The horizon is closing fast for the Phoenix Suns after Saturday’s 123-119 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks in Phoenix’s newly named Footprint Center.
In a turn from the first two games, it’s now Milwaukee that has the flow with everyone pitching in while Phoenix relied heavily upon their main star to keep the offense alive. The Bucks’ defense was prevalent while attacking Phoenix inside offensively.
Initially, Phoenix stayed with Milwaukee in the first quarter just like before. But a breather for Booker in the second saw the Suns struggle against Milwaukee’s offense. The Bucks’ efforts in that quarter were even more significant as Giannis Antetokunmpo was also resting.
“That group had a good run,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said to reporters postgame. “To let them go, and to know what we need from Giannis at the end of the game — if you can steal some stretches where the team is playing well and he gets a break, that’s important for us to find.”
The Greek Freak would end with a team-high 32 points, but in essence, it was Jrue Holiday’s night as he led the Bucks in scoring for most of the game. It. was an admirable performance and one that may have just brought Milwaukee closer to its first title in 50 years.
“I feel like at the end of the day, whatever I can do to help my team is most important,” Holiday stated postgame. “I know when my shot is going and I’m trying to make plays for others, it is definitely an added bonus.”
Booker poured on another 40-point performance but his spark couldn’t light up the rest of his team in time. The ambitious rally fell apart late off a strip by Holiday on Booker, the toss to Antetokounmpo and one can do the math.
JRUE STEAL. GIANNIS DUNK!!! pic.twitter.com/O0KhiXILBV
— Milwaukee Bucks (@Bucks) July 18, 2021
The strip was an example of the Bucks’ defense withstanding Phoenix, as Milwaukee was outshot from deep but still persevered (61.9% versus 50%).
Bucks’ Continuous Assault
Overall, the Bucks’ Big 3 proved to be quite balanced in scoring at times. Antetokounmpo and Middleton at one point had 20+ points alongside Holiday before the Greek Freak pulled ahead.
All night long, the Bucks went at the Suns’ defense and didn’t falter. Besides scoring, Holiday dished with determination, making 13 assists as Pat Connaughton and Bobby Portis added meaningful minutes. The former shooting four of six three-pointers to keep Milwaukee in the game.
The Bucks did turn the ball over more than Phoenix (11 versus 8), but all it takes is one to win a game as evident by Holiday’s swipe on Booker.
The turning point was the aforementioned second quarter, the Bucks proving their resilience without Antetokounmpo. Holiday locked in, scoring 14 points in the quarter alone.
— NBA (@NBA) July 18, 2021
“I feel like we’re playing for each other,” Holiday believed. “And when you’re out there doing that, I don’t know, sometimes, you have to just stick with the people that are out there.”
The Greek Freak couldn’t have been more proud, asserting, “that’s what our team is about.” Antetokounmpo praising his teammates for not losing composure in the face of a 16-point deficit.
“They kept moving the ball, kept getting open shots and they were knocking it down, too. They played great.”
Middleton came off the heels of a 40-point show in Game 4, demonstrating his worth again with 29 points and seven rebounds.
The shooting guard came through particularly in the fourth quarter, drawing a foul on Jae Crowder for a three-point play. As the Suns made a mad scramble for a tie, Middleton drained a clutch three with around 2:20 left in the game.
Then, of course, the steal by Holiday and the slam by Antetokounmpo.
“[Holiday] didn’t want to throw me the ball at first, but I was like, Throw it, throw it, throw it,” Antetokounmpo explained. “And then he threw it. He trusted me. After the game I was like, Thank you for trusting me.”
Suns Staring Into The Abyss
Like their only other two Finals appearances, Phoenix is staring at the one Finals game that has been the bane of their existence: Game 6.
It was on such a Game 6 on June 6, 1976, that the Suns succumbed to the Boston Celtics following a triple-overtime loss in Game 5.
Seventeen years later on June 20, 1993, Phoenix fans watched as John Paxson’s fatal Game 6 three gave the Chicago Bulls their third straight title.
With the fans’ optimism likely dwindling more now, a Game 6 loss in Milwaukee Tuesday would complete one of the cruelest trifectas in Arizona sports history.
The only question now is how this generation of Suns will respond. Phoenix coach Monty Williams acknowledged his team used a lot of energy in the first quarter postgame.
He lamented Phoenix’s defensive gaps as to why the Suns trailed for the majority of the evening, saying “I felt like we were playing from behind for a long, long time.”
Phoenix’s usual transition style of play was not as strong in Game 5, a trend that was not lost on Devin Booker.
“[We’re] at our best when we get stops and get out in transition,” Booker mentioned after the game. “So that’s what we hang — I always say we hang our hat on the defensive end and that’s where we have to be better.”
Chris Paul reinforced the sentiment after his 21-point and 11-assist double-double.
“We exploit it at times and sometimes we don’t. We’ll go back and look at the film and see what we could have did better.”
The speed with which Phoenix opened the Finals is something that will need to get them out of the 3-2 lead Milwaukee now has. The Suns have noted they understand the gravity of the situation. But certain doom is now staring them in the face and excellence is required from here on out.
Any hopes of a Game 7 rests on what happens Tuesday in Milwaukee, and it takes resolve to look elimination in the face and not back down.
The Suns aim to absorb the pressure of a city resting on their shoulders, with the odds seemingly higher now. But when the whistle blows, there’s only one thing to do when the season is at stake.
“Embrace it,” in Devin Booker’s words.
Game 6 is Tuesday, July 20 at 9 PM ET in the Fiserv Forum.
Featured Image courtesy of Mark J. Rebilas/USA Today Sports
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