Entering a pivotal Game 5, the Phoenix Suns are coming home a re-named arena with more questions about them than when they departed for Milwaukee after Game 2.
Three central questions will decide the Suns’ fate at home.
Can Phoenix stay out of foul trouble?
After putting Giannis on the free throw line 18 times in Game 2 and 17 times in Game 4, Phoenix held Giannis to just 8 free throw attempts, his lowest in any of the six games he’s played against the Suns this season and six below his average against Phoenix. Deandre Ayton committed just two fouls in Game 4, which is a huge step forward from his Game 3 foul trouble that essentially lost Phoenix the game, because no one else had any answers for the Greek Freak.
It’s not just Giannis, however.
Khris Middleton picked up the slack and got to the line eight times in Game 4, tied for the third-most he’s shot in a playoff game this season. Keeping him off the line will be crucial in Game 5, as he is yet to shoot a free throw on the road in this series. For the playoffs, he’s averaging just shy of six freebie attempts per contest at home, but that dips to just three per game on the road. If Middleton brings that same aggressiveness he has at Fiserv Forum on the road, I like Milwaukee’s chances.
In the end, the more Milwaukee can matchup hunt and force switches, the more successful they’ll be in this department, especially with trying to get Devin Booker in foul trouble. Booker committed four shooting fouls on Giannis and two on Jrue Holiday in Milwaukee, per PBP Stats. Look for Mike Budenholzer to isolate those two on Booker in the post, because Booker can’t handle the strength of either player. In these situations, Milwaukee has overloaded the weak side of the floor, allowing for cutting lanes to develop when Phoenix has to help on the post-ups. Players such as Bobby Portis, Giannis, Brook Lopez and Pat Connaughton have all benefitted from these types of isolations.
Will the Suns point guards give them any kind of positive play?
In Game 4, Chris Paul and Cameron Payne combined for 19 points on 9/20 FG, 7 assists and 6 turnovers in 54 minutes. That’s not going to come close to cutting it for a unit that has been the heart of a highly efficient Suns offensive body throughout these playoffs.
Paul especially looked like a shell of himself, often just losing control of the basketball in key moments down the stretch in the midst of coughing up a nine-point lead in the fourth quarter while Booker sat out with foul trouble. After just two turnovers in Game 1, CP3 has turned it over six, four and five times in the following three games. Prior to Game 2, he had just one game of four-plus turnovers in his 15 playoff games this season. Since then, he’s had three of them.
If Paul is going to slow down the Suns pace, he has to take care of the ball and, quite simply, dominate in the half court. Outside of a terrific close-out Game 6 against the Clippers, he failed to do so in the other three games he played in that series. If Jrue Holiday is going to both him to an extent where he can’t function in the half court like the player we know he can be, should he really be playing north of 30 minutes? I’m not sold one way or the other.
Regardless, I’d like to see Payne get more run for Phoenix if Paul isn’t playing like he did in Games 1 and 2. He plays at a much quicker pace than Paul, which is very beneficial for Booker. If Paul doesn’t have the juice in the first quarter, I’d pull him earlier and let Payne push the tempo, get into the lane, and commence the kick-out fest that got the Suns off to a blistering start in Game 2. If anything, they should be preserving CP3’s energy so that when Holiday is checking him in the fourth quarter, he can more easily deal with the pressure. Not to mention that the game naturally slows down more in the fourth, where Paul’s impact on the pace of the game matters much less than it does in the first half, specifically.
Can Mikal Bridges be a factor offensively?
Defeating the Phoenix Suns when Mikal Bridges plays well offensively is nearly an impossible task. The Suns record in the playoffs when Bridges scores in double figures is 11-1, and 7-0 at home. When he doesn’t, Phoenix is 3-5 overall.
Bridges is a strong off-ball player who has an excellent understanding of spacing on the floor. He makes timely cuts that collapse the back side of the defense to create open shots in the opposite corner, creates an available option to players who may be trapped by flashing to the middle of the floor, and makes defenses pay for bringing help on the block or in the mid-range by flying down the lane for drop-offs and alley-oops.
His activity level is much better at home, which is impacted by how much Phoenix moves the ball. In the 2021 playoffs, the Suns are averaging 41 potential assists on the road compared to 47 at home. The biggest reason for that? Phoenix plays much less one-on-one basketball at home and gets more open looks as a result. Bridges is an often a beneficiary of those open looks created by an offense with more kinetic energy.
I expect Bridges to be more active as a cutter, especially with Paul being hounded at the point of attack by Holiday, and be more impactful on the offensive end of the floor as well. Bridges has spoken at length in his Finals media sessions that his defense feeds his offense; he has been the primary defender on Khris Middleton in the series and, to no surprise, has been better on him in Phoenix. Per PBP Stats, as the primary defender, he held Middleton to just 14 points and 10 field goal attempts in Games 1 and 2 (Bridges guarded Middleton for roughly 48 percent of Middleton’s minutes). All other defenders gave up 26 points and the space to get off 26 field goal attempts.
Keys for Milwaukee
Milwaukee is averaging just 227 passes and 21 assists in their two losses in Phoenix, but those numbers jumped up to 267.5 and 25 per game, respectively, at home in their Game 3 and 4 wins.
Their ball movement creates more open looks for rhythm shooters like Middleton and Connaughton, which is crucial in helping them get into the game early in the first quarter. If the ball sticks like it did in the first two games, Milwaukee has little chance of creating a Finals-clinching opportunity at home on Tuesday.
2) Which Jrue Holiday will show up?
Holiday is averaging 18.9 points on 43.7 / 30.4 / 76.2 shooting splits at home, but just 15.5 points on 37.5 / 28.3 / 66.7 shooting splits on the road. Holiday has yet to score 20 or more points in a road game with Giannis on the floor this year in the playoffs, and has just three road games shooting above league average from 3.
After a resurgent Game 3 in which he scored 21 points on 8/14 from the floor and 5/10 from deep, he looked scared to have the ball in his hands in Game 4. After missing his first five shots, Holiday couldn’t get anything of substance going for the Bucks en route to a 4/20 shooting night.
He was crucial in getting Devin Booker in foul trouble in Game 4, and he’ll need to keep that same aggressiveness if he wants to help the Bucks rather than hurt them.
3) Giannis’s conditioning
Giannis looked gassed in the first two-and-a-half quarters of Game 4 after two off days with no travel. It’s totally understandable given missing time with his knee injury to end the Eastern Conference Finals, and his incredible usage in Games 1-3 given the circumstances. He ended up playing 43 minutes in Game 4, the most he’s had in a Finals game, but did not look like himself for half of those minutes.
If that fatigue carries over to Game 5, I don’t think Milwaukee has a chance tonight.
It is fair to assume that Holiday will struggle offensively. Middleton’s shooting numbers dip a good bit on the road compared to at home. P.J. Tucker, Bryn Forbes and Bobby Portis have been non-factors on the road in this series.
With all of that in mind, Giannis will need to have another spiritually intoxicating performance to get it done for the Bucks. Even if he does have another 30+-point, 10+-rebound game, Milwaukee will likely be fighting an uphill battle given how much better the Suns’ role players perform at home compared to on the road.
There will be too much Devin Booker for the Bucks’ ancillary scoring to match. He’s been otherworldly at home in the playoffs. Coming off a 42-point night with zero made 3s in Milwaukee, I have a hard time believing he doesn’t bring that same energy and rhythm back home to the desert.
Four points isn’t enough in a series where the home team has won and covered in each game, comfortably doing so in three of four.
Give me the Suns, 120-108.
Keep in mind teams who win Game 5 of a 2-2 series have gone on to win 80.9% (38-9) of the time overall in NBA playoff history and 72.4% (21-8) of the time in the Finals.
Now that my original prediction of Suns in 5, with Booker winning FMVP, is out the window, I’ll take the home teams to win from here on out, and the Suns capturing their first championship in franchise history in 7 games, with my original call of Devin Booker winning the Finals MVP.