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Milwaukee vs. Phoenix: Sunrise, Sunset

You’ve heard of 40 wins before 20 losses, but how about 50 wins?

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NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at Phoenix Suns Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

The Milwaukee Bucks reached the 50-win mark last night, outlasting the Phoenix Suns and collecting their second win in three road games.

Milwaukee pulled off the win the same way they’ve done it over the past few years: digging in on defense, attacking the rim on offense, and playing bigger, stronger, and tougher than anyone else can. As of January 15, the Bucks were merely 27-16; still a good enough record to hold a top-3 seed in the Eastern Conference, but they had not convinced the rest of the basketball world that they were a threat to make a run at the title. Today, they’re 50-19 and honestly, it’s difficult to see who can actually beat them in a seven-game series.

There are only 13 games left, and then the real season starts.

Three Things

The Bucks are too big to handle. This was the case in the 2021 NBA Finals, and it was the case again today. Without Kevin Durant (who’s a wing, not a big), Phoenix had three big men that they were willing to put on the court tonight in response to Milwaukee’s massive front court; DeAndre Ayton (6’11”) went into foul trouble early, meaning that Bismack Biyombo (6’8”) and Jock Landale (6’11”) had to step up and play more minutes. It looked a bit like this:

Quite frankly, this front court rotation is too light, too short, and too weak to compete with Brook Lopez (7’0”), Giannis Antetokounmpo (7’0”), and Bobby Portis (6’10”) for anything more than a short stretch. Moreover, Milwaukee’s group of strong wings and guards (Jae Crowder, Wes Matthews, Pat Connaughton, and Jrue Holiday) make it so opposing teams simply get outmuscled more often than not. It’s not always so simple...but tonight, it was.

Phoenix lives and dies in the midrange. Don’t believe me? Check out the shot chart.

The Suns had every intention of sticking to their strengths in this one, by attacking the Bucks’ zone drop until space inside the arc presented itself, and then simply letting it fly. That strategy works when you have capable midrange shooters like Devin Booker, Chris Paul, and even DeAndre Ayton...but the margin for error presented by this strategy is far thinner than one that actually leverages three-point shooting or shots at the rim.

Milwaukee overcame a pretty bad outing at the foul line. Much and more was made of the free throw disparity in this one; the Bucks shot 37 attempts while Phoenix only tried 16. A huge part of that difference is...well, fouling. The Bucks got fouled a lot more than the Suns did. But the visiting team missed nearly as many foul shots (13) as the home team converted (14); the fact that the Bucks won by double-digits despite shooting only 64.9% at the line is a remarkable bit of trivia that will probably be lost to time, but had Milwaukee sank a few more free throws this win would’ve been a blowout. Really, when we say “Milwaukee” we mean “Giannis Antetokounmpo” as the current best player alive’s main flaw was in full display tonight (14-for-24, while the rest of the Bucks were 10-for-13).

Bonus Bucks Bits

  • Jevon Carter (9 points as a member of the starting lineup) seemed to enjoy his time in the starting lineup against a former team of his; Carter was a member of the Suns when they lost to Milwaukee in the 2021 NBA Finals, and he was regularly jawing with Chris Paul and Cam Payne.
  • Want to know how much the Suns love two-point jumpers? It took Phoenix until the 4:39 mark in the first quarter to even attempt a three pointer.
  • It wasn’t clear how the home crowd would receive Jae Crowder, who ended up in Milwaukee at the deadline after forcing his way out of Phoenix. When he checked into the game in the first quarter, there was a relatively tepid response, but at least the Suns organization made a point of recognizing him.
  • With KD unavailable, Phoenix struggled with Milwaukee’s size, and in the first quarter each DeAndre Ayton and Chris Paul picked up two personal fouls. The Bucks used Phoenix’s lack of size and found opportunities where Giannis Antetokoumpo was matched up against either Ayton or his backup (Bismack Biyombo) to hammer his way inside.
  • Torrey Craig lost a tooth while defending Giannis in transition. Honestly I’m surprised that sort of thing doesn’t happen more often.
  • Jrue Holiday positively mashed the ball on a Devin Booker jump shot, continuing his reign of terror against the Suns’ star hooper.
  • And then in the opening minutes of the second half, Pat Connaughton did the same thing on a Booker three!
  • But neither block was the most impressive one on the evening. Of course, that honor goes to Giannis:
  • Wes Matthews is back! The veteran wing entered the game early in the second quarter after a lengthy layoff while recovering from a calf injury.
  • Ish Wainright is a young NBAer that Phoenix converted from a two-way contract and gave him a standard roster spot, and he might be the most broad player in the league. The distance between his shoulders feels way wider than it ought to be.
  • Jrue Holiday stripped the ball from DeAndre Ayton on a defensive rebound not once, but twice in the same possession (which ended with a Giannis dunk.)
  • Joe Ingles’ passing chops are the sort of thing that must be infuriating to play against. He had one low bounce pass leading to a Brook Lopez dunk, and another high arcing dish to Giannis for a lay-in, and both passes were delivered so that ONLY the target could catch it.
  • Last but not least, congratulations to Giannis for reaching the 16,000 career points mark!

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