Game One of the NBA Finals resulted in how many pundits nationally had predicted, with the Phoenix Suns delivering a solid performance to down the Milwaukee Bucks. Indeed, Phoenix played well and earned the victory, while Milwaukee left the initial contest with some major questions to answer if they hope to seize momentum of this series.
With all eyes on the Finals, there is no shortage of analysis (some good, and some...not) and self-appointed experts claiming to have the answers. This piece may well be just another one on the pile, but (perhaps predictably) it should give Bucks fans reasons for optimism and, dare I say, hope going into Game 2 on Thursday.
What Went Wrong
Three things went particularly well for the Bucks in this game: Giannis Antetokounmpo started and stayed healthy (though exactly how effective he was, compared to his usual self, is an open question), Khris Middleton came through on offense, and the Bucks were able to break out of their longstanding three-point shooting slump. Milwaukee did not win Game One, but they survived it without anything getting worse. Moral victories do nothing in the standings, but given the existential crisis that the franchise faced just a week ago, it deserves mention.
Beyond those three things, concerns about the Bucks’ ability to compete with the Suns abound. Those concerns are not unfounded; the Suns are the Western Conference champions! Chris Paul and Devin Booker are two of the game’s best perimeter players! But Milwaukee suffered just as many self-inflicted wounds as the Suns dished out on their side, and some of those issues are the sort that can be equalized quickly if the Bucks focus their efforts in the right places.
First off, let’s talk about Milwaukee’s preferred territory: the paint.
For the season, the Bucks shot 67.5% in the restricted area (tied for 4th overall), and in the postseason that number jumped up to 69.1% (best in the playoffs). Milwaukee underperformed that number considerably, dropping down all the way to 61.9% at the rim which is well below both the league standard and their own averages. Per NBA.com’s play-by-play, eleven of the Bucks’ twenty misses in the paint occurred in the first half and from 5 feet or less, including a preposterous sequence in the first quarter that featured five Milwaukee field goal attempts in the span of sixteen seconds...and none of them dropped. The Bucks simply don’t usually miss that many close-range shots in a game, and it would be a surprise to see that issue carry over into Game Two.
Another major factor that has already been a hot topic of conversation is the massive free throw differential between the Bucks and Suns. On the whole, Phoenix attempted 26 foul shots compared to only 16 for Milwaukee, but the discrepancy stood at 12 to 4 in the first half and 19 to 6 after the third quarter. Assign blame to whomever you like, but the fact of the matter is that neither Jrue Holiday (2 attempts) or Khris Middleton (0 attempts) could beg, borrow, or steal a whistle on Tuesday night. Middleton in particular seemed heavily bothered by the contact he endured without any intervention from the officials, but both the Bucks and Suns are established as excellent defensive teams that can avoid fouling. For whatever reason, Phoenix was able to manufacture an advantage here while Milwaukee could not, and the Bucks will need to find ways to even things out at the line in order to avoid coming down on the wrong side again.
Let’s take a quick detour and explore part of why the Bucks may have done so poorly with getting foul calls; outside of Giannis Antetokounmpo (12 FTAs), only Holiday (2 FTAs) and Brook Lopez (2 FTAs) were able to earn shooting fouls. Any calls on Phoenix that involved Khris Middleton were ruled on the floor (rather than in the act of shooting), and those calls mostly occurred away from the basket. What calls the Bucks did get were on close-range shots, which they also performed poorly on (see above), and the Bucks’ roster simply affords opponents the ability to pack the paint. Giannis is not a threat from outside, PJ Tucker’s reputation exceeds his current proficiency from the corners, and as a result the Bucks were often stuck settling for jumpers because there simply were no seams to attack the interior. Jrue Holiday struggled on offense in particular because he wasn’t able to easily drive, because Phoenix was constantly able to benefit from help defense simply existing as defenders sagged off of Giannis or Tucker. As a result, Holiday settled for more jumpers than anyone would like, and he was the only Buck to not hit a three on the night. When you combine all those components with the fact that it was a friendly environment in Phoenix, you end up down double-digits when comparing free throws...and when the Suns hit all but one of their 26 attempts, that’s a quarter-century of easy points that the Bucks need to find ways to work around. That’s what shaped the long orange chunk of the game chart in the third quarter:
Even still, despite the free throw advantage and despite the missed bunnies, Milwaukee was never truly out of this game. However, they committed enough errors that kept them from being truly in the game, and many of those errors were the most-costly variety: live ball turnovers.
On the whole, Milwaukee committed 13 turnovers on the night. That number isn’t great, but it’s about in-line with their postseason average of 13.3/game, which is already an improvement from their regular season figure of 13.8/game. However, 9 of those turnovers were Suns steals, meaning that nearly 70% of the Bucks’ miscues on offense resulted in a fresh possession for Phoenix. In the regular season, that number for Milwaukee was only 51%, and in the playoffs it’s increased only to 57%. Postseason defenses are simply better and try harder, which explains the generic increase, but the combination of the Suns formidable defense (the best that Milwaukee has faced in the playoffs) and the straightforward blunders committed by Giannis (5 TOs), Khris (3 TOs), and Jrue (3 TOs) add up to additional breathing room for Phoenix that the Bucks cannot afford to give. Bad passes, ill-advised drives, and sloppy ball-handling are all fixable issues, and ought to help the Bucks balance the scales.
What To Do Next
First and foremost, Giannis needs to return to full strength, physically. If he continues to be limited by his knee injury, then any other changes the Bucks make will effectively become window dressing. Without Giannis being Giannis, the Bucks cannot win four of the next six (possible) games against the Phoenix Suns.
My mind returns to March 2021, when Giannis played a home-and-home against the Boston Celtics after sitting against the Pacers with a knee issue, where Milwaukee won the first and lost the second against Boston but Giannis was clearly not himself. The Bucks had just come off a seven-game win streak at that point and were decidedly more uneven for the next dozen games, going 6-6 by losing three, winning three, then repeating. For Giannis, that stretch included a 47-point explosion against Portland...and seven games on the bench. He eventually got back to normal to close out the regular season and go on a tear in the playoffs...but we’re at the summit now. This is it. Does Giannis have enough in him, with his current injury, to eke out enough against the Suns in the Finals? More importantly, is there enough time?
But let’s be positive and assume that yes, Giannis and the medical staff can pull it together. What else can the Bucks do to try and mount their best effort against Phoenix? I’ve collected a few questions that are worth asking and maybe, just maybe, one of them has an adjustment worth making.
Part of the struggles Milwaukee endured was creating and exploiting space on offense. With Giannis and PJ Tucker on the floor, Phoenix is able to effectively stay closer to the paint, which makes getting to the basket harder on Giannis and Jrue Holiday. Could swapping Pat Connaughton in for Tucker help affect the geometry on the floor? Connaughton isn’t a knock-down shooter but at least offers some variety in his attempts, whereas Tucker is limited to the corners. PJ still has a major role to play and would still be in the small ball/closing lineup (which Adam explored during the Hawks series and was fairly effective in the second half last night) but to make Milwaukee’s life easier inside they need to stretch the defense from outside. Will Phoenix’s defense bend differently if help comes from the wings (with Pat) rather than from the corners (with Tucker)?
The Bucks only other options in a smaller lineup would be to give more opportunity to either Bryn Forbes or Jeff Teague, neither of which seems like a winning formula. Both players will get spot minutes as needed, but they don’t have the defensive abilities to avoid becoming targets by the Phoenix offense; at least Pat gives a bit of speed, spacing, and athleticism that Tucker doesn’t have. Then again, Phoenix might be just as happy to deal with the smaller, less-strong Pat Connaughton on the floor as they would with the stronger, stouter PJ Tucker, so it could be a move that yields very little positive change.
Bobby Portis had a rough go of it in Game One, but with the injury to Dario Saric the Phoenix front court has less depth and will depend on Deandre Ayton to continue his stellar postseason performance. With Frank Kaminsky as the only other big to see the floor, Portis’ versatile offensive game could have a place in the Finals and the pressure on the offensive glass could swing things in the Bucks’ direction. Furthermore, in a lineup featuring Bobby and two of Brook and Giannis, the Bucks could see about forcing the issue with their size advantage inside. They could even go from big to stupid-dumb big and play Lopez, Portis, Giannis, Middleton, and Holiday together and simply see what happens. It’s likely a losing proposition, but perhaps it’s crazy enough to work?
Credit where credit is due for Mike Budenholzer; the Bucks made changes in-game to how they defended Chris Paul and forced him to adjust. Trouble is, Chris Paul is a maestro who can adjust to seemingly any defense without much trouble, so it’s tough to say what the Bucks should do defensively. Switch 1-5 like they have been? Swap matchups, like having Brook Lopez check Jae Crowder and put Giannis on Ayton, so that the Paul-Ayton pick-and-roll deals with Giannis instead? Or should the Bucks do more of what they have been good at, and drop on screens (adjusting the level of the drop to be higher, of course) and have their guards fight over the screen?
All of these defensive approaches have their benefits, but they also have their drawbacks. At this stage, the only major change that the Bucks could do is introduce change as a constant, and give Phoenix different looks on every possession so that they don’t know what to expect. Blitz and trap on one trip down the floor, followed by a zone drop, followed by a switch-everything defense, followed by another, higher drop coverage, so on and so forth. Milwaukee has the defensive talent to be capable of throwing different pitches, but Phoenix also has the offensive talent to navigate those looks with relative ease.
Take Acting Classes?
At a certain point, the Bucks’ refusal to flop limits how well they can manufacture points at the free throw line. Giannis, Khris Middleton, and Jrue Holiday are all capable of drawing contact, but only Giannis consistently gets contact whistled (and his free throws are a well-travelled topic we don’t need to cover here). In Game One, it became quickly evident that the Bucks weren’t going to get opportunities at the foul line, and with Giannis already being limited with his knee it’s tough to see how this series continues without Phoenix maintaining a healthy advantage in that phase of the game. I’m not saying that Khris or Jrue need to start falling over, but perhaps they could sell the contact better to get the attention of the officials? Or would that take them too far out of their game to make a significant difference?
Stay The Course?
Sometimes, the easiest adjustment to make is to simply “play better.” Between the turnovers and the missed shots inside, Milwaukee left a ton of points on the table and Phoenix was more than happy to claim some as their own. It’s not a popular option, but could it be the correct one?
No matter what, the Bucks are hard-pressed to find the answers that will take them through this final challenge and to a championship. I said it on Twitter; Phoenix had answers to Milwaukee’s questions in Game One, while the Bucks didn’t for the Suns. What’s more, Phoenix boasts two supremely talented offensive players who process the game instantaneously and can find their angles to punish the defense. Booker and Paul excel in the spots that the Bucks’ defense wants to concede