tchow (Tony Chow, video producer): Dre, Jared and Louis, we’re back for another NBA Finals chat. I believe it was Pat Riley who liked to say that a playoff series doesn’t begin until the home team loses. Well, by that definition, we’re all still waiting for these Finals to start in earnest, but a LOT has already happened to get us to what is now a best-of-three series between Phoenix and Milwaukee.
I want to start with what happened in Game 4. It was a must-win game for Milwaukee — you don’t want to go back to Phoenix down 3-1. And they didn’t! What stood out to you in Game 4?
dubin (Jared Dubin, FiveThirtyEight contributor): Giannis Antetokounmpo’s block on the Deandre Ayton alley-oop was moderately impressive.
zatzman (Louis Zatzman, FiveThirtyEight contributor): To me, that block was a good microcosm of the hinge upon which the series can turn — if the Bucks can guard Ayton, then we’ve got a series.
In Game 3, Ayton’s minutes were low because of foul trouble, but Milwaukee couldn’t actually stop him otherwise. In Game 4, they did a much better job preventing his catches on the move. Phoenix, and Chris Paul especially, have to make sure Ayton is back on track.
dre.waters (Andres Waters, FiveThirtyEight contributor): Louis, I totally agree. Ayton couldn’t get going at all. He took about as many shots as he had all through the Finals, but they weren’t the same quality looks.
dubin: The leap in lateral mobility Giannis has made since the start of the series is really impressive, too. Kudos to the Bucks training staff. It wasn’t that long ago that we didn’t know if he’d be able to play at all. He couldn’t do a Eurostep in Games 1 or 2. And now he’s doing that. There’s a reason they call him the Greek Freak, I guess.
dre.waters: That’s a really good point Jared: Not long ago, a lot of the media assumed Giannis was done for the entire postseason.
zatzman: Us included!
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tchow: I remember back in Game 1, Giannis also had a pretty incredible chasedown block that gave off big Lebron vibes. But the block against Ayton in Game 4 was arguably even more impressive because a) they won the game this time, and b) it was awesome.
dubin: I’m trying to figure out what the most impressive part of the block was: the recovery, the timing, the discipline to not jump on the pass, avoiding the foul, keeping it inbounds … there’s so much to be amazed by.
dre.waters: What was even more impressive was the refs, only two minutes prior, not seeing the obvious foul by Devin Booker that would have put him out the game.
tchow: Haha, Dre, I was wondering how long it would take us in this chat to discuss both the block and THAT foul. Glad to see we couldn’t help ourselves and knocked both out right off the bat.
dubin: It was — to put it as kindly as possible — not a well-reffed game.
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zatzman: Aside from that non-call (and others), I think the Booker-Paul dynamic is a really interesting one. The Bucks can clearly survive Booker exploding. I’m not so sure they can survive Paul running picture-perfect pick and rolls 30 times a game.
dubin: That’s why I found it so interesting that they switched Jrue Holiday over from CP3 to Booker midway through the game. We talked about the Bucks potentially doing something like that before the Nets series — using Jrue as a sort-of fire extinguisher. James Harden and Kyrie Irving getting hurt changed that, but it’s fun to see them try that here.
tchow: Holiday hasn’t had a great series offensively so far, but man, he’s been coming up huge on defense.
zatzman: For a time, Ayton was going through one of the hardest roads in the playoffs for a center — Anthony Davis to Nikola Jokić. Now we have to talk about the people Holiday has had to guard. Wooooah, man, it’s been a doozy. And he’s come through!
dubin: He’s having one of the best playoff series I can ever remember for a perimeter defender. The degree of difficulty of what he’s being asked to do is astronomical. Forty minutes every night, guarding an elite ball-handler the entire game, and a lot of time for three-fourths of the court or even full-court. Get over every single screen, make rearview contests, and then switch onto bigger guys on occasion. His offense has been a disaster, but it’s extremely easy to understand why. He must be exhausted.
zatzman: He’s also playing a different role on offense from what he’s used to. Khris Middleton is doing the unstoppable guard scorer thing, and Holiday is being asked to set up the bigs and play more like Chris Paul. He’s not scoring well, but he is doing some good things on offense, at least.
dubin: … if only he could make a layup.
zatzman: Here’s another Holiday stat: He was the only Buck to be in every lineup last night that won its minutes.
dubin: A stat from Second Spectrum to put his workload in context: Players have traveled over 3 miles in a game 76 times during these playoffs, and Jrue is responsible for nine of those games, including Wednesday night. Of those 76, there have been 46 when the player traveled at an average of 4 mph or faster. Jrue is responsible for eight of those — also including Wednesday night’s game.
dre.waters: That’s interesting. Because it felt like the thought coming into the season was that Holiday would be the game-changer for the team based on what he brings offensively. And he’s flashed that at times this postseason. But these playoffs have cemented him being the best defensive guard in the league.
tchow: Louis brought up Middleton, and I was looking back at Middleton’s stats in the playoffs. It just seems to be really tough to beat this Bucks team when Middleton has an efficient game. In the playoffs so far, they’ve lost every game except one when he shoots below 40 percent and have won every game but one when he’s above 40 percent. Maybe the Bucks don’t need Middleton to have a 40-point performance every game, but it does seem like they need him to really show up for the rest of the series consistently.
zatzman: Well, he’s the only guy on the team who can isolate 20 times a game and still score efficiently. Holiday can’t do that, and it’s about the only thing Giannis can’t do. Most teams have at least a couple isolation scorers. Middleton is the only one for Milwaukee, which would be my guess for why his field-goal percentage correlates so strongly with the Bucks winning or losing.
dubin: Middleton going off for so much of the second half made me extremely surprised that Torrey Craig played more time in the fourth quarter than Mikal Bridges did. Bridges has been their guy against Middleton. Why did he play only 2:03 in the fourth? (Craig played 2:14.)
zatzman: Good question! There were a number of coaching choices I didn’t understand in Game 4. It seemed to me like the Suns gave Bridges some initiation reps early in the game, didn’t like what they saw, and so benched him for it? I would have thought they’d rather move him back to a defensive specialist who attacks rotations rather than just turning to another option entirely.
dubin: Cam Johnson played well, but if Middleton is going off … that’s why Bridges is on the team, right?
zatzman: Exactly. Middleton didn’t see a lot of the defensive stuff that other teams use to fluster him. His 40 points were obviously incredible, but the Suns didn’t exactly sell the farm to stop him.
Which, I suppose, is sort of the benefit of having Giannis on your team. If defenses sell the farm to stop someone else, then Milwaukee has more or less won the tactical duel already.
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dre.waters: This obviously doesn’t tell the whole story, but it is worth mentioning since Jared asked: Middleton didn’t score when being guarded by Craig last night (2:07). However, he did score 9 while being guarded by Bridges in more than twice the time. (4:25).
I agree that Bridges should have been the one matched up with Middleton in the fourth quarter, though.
tchow: OK, looking ahead now, playoff series are always about adjustments. With the Finals going back to Phoenix now, what changes should the Suns make after losing two in a row?
dre.waters: Like Louis said earlier, they’ve got to do a better job of getting Ayton going.
zatzman: And to me that starts with Chris Paul not turning the ball over and converting on his shots going forward.
dubin: Yep. Cut down the turnovers and fouls, and do a better job on the defensive glass.
zatzman: Per Second Spectrum, the Suns ran 20 pick and rolls with Paul and Ayton in Game 4, and they scored only 0.294 points per chance! That’s crazy low. The Booker/Ayton combo scored 1.385 per chance in 13 pick and rolls.
tchow: Can we dig into that a bit? Speaking of adjustments, Milwaukee seemed to have trouble early in the series, like most teams all season, figuring out a way to stop Paul and that pick and roll, particularly when Phoenix runs that Spain pick and roll with screens from Ayton and Booker. Those plays really got Ayton going with easy looks. But have the Bucks figured it out? Or did Paul just have a bad game?
zatzman: I think the latter. That Ayton and Booker still danced the dance points toward Paul having a bad game, to me.
dubin: Agreed. CP3 had been so good for most of the first three games, too. Booker was incredibly off in Game 3 and then electric last night. I think Chris bounces back.
zatzman: And another coaching choice there — because Booker was so fantastic, the Suns moved him into the initiator in standard pick and rolls rather than that Spain screener in their usual sets, as you mentioned, Tony. That also limited Paul a little bit, as he’s never been as impactful off the ball as he has been on.
dre.waters: That’s a good point. I think limited is a better way to describe his CP3’s game last night. He shot nearly 40 percent but had only 10 points. And I would say that has a lot to do with being asked to play off the ball.
dubin: Another thing on the coaching choices: There was a stretch with Giannis on the floor when the Suns played their small lineup with Jae Crowder and Craig in the frontcourt. That seems like a bad idea to me, but I believe they survived the stretch and went +1. But that’s playing with fire. (There was a similar stretch in Game 3 when both Ayton and Crowder were on the bench, and the Bucks pushed their lead from 11 to 22 near the end of the third quarter.)
Giannis has taken very early breaks the last two games (apparently to use the bathroom), which isn’t what the Suns typically have Ayton do. Would you just match their minutes and not worry as much about Ayton’s normal rotation? I think there’s merit to the idea.
tchow: I believe the polite term is to “tinkle,” Jared.
dre.waters: He used the bathroom to “tinkle” to be more specific. Clearly he didn’t want to be compared to Lamar Jackson and Paul Pierce, LOL.
tchow: You all are making it sound so much simpler than it seems. Get Ayton going. Get traditional great games from Paul. Rebound better. Limit turnovers. Do all of that, and the Suns will win the series.
Oh, and limit fouls, which thankfully, the Suns seem to have more of them than normal.
zatzman: I think Jared’s suggestion of matching Ayton’s minutes to Giannis would help significantly with a few of those goals. Giannis has played much, much better with Ayton off the court. He shouldn’t see another second of gametime without Ayton opposite. The Bucks’ +/- per 100 possessions with Giannis on and Ayton on is a modest +2.8. With Giannis on and Ayton off, it’s +27.8!
And the thing is, all of those goals stem from the same source: Paul. If he plays like he usually does, Ayton would have easier shots. The Suns would have fewer turnovers. Paul is the central focus of the series, if you’re the Suns. You can make rotation tweaks, like matching Ayton to Giannis, but Paul being himself is the root, and that’s on him, rather than on the coaching staff.
tchow: OK, let’s wrap this up with some predictions. It’s a best-of-three series now. How will it end?
dre.waters: My #PickIntegrity is telling me to roll with the Suns. But it feels like this series favors the Bucks now. With that said, Bucks in seven.
tchow: LOL, #PickIntegrity? Never heard of ’em.
zatzman: Because I’m so focused on Paul, I still believe in the Suns. All they need is Paul to play well — that’s not so much to ask, is it? FiveThirtyEight’s model, by the way, agrees with the Suns. So Suns in seven, I’ll say. #PickIntegrity4Lyfe
dubin: Allow me to channel the great Perd Hapley when I say this: The series will end by concluding. I firmly believe that the eventual champion will win two of the next three games.
tchow: COP OUT.
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