In Game 2 of the 2021 NBA Finals, the Bucks were defeated 118-108 by Devin Booker (31 points) and the hot shooting Phoenix Suns, despite a historic night from Giannis Antetokounmpo. Milwaukee will head back home down two games to none in the series.
There were some definite improvements but ultimately, Phoenix just shot the ball too well. The Bucks were never able to get it closer than 6 in the second half as the Suns were routinely able to rebuild their lead back to around 10 with timely buckets, often one of their 20 three-point makes. For the second game, it seemed the Suns were getting everything to fall as the basketball gods smiled on them. Booker continued to make ridiculous shots from everywhere on the floor irrespective of how well he was defended (and I thought he was defended pretty well); let me just go on record and say that it’s a crime that he was not on the All-NBA Third Team this year.
Milwaukee found itself down 0-2 going back home against Brooklyn after two highly dispiriting defeats. Most fans (myself included) were very distraught after the Bucks appeared to have zero answers for a Nets superteam featuring nuclear Kevin Durant, and while this same situation feels far less deflating than entering Game 3 of the Brooklyn series, I’m not any more optimistic than I was back then. Unlike last month, the Bucks aren’t playing terribly and aren’t being blown out, but they’re still losing in a convincing manner. My worry is that the Bucks, as a team, can’t play too much better than we saw tonight. It’s going to come down to individual performances. Giannis is capable of another mammoth night like this, though what he had to do tonight to keep the Bucks in the game was clearly physically taxing. Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday simply have to be better. For the Bucks to win this series, all three of them have to be on at the same time, and that’s something we haven’t seen in what feels like forever.
What Did We Learn?
While Bud definitely made some defensive adjustments coming into Game 2, they were not enough to stop Phoenix—at least not yet. After being pick-and-rolled to death by Chris Paul and DeAndre Ayton in Game 1, Milwaukee focused on the bread and butter which granted them the league’s best defense the previous two seasons: protecting the rim. Unfortunately, as we all know so well, this usually comes at a great cost: conceding above the break threes to opponents, many of which will be very open. This felt like a typical Bucks game of seasons gone by. It may come as a surprise to some, but the Bucks have defended opponent three-point shooting very well this postseason (34.3% opponent 3P% on 36 3PA/game compared to 38.6% and 38.4 in the regular season), particularly against the Nets and Hawks. Game 2 was certainly a regression to the mean which was probably overdue, as Phoenix delivered a dreaded outlier performance both in terms of conversion and volume: they shot 50% from deep compared to a 37% cumulative mark so far this postseason (their regular season 3P% was 37.8%). Even worse was that it came on 40 attempts from a team who had averaged 30.4 entering last night’s game (34.6 3PA/game in the regular season). To the Bucks’ credit, many of these attempts were well-defended, but Booker and company still made them with hands in their faces. A postseason series is by definition a small sample size, and it’s very possible for teams to string hot (or cold, as we’ve seen in the Bucks’ case) shooting nights together for 4–5 game stretches. While the Bucks may have been able to weather three-point barrages in the regular season and come out ahead many times, we know how much harder that is to do in the playoffs courtesy of Toronto and Miami in past postseasons. The Bucks have to find a way to counteract onslaughts if they’re doubling down on rim defense, either by making their threes (they reverted back to futility last night) or curtailing opponent attempts. They can’t beat both math and the Phoenix Suns.
Firstly, let’s make something clear: Giannis had the BEST Finals game by a Buck EVER. It won’t matter to many due to the L (including the national talking heads who just want to talk about his free throw routine), but this is an all-time Finals performance by The Greek Freak: 42 points in 40 minutes on 15/22 shooting with 11/18 from the foul line. That shatters Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s previous franchise Finals high of 37 (which also came in a loss) and his 20-point third quarter was the highest single-quarter NBA Finals output since Michael Freaking Jordan scored 22 during a quarter of the 1993 Finals, also against the Suns. It was a higher scoring quarter than LeBron James or Kobe Bryant ever had in the Finals. Giannis did everything to win and Phoenix could do nothing to stop him... nine days after sustaining what looked to be a serious knee injury. Win or lose, that’s the stuff of legends. Shame on those who let two losses completely overshadow what has been a monstrous Finals debut.
Jrue Holiday was bad again. He made some great defensive plays including a stellar block on a Booker layup but this did not make up for his dreadful offensive performance: 17 points on 7/21 shooting with 4 turnovers. The comparison I put below is a tad unfair because Holiday has been far less detrimental than his predecessor to Bucks postseason success, but I think this is worth mentioning:
Eric Bledsoe playoff shooting splits with the Bucks:— StatMuse (@statmuse) July 9, 2021
— 41.1 FG%
— 25.4 3P%
— 73.2 FT%
Jrue Holiday playoff shooting splits with the Bucks:
— 41.1 FG%
— 28.9 3P%
— 67.3 FT% pic.twitter.com/1PRn67M4k2
Again, Eric Bledsoe torpedoed the Bucks in three playoff series and Holiday was outstanding against both the Heat and Hawks in ways that Bledsoe was incapable of, but the Bucks cannot afford Holiday continuing to shoot this poorly plus make costly turnovers.
Khris Middleton was bad, unlike in Game 1. Like Holiday, Middleton could not buy a jumper to save his life, finishing with a putrid 11 points on 5/16 shooting (1/6 from three). We all know that Middleton is capable of having massive postseason efforts and is usually good for a couple each series, but tonight the Bucks really needed something not even half as amazing and Middleton couldn’t produce. He finished a team-low -15 in his 41 minutes.
Bonus Bucks Bits
- Pat Connaughton was the only Buck who shot well from the outside with 14 points on 4/9 shooting from three but still finished -14.
- Bryn Forbes played just 6 minutes and bricked his first two threes badly before hitting a third. Because he’s not making threes much anymore, he’s been basically unplayable since the Miami series.
- Bobby Portis was similarly ineffective in his mere 5 minutes. He exited early in the second and did not return.
- While the Bucks won the rebounding battle 46-43 and had another big night on the offensive boards (an 18 to 11 advantage), they were outhustled several times by Phoenix chasing their own misses, or by foolheartedly trying to tip the ball to teammates instead of grabbing it with two hands. This happened at some of the worst possible times late in the game as the Bucks attempted to get back into things, predictably resulting in a few backbreaking, momentum-shifting buckets that instantly turned 6 or 7 point deficits back toward double-digits. Shades of the end of Game 1 against the Hawks.
- The free throw differential swung well towards the Bucks in this one after the massive disparity in Game 1 at 23-14, but the Bucks totaled only 3 more makes than the Suns.
- After being outscored in the paint by 2 in the previous game, Milwaukee had a huge edge down low at 54-28. It was just enough to outweigh the difference from three (33 points) but Phoenix features such midrange wizardry from Booker and Paul that it didn’t matter much.
- Milwaukee only turned the ball over 9 times in another improvement from the previous game, but they couldn’t capitalize more than Phoenix was able to: they scored 16 off turnovers to Phoenix’s 15.
- Finally, while Giannis is crushing it in the NBA Finals despite being “unskilled,” James Harden is getting into trouble in Paris:
Lil Baby and James Harden Stopped by Cops in Paris, Report Says Rapper Arrested https://t.co/r5w8UZ537t— TMZ (@TMZ) July 8, 2021