Bucks Even Finals in Thrilling Game 4

You knew Phoenix wasn’t getting their doors blown off again. You knew it would be closer than Game 3 was. You knew Devin Booker would be better.

But the Bucks still managed to get it done in Game 4 in Milwaukee, protecting home court, and tying up the 2021 NBA Finals 2-2, with a final score of 109-103.

We are now guaranteed to go at least six games, and I personally think we’ll go seven. The home team has now won every game this series.

Now while the Suns managed to hold Giannis in check somewhat in the scoring department–he had 26 points in this game after scoring 42 and 41 in the prior two games–but he was still highly effective, bordering on dominant once again. He was an efficient 11-19 from the floor. He had 14 rebounds, 8 assists, 3 steals and 2 blocks, filling up the stat sheet and contributing to his team in every conceivable way. Chris Paul after Game 3 said the Suns needed to build a wall to stop him; well, when Giannis ran into the wall, he found his open teammates, which is why he had 8 assists.

But his biggest contribution in the game was on the defensive end: he blocked an Ayton alley-oop with 1:16 remaining and the Bucks up just two. It was truly one of the more incredible defensive plays I’ve ever seen, and I don’t think anyone else in the NBA is capable of making this block other than Anthony Davis:

You see Giannis is first sticking Devin Booker as Booker tries to drive to the rim, then, when Booker lobs it up for Ayton, Giannis spins around and skies for the block on Ayton. It was jaw-dropping. How often do you see a guy of Ayton’s size get blocked on an alley-oop?! Giannis was literally defending two guys at once. If he wasn’t in front of Booker, Booker gets to the rim and probably scores. If he wasn’t on Ayton as well, Ayton throws that down and ties the game.

It was truly one of the most remarkable defensive plays I’ve ever seen, and it’s why I’m now fully convinced that Giannis is right up there with LeBron and KD. He is a one-of-a-kind talent who does things we’ve never seen basketball players do before. He was just incredible, and I can’t talk enough about how good he was.

But Milwaukee doesn’t win this game without Khris Middleton’s 40 points, specifically Middleton’s 4th quarter brilliance. Khris Middleton was 5-9 for 14 points and a +13 rating in the 4th quarter last night. He was clutch:

Middleton stepped up big time when it mattered most. He was the closer. He was The Man late in the game. Milwaukee will need him to be clutch if they’re going to win this series. He is the guy they lean on late in close games. They’re going to need him to do that at least one more time, probably two more times, if they’re going to win this series.

Khris was just okay for the first three quarters. Yes, he had 26 going into the 4th, but it was not efficient: he was just 10-24 shooting. When you have nearly as many field goal attempts as points, that’s not ideal. But he turned it up to another level in the 4th quarter, so hats off to Middleton. They do not win that game without his 4th-quarter heroics. In fact, he’s been clutch in the 4th quarter all postseason:

It was barely a year ago that people were scoffing at the idea of Khris Middleton being a closer. Now, there are no doubts about his clutch-time chops. He is for real. What he did last night was pure Mamba Mentality: his shot wasn’t looking good for the first three quarters of the game, but he never lost confidence, and he believed that if he just kept shooting, eventually his shots would start going in. And they did. With 2.5 minutes left in the game, Milwaukee was behind by 2, but then Middleton got back-to-back buckets to put Milwaukee up two, and then of course was the legendary Giannis block. Khris Middleton carried the Bucks to the finish line last night.

As for Jrue Holliday, he was not great shooting the ball last night. 4-20 from the field for 13 points, 7 assists and 7 rebounds. He did have a +8 rating, though. But watching that game I was throwing my hands up in disgust at how many shots he was missing. Even in the 4th quarter, he was 1-8.

Going into that 4th quarter, with Middleton and Holliday a combined 13-36 from the field, I was ready to write the “Giannis’ Teammates Continue to Let Him Down” post. But Middleton saved it. He came up big when it mattered, and although Holliday was bad shooting the ball, he made his biggest contribution through his defense on Chris Paul. One of the best adjustments Milwaukee has made has been to have Holliday run the full-court press on CP3, making CP3 work just to get the ball over the half-court line. Chris Paul was just 5-13 for 10 points, 7 assists, 5 turnovers (!) and a -10 rating, worst on the Suns.

I think it’s safe to say at this point that Jrue Holliday’s defense is wearing Chris Paul down. In Game 1, CP3 had 32 points. Then in Game 2, he had 23. Game 3, 19. Last night: 10.

Maybe CP3 is tensing up as the pressure mounts in this series, I don’t know. Maybe it’s Holliday’s defense, maybe it’s the fatigue of Chris Paul never having been this far in the playoffs in his career. It could even be partly an injury, as there’s some chatter about CP3’s hand being hurt. It could be a combination of all four things.

Whatever it is, Chris Paul appears to be faltering right now. He’s going to have to get back on track because his team needs him. In this crucial possession down 2 with about 33 seconds to play, CP3 fell down and lost the ball, leading to a Bucks fast break bucket that iced the game for good:

That’s tough. That’s a massive blunder.

However, Devin Booker was almost able to single-handedly overcome Chris Paul’s poor performance. For as much as people have said Booker’s emergence was a product of Chris Paul’s playmaking, I saw Devin Booker make a lot of tough, un-assisted shots all game long. For most of Booker’s buckets, he wasn’t set-up by anybody. It was all him. He’s got a lethal mid-range shot; I was very impressed at the shots he was making last night.

Booker finished with 42 points on an efficient 17-28 shooting, and he didn’t make a single three-pointer: he was 0-3 from beyond the arc. It was all mid-range jumpers and getting to the rim. The dude has a bag, that’s for sure. It was a great bounce-back game after he went just 3-14 for 10 points in Game 3.

However, foul trouble kept him out of the game for crucial stretches in the 4th quarter.

Devin Booker played about 31.5 of a possible 36 minutes in the first three quarters, but just 7 minutes in the 4th. That was because he had 4 fouls going into the 4th, then picked up his 5th foul barely a minute into the 4th and Monty Williams had no choice but to sit him down. The foul trouble was a huge factor in this game: Booker had 38 points going into the 4th, and had just reeled off an 18-point 3rd quarter! The dude was on fire and Phoenix had a 6-point lead going into the 4th. If Booker didn’t run into foul trouble, he probably goes for 50+ last night and Phoenix wins that game.

Booker’s foul trouble may have been the deciding factor in that game, as much as I hate to say it. I never like to say a game was won or lost based on fouls or referees, but come on: if Booker wasn’t in foul trouble in the 4th, that’s a completely different game. I’m not blaming the refs at all for putting Book in foul trouble, either because there was a play with 3:42 remaining in the game where Booker should have fouled out:

The refs just didn’t call it. Booker should’ve fouled out on this play. Again, 3:42 left in the game, Phoenix up just 3. Mike Breen even said, “Holliday fouled by Booker–they didn’t call it!” It was one of the more egregious no-calls I’ve seen in a while, but I guarantee you the refs were just hesitant to give Booker his 6th and final foul in that moment. So you can’t say the refs were unfair to Booker; they clearly did not want to foul him out.

And I don’t blame the refs, either. You never want a game to be decided based on foul calls.

Still, though: Booker had a phenomenal game. He was the only Phoenix starter that didn’t have a negative plus/minus (he was 0 for the game). And I truly believe Phoenix holds on and wins that game if Book doesn’t go into foul trouble early in the 4th.

This is why if I’m Phoenix, I actually feel pretty good going back home for Game 5. You have to assume Chris Paul will be better. You figure Booker won’t be in foul trouble at home. And you know DeAndre Ayton will be better. Ayton had a very quiet night: he was 3-9 from the floor for just 6 points, although he did have 17 rebounds and 5 assists. But we have come to expect a lot more out of Ayton offensively: he’s been putting up a lot of 10-13 shooting performances in these playoffs, and this was an uncharacteristically bad night for him.

If you’re Phoenix, you feel good about the fact that you shot well as a team and held Milwaukee (outside of Giannis) to a pretty bad shooting night. In terms of eFG, Phoenix was great at 55.8% while Milwaukee was just 43.8%. That’s a wide disparity, and you usually win games when you shoot that much better than the other team.

But the Suns allowed the Bucks to stay in the game by not rebounding well and not taking care of the ball. Basketball Reference has a “Four Factors” section for every game, and usually the team that wins the most of them wins the game. Even though the Bucks were out-shot heavily, they won the other three Factors:

Milwaukee was way better at taking care of the ball (5 turnovers compared to 17 for Phoenix). Milwaukee had 17 offensive rebounds to Phoenix’s 5. And at the free throw line, Phoenix was 16-19 compared to 24-29 for the Bucks. The only way you can win games when you get out-shot by that much is by attacking the offensive glass, forcing turnovers, and getting to the line. And that’s exactly what Milwaukee did.

Although the Suns had a significantly higher team field goal percentage than the Bucks, they only made one more field goal int he game than Milwaukee. The Suns were 40-78 from the floor, the Bucks were 39-97. That is a massive disparity–you don’t often see one team get 19 more field goal attempts than the other. But again, it was those turnovers and offensive rebounds.

And they were crucial for Milwaukee: without them, they don’t come anywhere close to Phoenix in terms of total field goals made in the game.

I expect Phoenix to take better care of the ball going forward. Chris Paul having 5 turnovers is an anomaly. But I don’t know if the Suns can tighten the gap in terms of rebounding. Milwaukee is just a better rebounding team. I expect Milwaukee to maintain their rebounding edge in this series.

All told, Game 4 was highly entertaining. It’s what we hope for in a Finals game.

As for how the series is going to play out, it’s tough to say. I still expect it to go to Game 7, but there are just so many variables in play here. Will Chris Paul turn it around? Will Jrue Holliday find his shot? Will Khris Middleton stay hot? Can Devin Booker replicate his Game 4 performance?

With last night’s game, there are a number of things you can look at for both teams and say, “They need to improve on that.” It’s not like you can say, “Well Milwaukee played their best game and Phoenix didn’t play very well, so I expect Phoenix to win the next game.” It’s not like that. Neither team played their best game last night, and so both of them can come away thinking, “We’ll be better in the next game.”

I have Phoenix winning Game 5 because I have to think they’ll be better at home. But I wouldn’t be surprised if the Bucks steal Game 5.

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