games on their court. That scares me, for sure. Giannis Antetokounmpo will not let the Bucks go out quietly, though.

Adam: I’m feeling more optimistic than when I picked Suns in 7 to start the series, mainly due to the jaw-dropping performances by Giannis Antetokounmpo thus far. His availability was impressive enough, but the fact he’s strung together such complete games just two weeks after his injury is incredible. Elevating his game to this level is the reason Milwaukee might be able to eke out a win on the road, even with the intimidation of a fanatic Suns home crowd.

Gabe: I have all the faith that the Bucks will be able to win this series. They’re going down the same path that they have the previous series this postseason. They start off finding their feet, but by Games 3-4, they are in near complete domination. With that being said, I believe they have a higher chance of winning this series in six games rather than seven games.

Mitchell: I see no reason why Milwaukee can’t win a game in Phoenix, which is all they need to fulfill the prophecy. It certainly isn’t easy to do, but we saw the elements of what the Bucks needed to win the series scattered amongst the losses in Games 1 and 2, and those elements came together in Games 3 and 4. The pressure is now squarely on the Suns, who are expected to hold serve on their home court…but do they have answers to the problems Milwaukee has posed? The Suns are much smaller than the Bucks (Adam masterfully covered this), they don’t have an effective deterrent for Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Milwaukee has still shot horribly from deep (31.8% in the playoffs, 34.8% in the Finals) overall. The Bucks’ size isn’t going away, Phoenix can’t magically acquire better Giannis-defenders, and Milwaukee’s shooting really can’t get worse (I think…)

Regardless of the Game 5 outcome, I fully expect the Bucks to win Game 6 at home. Assuming that holds true, that means they’ve got two chances to pull this off. I like their chances.

Kyle: So far this series has gone how I expected. Milwaukee has shot poorly at times and at times struggle to contain a hot midrange shooting night from the Suns’ guards. But Giannis has been Giannis and Khris has quietly had a very impressive postseason so it’s been good and should the Bucks either shoot lights out or continue getting Phoenix players in foul trouble, they can win this series.

Van: A touch higher than when it began thanks to Giannis’ health. Phoenix has been as tough as advertised, Milwaukee’s defense has been pretty great, they’ve played better under pressure, but have shot terribly. This is pretty similar to each of their last three series. I expected Giannis to be back at some point this series, but what I did not expect was how quickly he’d get back to (seemingly) 100%. The way he’s dominated wouldn’t surprise me as much without the injury, but I didn’t think he could do all this on a bad knee.

Riley: How many times has this team scraped by by the skin of their teeth, only to then come out of the encounter and readily capable of finding ways to win from there? Game 5 is the definition of a momentum firebreak, but the Bucks have the momentum and have survived some serious gut punches. Keep finding ways to win. I know they’re absolutely capable.

What’s been most surprising about how the series has played out so far?

Andrew: Milwaukee’s ability to hold on despite Phoenix seemingly making EVERY SINGLE tough shot. The fact that the Bucks won Game 4 despite the Suns shooting 51.3% from the field is incredible...and also a bit scary. However, they have been able to withstand their own shooting struggles by being excellent in every other facet of the game. Ever since Games 1 and 2, the Bucks have done a tremendous job at limiting Phoenix’s transition opportunities and taking away the corner three ball. Additionally, killing them on the offensive glass has played an integral role in the last two wins, too. I am skeptical to say that it is sustainable to win when shooting the ball poorly, but again, the Bucks continue to prove me wrong.

Adam: Chris Paul turning into a turnover machine. Through his first 14 Playoff games this year, he had 22 turnovers overall. Through four games, he already has 17 against Milwaukee. I know there’s been some discussion online about whether he may be hurt, but regardless, the pressure Jrue Holiday has applied has made a clear difference. Since Bud made him the primary defender on Paul, he’s forced 15 turnovers the past three games. None was bigger than the late spill in Game 4 when Holiday took the ball the other way and Khris Middleton finished off the play. I never expected the Bucks would be able to carve such a sizable turnover advantage partially due to Paul of all people.

Gabe: I have to agree with Adam. Coming into the Finals, one of the biggest storylines (if not the biggest) was how Chris Paul was making his first NBA Finals appearance in his storied 16 year career. You’d think that he’d be performing better than he is right now on the offensive end, as his turnovers have really made a negative impact for Phoenix in this series. One could make the argument that he’s the reason the Suns lost Game 4. However, he still is Chris Paul. I fully expect him to bounce back tomorrow night in Game 5.

Mitchell: Chris Paul’s struggles raise some eyebrows but aren’t a shock to me, given the litany of injuries (shoulder, wrist, COVID absence) he’s dealing with. Andrew touched on it above; Phoenix has tied their offense, for better or worse, to raw shotmaking, and Devin Booker has largely been able to deliver despite dealing with attention from Jrue Holiday, PJ Tucker, and Khris Middleton. The Bucks’ defense thrives on forcing the offense to rely upon bad shots, but when the offense actually prefers those shots they suddenly don’t seem as bad anymore.

No, I think my biggest surprise is how Giannis Antetokounmpo has continually elevated his game, answered the call of the moment, and all after having hyperextended his knee in the prior series. I don’t mean to belabor the point, but most humans wouldn’t be playing basketball so soon after such an injury, and certainly not at Giannis’ level.

Kyle: Bud willing to shorten the leash with rotations. Yes he still gives Jeff Teague more minutes than would probably would be desired. But there have been games where Bobby or Brook have limited minutes and Bryn Forbes wasn’t even played in Game 4. One of the biggest complaints we had about Bud was he didn’t play his best players long enough, and we see that has changed for the better. Also how Giannis went from fear of ACL injury to historic finals performance in a matter of two weeks.

Van: Mitchell is right on. I alluded to this in the previous answer and in my feature on Giannis earlier this week, but the most consequential and least-expected (due to his knee) factor in this series is his latest leap. His accomplishments now have him among the top names in NBA history as he enhances his legacy. I did not anticipate we’d be comparing his NBA Finals performance with the likes of Michael Jordan and LeBron James after the injury. I can’t stop watching the replay of The Block; how is this not one of the best few blocks ever?

Riley: It’s just… like, a lot of Jeff Teague minutes. I get why he plays, but it’s a lot of playing.

Outside of Giannis, which Bucks player has impressed you?

Andrew: Pat Connaughton has been superb in the NBA Finals...not something I would have ever imagined that I would type...well, here we are. His athleticism has caused multiple problems for the Suns and he has also played tremendous defense on Devin Booker, especially in Game 4. While Book made A TON of very difficult shots, I thought Pat played him perfectly at times. Milwaukee’s offensive rebounds percentage when he and Giannis share the floor is a huge reason as to why they have won the last two games. His hustle on the offensive glass has generated a multitude of second chance points for the Bucks. With how poorly MKE has played in the half court, as big reason as to why they have the momentum is by beating up on Phoenix’s lack of size.

Adam: Khris Middleton’s Game 4 was his breakout opportunity, and while you always want higher-level shooting performances from him (his splits this series are 42.7%/36.4%/90.9%), it always is easy to discount how he affects the game in other ways. Booker is a perfect analogue in that regard, as his scoring outburst was spectacular, but he also ended with a lone rebound and two assists; he wasn’t looking to get others involved. Khris’s scoring can fade, but he has generally still found occasional ways to facilitate and I’ve thought his defense all postseason has been more solid than I expected. Book and others cook him occasionally, but he’s been solid in a typically K-Midd way.

Gabe: I have to go with Pat Connaughton. When he was brought back to Milwaukee during the offseason, many Bucks fans griped at the number they saw. However, all postseason long, Connaughton continues to prove that he can be trusted out on the floor. Sure, he can have some bad games — but what player besides Giannis doesn’t? The level of clutch shooting that Connaughton has exhibited this postseason is unreal. I mean, he’s gotten two “BANG!” calls from Mike Breen so far during the Finals!

Mitchell: Honestly, and I recognize that this is a cop-out, but I’ve been impressed by all of them. The amount of grit and hard-nosed determination this team has demonstrated is impressive, and is precisely the sort of quality that a physical team needs to pull off the rest of this run. Jrue Holiday has struggled massively on offense, but his defense has been superb. Perhaps he’s a microcosm of how the Bucks have found success in this playoffs; it’s not easy and it’s not pretty, but at the end of the day it leaves them just a little bit further ahead of the other guys.

Kyle: Pat Connaughton got two BANG! calls from Mike Breen, he wins and I once again admit I was very wrong about him this season.

Van: He isn’t a player, and I couldn’t have imagined saying this just a few weeks ago, but Bud is a major reason they’re tied 2-2 in the NBA Finals. The Bucks have had to navigate a very challenging postseason path fraught with injuries, yet all the while they’ve been able to fall back on something consistently excellent in order to win: their defense. It’s gone from tenth in the regular season to first in the playoffs as they’re allowing 4.2 fewer points per 100 possessions. Opposing three-point shooting has been worse too, watch for an article about that soon. Obviously, Milwaukee’s rotational players are talented enough defensively to achieve this but give Bud credit for pulling the right strings. In years past we criticized him for stubbornly adhering to a single scheme that was being shredded by the likes of Miami and Toronto, but no team this postseason has been able to solve the Bucks’ defense night-to-night. Bud has them flowing seamlessly between multiple looks they burnished during the regular season beyond the drop scheme: switching both 1–4 and 1–5, plus a bit of zone.

Riley: I’m still enthralled by the sheer presence PJ Tucker brings to this team. I’ve said elsewhere, but he’s the kind of lead-by-example grit guy we’ve usually lacked. When faced with an opponent fielding one true big man and a bunch of finesse guards/wings, you’ve got to be willing to just throw your physicality around to get the small stuff to bounce your way. PJ does all of the dirty work from the jump, stays on top of the refs like no other Buck does, and knows his role. Been a pleasure to watch him suit up as a Buck.

Which Suns player do you fear most moving forward?

Andrew: Hmm, obviously Book will get his buckets and CP3 will be a bit better moving forward, but how many more games will the Bucks be able to withstand good shooting nights from guys like Crowder, Bridges, and Johnson? That’s my biggest concern.

Adam: I think Book is terrifying, but he’s also been up-and-down in the Playoffs and I’d be surprised if he can replicate his scintillating Game 4 shooting performance. It seems silly, but I’d lean in Andrew’s direction as well and pick Cam Johnson. He’s shooting 41.2% from deep (and I expect every one to fall), but has also shown some decent off-the-dribble game in spurts and operates really well as an individual team defender. He’s been maybe their most consistent role player, and I don’t want home cooking to propel him towards anything more substantial.

Gabe: For me, it’s still Devin Booker. Yes, he’s a bit of a rollercoaster and isn’t exactly the most consistent. However, when he’s on, he’s on. If this series goes to seven games and he has one of those lights out shooting displays like he had in Game 4, the Bucks could be in trouble. He’s so difficult to stop when he’s feeling it from mid-range.

Mitchell: …we’re scared of Devin Booker? He’s a supremely talented scorer and has made a bajillion tough baskets, but he’s still a merely-okay three-point shooter, commits a fairly high number of turnovers, and after that Game 4 no-call, I don’t believe that the officials are going to be shy about whistling him for fouls (he already led the Suns this postseason with 3.4 fouls per game). Let Booker take (and make) his shots, the Bucks can withstand him. Elsewhere, Deandre Ayton is a great player but is in a limited role, and the rest of the Suns are equally capable role players…no, Chris Paul is the centerpiece of Phoenix’s hopes, and even banged up and 36 years old, he’s the guy I have the most concern about.

Kyle: I’m going Deandre Ayton, he can create a mismatch when the Bucks switch, he isn’t a terrible rim protector which can nullify Brook and make things difficult for Giannis. We saw Milwaukee go on its big run in Game 3 when he sat on the bench. There’s the element that he could get Giannis and Brook in foul trouble in one of these games as well.

Van: Chris Paul hit his nadir in Game 4 after steadily worse performances following his sublime Game 1. I doubt that continues because his shockingly high turnover rate as mentioned above seems likely to revert to normal. CP3 is highly motivated to get his first ring, and we should expect some big games from him the remainder of the Finals.

Riley: Ayton has really impressed me through the series so far. True, there are times where he can get out hustled in transition or lost from having too many defensive assignments to cover, but the way he plays on both ends is an effective throwback. Guards are up and down in production by their nature, so it falls to him to provide baseline output for the team. I think he’s capable, and that gives me unease.

Anything notable you’ll be looking for in the final few games?

Andrew: If Suns fans can actually stop beating the living crap out of each other...that would be the upset of the series. It’s almost like embracing a fan involved in a brawl during the WCF was a bad idea. Who woulda thought!?

Adam: Andrew may be looking to avoid brawls, but I’m hoping to bawl with a few more Bucks wins. I’m going to be fascinated how Bud handles his big man rotation down in Phoenix. In Game 2, Bobby Portis played merely five minutes but he’s eating up a bigger slice of Brook’s minutes in the last two wins. Bud’s had a tighter leash on Brook, who I still think is critical to this series, but was getting roasted on the pick-and-roll and couldn’t stop Booker driving to the rim in Game 4. I want to see Bud’s calculation of smallball vs. bullyball with two of Brook, Bobby and Giannis on the floor.

Gabe: Can Khris Middleton come alive on the road again? We all saw him do it in Atlanta. If he can replicate a performance like that tomorrow night in Game 5 in Phoenix, I think the Bucks will eek out a victory and seize an opportunity to close things out at home. We all know that he is capable of masterful road performances. We saw it against Atlanta. Words can’t stress how important another one of those showings would be for Milwaukee.

Mitchell: More of what we saw in Game 4: the Bucks should out-muscle and out-hustle the Suns and, should they maintain their discipline and produce just enough on offense for the remainder of the series, I’m looking for the fruition of the long-standing mantra: Bucks In Six.

Kyle: Can Milwaukee get back to its average of three point shooting? The game the Bucks shot best was in Phoenix so maybe that’s a sign of things to come. Also will Jrue have a solid game on offense to go with his impressive defense.

Van: Will the Bucks ever get a night where each of their three stars play well? As Kyle mentions, Jrue Holiday needs to vastly improve on offense for this to occur. As he has been basically all postseason, his defense this series on Paul and switching onto Booker has been outstanding. We’ve come to expect that kind of thing, but outside of a great Game 3 he’s been pretty bad on the other end: he’s shooting just .333/.273/.900 in the Finals for 15.3 PPG. Giannis and Middleton have now both hit their stride offensively; whether or not Holiday can as well may be the difference between winning or losing this title.

Riley: Can the Bucks win two out of the next three games?