NBA

NBA Finals roundtable: The case for Bucks optimism, potential adjustments, Suns appreciation

The Milwaukee Bucks are down 2-0 in the NBA Finals, but they’ve been in this sort of situation before. One month ago, they responded to 125-86 loss in Brooklyn with an 86-83 point victory at home, narrowly avoiding a 3-0 deficit. 

“We got smacked, embarrassed,” the Bucks’ Khris Middleton said Sunday. “A lot of people thought our season was done. We still believed in ourselves. We came back and had an ugly, grind-it-out game that we found a way to win. Sometimes it’s not going to be pretty. Sometimes it’s going to be ugly. We just got to find a way to win one game at a time from here on out.”

The Phoenix Suns, meanwhile, are trying to approach this as if they’re the ones coming off a loss, desperate to survive. They know as well as anybody that a playoff series can change in an instant, and they’ve already lost at least one player to injury in this series. Backup big Dario Saric tore his ACL in Game 1, and reserve forward Torrey Craig injured his knee in Game 2. 

Here are CBS Sports NBA writers Colin Ward-Henninger, Jack Maloney and James Herbert on what we’ve seen so far and what might come next. 

What’s the best case for Bucks optimism?

James Herbert: There were a lot of encouraging things about Game 2: The defense was (qualitatively) better, the offensive rebounding was enormous and the free throw differential was striking. It had a chance to win down the stretch despite the Suns going off from 3-point range all night. Ideally, the Bucks will be able to repeat most of what worked on Thursday, and they’ll get more from Middleton, Jrue Holiday and Brook Lopez offensively. This is the third straight series in which Middleton was inefficient in the first two games, and maybe it will be the third straight series in which he’s scorching in Game 3. 

Also: It wouldn’t be fair to expect Giannis Antetokounmpo to deliver another all-time performance, but having two days off should be good for his knee. I won’t be surprised if he looks better on the defensive end on Sunday. 

Colin Ward-Henninger: In Game 1, Chris Paul went nuclear and made a bunch of tough shots. Milwaukee made things tougher on Paul in Game 2, but the Suns hit 20 3-pointers. It’s not that simple, but the Bucks have been in both games despite being outplayed pretty convincingly. Middleton and Holiday are due for more efficient offensive nights, and the Suns haven’t come up with a solution for Antetokounmpo, who will have two full days of rest for his ailing knee. 

Milwaukee is 7-1 at home this postseason, and it is hosting its first Finals game in almost 50 years, so the place should be rocking. Middleton said the team gets “extra energy” from the home crowd, which could spark them to make hustle plays and get some of the 50-50 balls that the Suns have won so far. There are plenty of reasons to be optimistic if you’re the Bucks, but as always it comes down to execution.

Jack Maloney: Giannis is not only healthy, but has been the best player in the series, and the Suns don’t appear to have an answer for him. When you have the best player, you always have a chance. Beyond that, the Bucks have been here before. If you can come back from 2-0 down against Kevin Durant in God Mode, you can do it against the Suns. 

Thoughts on Milwaukee’s defense so far and how it might be able to slow the Suns down?

Maloney: Not that they couldn’t have used him at other points, but this is the first series where Donte DiVincenzo’s absence is glaring. They could really use another reliable guard against the Suns, especially one who can defend like him. Moving forward, they need to try and thread the needle of maintaining the aggressiveness they showed in Game 2 without overhelping and getting out of position.

Ward-Henninger: The Bucks adjusted well from their mistakes in Game 1 — switching less, bringing Lopez higher in his drop coverage, Holiday pressuring Paul more to not only slow him down, but also delay the Phoenix offense from getting started. With the extra attention on Paul and Devin Booker, however, the Bucks had a tendency to overhelp, which resulted in 34 of the Suns’ 40 3-point attempts in Game 2 being “open” or “wide open,” according to NBA.com. PJ Tucker said Milwaukee “definitely” provided unnecessary help at times in Game 2, so they should be able to clean that up heading into Sunday. 

The Bucks need to keep being physical with Paul and Booker, while using better judgment about how and when they help on drives. Easier said than done, of course, but the blueprint is there.

Herbert: The Bucks’ ball pressure and physicality increased in the second game, and they managed to do it without sending the Suns to the free throw line. They protected the paint the way they usually do, but gave up way too many open 3s and corner 3s. 

Milwaukee’s base pick-and-roll coverage — a deep drop — gives Paul and Booker too much space, so it has had to tweak it. Lopez is coming up a bit higher, and the Bucks are helping more than they’d like to. That help has been a talking point in the last few days, and it sounds like they want to cut back on it to avoid giving up so many open 3s. 

If they show less help, though, don’t be surprised if Paul and Booker roast them with pull-up jumpers. Nobody wants to get in rotation against the Suns or give their shooters clean looks, but it happens all the time because Paul and Booker bend defenses to their will. My best guess is that Milwaukee’s defensive game plan won’t be significantly different than it was on Thursday, and the coaching staff will have to hope that Phoenix isn’t quite so lights-out from deep. 

Please concern-troll the team that’s up 2-0 in the Finals: What have you seen from Phoenix that worries you or feels unsustainable?

Maloney: Not a ton, honestly. I mean this is just who the Suns are. If I had to pick one thing, though, it would probably be their shot-making. In Game 2, in particular, they hit some really tough shots, and they do have a few players who can be streaky. 

Herbert: Phoenix has been generating awesome shots, but I’m not sure it can count on shooting quite as well as it did in Game 2 this time. It also rebounded a shocking 32.6 percent of its misses on Thursday, and that’s wildly unsustainable for this team. Craig’s status is uncertain, which means Monty Williams might have to decide between putting Abdel Nader in the mix, giving Frank Kaminsky another shot or asking Deandre Ayton, Jae Crowder and Cameron Johnson to play even more high-intensity minutes.

Beyond that, Antetokounmpo’s third quarter was a scary sight, and it seems unlikely that Middleton and Holiday will continue to miss so many shots they normally make.  

Ward-Henninger: The Suns have been outscored 96-72 in the paint over the first two games of the Finals, and have watched Giannis eviscerate them inside. If Phoenix schemes to build more of a wall in the halfcourt to limit Antetokounmpo, that only gives Holiday and Middleton more room to operate and potentially catch fire. If the Bucks can strike the defensive balance discussed in the previous answer by limiting open 3s and forcing Booker and Paul into tough 2s, the Suns could have a much harder time scoring.

Then there’s the depth question. With Saric out and Craig potentially out or limited, that means more minutes for Kaminsky, Nader and/or more small lineups featuring Johnson, which should only exacerbate Milwaukee’s dominance in the paint thus far. The Suns are in a great position up 2-0, but there are certainly reasons for concern.

Please celebrate the team that’s up 2-0 in the Finals: What’s your favorite thing about the Suns right now?

Ward-Henninger: The Suns have been so good in so many facets over the course of this playoff journey, but the thing that’s impressed me most is their ability to respond to runs. The Bucks got within striking distance several times in each of the first two Finals games, but Phoenix almost always came back with a hustle play, a defensive stop or a huge shot to stem the tide. 

That will be much harder in Milwaukee with the crowd going wild, but with Paul and Booker leading the charge, I like their chances. The Suns are far superior to the Bucks in halfcourt offensive efficiency during the postseason, so if they can keep the game close or stay ahead, they should be able to hold on down the stretch. At this point, the Suns are just the more trustworthy team in close games, and that means everything in the NBA Finals.

Maloney: It’s hard not to love the Suns because they play such aesthetically pleasing basketball. That sequence late in the first half of Game 2 where they made about a dozen passes inside and outside before Ayton got an and-one was one of the most impressive single possessions I’ve seen in a long time. 

Herbert: They run good sets, but the best thing about the Suns is that their random basketball is prettier than just about anybody else’s. When the first action doesn’t produce a good look, they flow right into another one, and if that doesn’t work, they flow into a third. Phoenix is clearly emphasizing pushing the ball and attacking before Milwaukee gets set, but it is completely comfortable playing late in the clock and forcing the defense to keep making decisions and rotations. The Suns are fun to watch and exhausting to play against for the same reasons. 

Give Holiday one compliment and one piece of constructive criticism.

Herbert: Holiday was directly responsible for all but one of Paul’s six turnovers in Game 2, and he’s been relentless on that end all postseason regardless of whether or not his shot has been falling. His pick-and-roll game, however, has been far less effective in the playoffs than it was in the regular season, and this is one of the biggest reasons the Bucks’ halfcourt offense has been subpar. If he can convert some more of his pull-ups and either get to the line or finish better than he has been, he’ll be more dangerous as a playmaker for others, too. 

Ward-Henninger: Holiday has been absolutely phenomenal defensively in this series. His work on Paul was breathtaking in Game 2, and Tucker praised Holiday’s relentlessness and adeptness at “sniffing plays out.” His defense is going to be essential if the Bucks are going to get back into the series.

As for criticism, Holiday has taken a lot of flak for not being aggressive enough this postseason, and he clearly came out looking to score in Game 2. To me, he swung too far in the other direction. Yes, a lot of his shots around the basket rimmed out, but they were tough, contested shots against Ayton or other strong defenders. The sweet spot is somewhere in between, where Holiday is being aggressive in spots without forcing the issue. But that’s very easy for me to say sitting in my comfy office chair.

Maloney: He is working extremely hard on defense. The finishing around the basket just has to be better. 

Now, one compliment and one piece of constructive criticism for Middleton.

Ward-Henninger: Middleton has shot poorly thus far in the Finals, but you really can’t fault his shot selection. As he’s noted, more than a few of his shots have gone in and out, and he’s looked comfortable despite the rough shooting numbers. We all know Middleton’s capable of catching fire at any point, and he’s more than due for an explosion.

On the other hand, Middleton has only taken three shots in the restricted area and hasn’t attempted a free throw in the Finals. He said that he’s not concerned about it because getting into the lane and getting fouled aren’t huge parts of his game, but making layups and free throws are easy ways to get back on track when you’re shot’s not falling. If he can occasionally drive the ball all the way to the rim instead of pulling up for short jumpers, it could help him get his rhythm back and put more pressure on the Phoenix defense.

Herbert: Middleton doesn’t seem to let bad shooting nights get to him, and he knows defenses don’t tend to treat him any differently when his shots are rimming out. The Bucks might not be able to survive another 5-for-16 game, though, and too often it feels like their fortunes rest on whether or not he’s making tough shots. I want to see him create easier ones.

Maloney: His playmaking is very underrated. Some of his off-ball defense could be better. 

On a scale of 1 to 10, how comfortable do Paul and Booker look offensively against the Bucks?

Maloney: They both look pretty comfortable, though Paul more so. I’d probably give Booker an 8 and Paul a 9. 

Paul has just been incredible with his ability to manipulate the defense and come up with a response to every different tactic the Bucks throw at him. The six turnovers in Game 2 were a bit uncharacteristic, but one of those came when he dribbled off his foot and another when the game was out of reach and he was fooling around. Largely he’s been in control and kept the Suns one step ahead. 

James: Paul is a 10 when defended by anyone other than Holiday, and I’d give them both a 9 overall. 

Obviously Paul felt much more pressure in Game 2 than he did in the opener, as evidenced by those turnovers, but he still orchestrated the game brilliantly. Booker has been phenomenal — my favorite play he’s made in the Finals was his lefty bullet pass from the baseline to Paul in the corner late in the shot clock in the third quarter of Game 2. 

Ward-Henninger: After Game 1 I’d say both were about a 9, but I think Holiday picking up Paul earlier really bothered him in Game 2. Paul still shot well because he’s Chris Paul, but the six turnovers shows me that he’s at least slightly being taken out of his comfort zone. So at this point I’d say Paul is about a 6, but that could easily change as he adjusts for Game 3.

Booker is still at an 8. The Bucks did a great job keeping him off the line in Game 2 after 10 free throws in Game 1, but he’s getting pretty much anything he wants offensively, whether it’s his own shot or creating for someone else. With Holiday’s main assignment switching to Paul in Game 2, Booker knocked down seven 3s and scored 31 points. Milwaukee is going to need to frustrate him more as this series progresses.

More likely in Game 3: Bobby Portis reclaims his place in the rotation and the crowd chants his name again, or Cameron Payne channels 2019 Fred VanVleet to break Milwaukee’s collective heart?

Maloney: This question really isn’t fair to Payne. The Bucks crowd adores Portis and will absolutely be chanting his name at various points on Sunday night regardless of what he does or does not do. 

Ward-Henninger: I love this question so much, and I guess I’ll go with Portis just because he’s at home and I think Milwaukee might try some bigger lineups like they did against the Hawks without Giannis. Portis is an energy guy, and the Bucks are going to need a whole lot of that in Game 3, so it’s hard for me to see him playing only five minutes, like he did in Game 2.

I think the Bucks actually did a really good job on Payne in Game 2, trapping him out of the pick-and-roll and forcing him to give up the ball. Is he capable of going off for a bunch of 3s and swagger-filled layups? Sure. But at this point I’d say a Portis explosion is slightly more likely.

Herbert: I have to go with Payne. It’s a sign of respect that the Bucks have elected to trap him on pick-and-rolls, and I’m curious to see whether they continue to do that. His speed puts pressure on their defense in a way that his two points in 10 minutes on Thursday do not capture, and I don’t think we’ve seen the best of him in this matchup just yet. 

We haven’t seen the best of Portis, either, but I’m less optimistic that this is going to change. While the fans would love nothing more than to chant his name again, they will need an opportunity to do so. The Suns will target him in pick-and-rolls as soon as he checks in, so I’m not ready to assume he’ll have a significantly bigger role than he had in Game 2.


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