What a basketball game, what a finish, what a series.
Unless you have a deep connection to the Milwaukee Bucks, the only reasonable position as a basketball fan is to want the NBA Finals to stretch to the seven games.
The Phoenix Suns will have to dig deep to make it happen as they will head to Milwaukee for Game 6 trailing 3-2 in the series after losing 123-119 on Saturday in a game that had had more plot twists than a bad Netflix series.
Just after Giannis Antetokounmpo missed a pair of critical free throws that opened the door for the Suns to complete a comeback from down eight with 2:23 to play, Jrue Holiday stripped the ball from Devin Booker and fed the two-time MVP for spectacular alley-oop that put the Bucks up three with 13 seconds to play. Antetokounmpo missed one more free throw – he was 4-of-11 on the night from the line, though he did manage 32 points and nine rebounds – but in this case he tapped back his own miss to Khris Middleton, who knocked down the subsequent free throw to ice it. The Suns led by 16 after the first quarter only to see the Bucks pull ahead by 13 in the third quarter before the fourth-quarter dramatics.
Here are the biggest takeaways after Game 5:
Who has more at stake Giannis or Paul?
Here’s a fun argument as what has been a competitive and entertaining Finals gets down to the last one or two games: which superstar has more at stake in the outcome of the series?
I think the knee-jerk reaction is to say Chris Paul. The Suns star is 36, has finally made the Finals in his 16th season and knows better than anyone how thin the line is between success and failure in the post-season, and how rare these opportunities come around. But Paul’s legacy is largely secure: he’s one of the game’s all-time great point guards and winning a title at this stage of his career with a team that previously hadn’t been to the playoffs in a decade will only confirm what most people already think. Losing in the Finals after the way he’s performed to this point won’t change much.
In contrast, at 26, the Bucks’ Antetokounmpo would seem to have a decade to win a championship, two or three. But here’s why Antetokounmpo might have more to lose. A win by the Bucks would instantly confer legend status on the two-time MVP. Bringing a championship to a low-glitz market like Milwaukee is a feat in itself – the Bucks haven’t won the NBA title since 1971, when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was still publicly known as Lew Alcindor. In addition, Antetokounmpo would join one of the NBA’s rarest clubs – that of the franchise savior. Not very many players have so completely changed the directions of the organizations that drafted them. It’s what Michael Jordan did in lifting the Chicago Bulls to titles, and Dirk Nowitzki with the Dallas Mavericks and Tim Duncan with the San Antonio Spurs. There are other examples, but you get the point: elevating the team that drafted you from also-ran status to a championship is the ultimate NBA flex. If Antetokounmpo can pull it off, he’ll be a made man. He may get more chances, but as Paul could tell him, nothing is guaranteed. Antetokounmpo has two chances not to make it happen.
Holiday justifies Bucks’ investment in him
What a roller-coaster of a post-season for Jrue Holiday. The Bucks guard has been at once an essential piece of Milwaukee’s success and a reason for some of their struggles – both elements were on display in Game 4 as Holiday shot just 4-of-20 from the floor, but defensively was a big reason for Paul’s struggles for Phoenix. A healthy amount of the 15 turnovers Paul committed in Game 2-4 were due to Holiday’s strength and peskiness. But in Game 5 Holiday brought everything, a performance that was nearly perfect on both ends as he finished with 27 points, 13 assists and three steals while once again making life difficult for Paul. It was the kind of performance the Bucks envisioned when they traded Eric Bledsoe, George Hill and three first-round picks for Holiday and then signed him to a four-year, $134-million contract extension on the eve of the post-season. It was the kind of performance that will stand above any of his weaker moments if the Bucks win the title. His steal on Devin Booker and pass to Antetokounmpo for the alley-oop will live on highlight-reels forever.
Booker continuing to make a name for himself
If the playoffs are where you make your name, it’s hard to imagine any player who has benefitted more that Booker. He was brilliant again in Game 5 as he finished with 40 points to complement his 42-point explosion in Game 4, which was his response to a 10-point no-show in Game 3. No one has scored more points in their first playoff run in NBA history. No one has so efficiently and quickly shifted his reputation from a guy who got big numbers on a bad team to a money player. His slithery layup past Antetokounmpo with 2:03 to play cut the Bucks’ lead to six. Booker nearly made a critical steal on Middleton a moment later, but the ball went out of bounds off him upon review. He then stepped up and hit a fading three over Holiday with 1:24 to cut the Bucks lead to thre’e. It was clutch basketball. Booker’s reputation has grown immeasurably during the Suns’ run. If he can pull them back from down 3-2 he can go legend.
Tale of the tape
There is no end to the data available to analyze NBA games now – for fans, media and teams alike. Used well, the numbers can provide a deeper understanding of not just any individual game, but of the sport itself. It’s not everything – the vastly misunderstood importance of mid-range scoring is an example of the way both sides of the so-called “data divide” can be wrong at once; or the same facts can mean different things to different people – but ignore advance statistics or data at your peril.
Sometimes, however, the stuff is really, really simple. For example: in Game 4, the Bucks won because they took way more shots that the Suns. The Suns shot an impressive 51.3 per cent from the floor against the Bucks – the second highest Milwaukee has surrendered so far in the post-season – while holding their opponent to just 40.2 per cent from the floor. It’s hard to lose a game in those circumstances. The difference, simply, was Milwaukee took way more shots than Phoenix – 19 to be precise – by way of dominating the offensive glass and forcing the Suns into 17 turnovers. There’s no in-depth analysis required: if you get out-rebounded 17-5 on the offensive glass and if you make 12 more turnovers as well, it’s hole that’s difficult to shoot your way out of. In Game 5, the shot totals were identical – 87 each – and the shot-making was exceptional with the Bucks shooting 57 per cent and the Suns knocking down 55 per cent. The turnovers and offensive rebounds were comparable. The difference? Milwaukee made two more shots, one of them a triple. It was that close.
Crowder, Connaughton step up
Rarely does a playoff series not turn on contributions from role players. Teams scheme to take the ball away from opposing stars and rare is the superstar that can completely overcome them on their own.
In recent years, the Suns’ Jae Crowder delivered that kind of value to multiple teams. He was a key contributor on Boston Celtics team that made the playoffs in each of his three seasons there, including the Eastern Conference Finals in 2017. He made the playoffs three straight years with the Utah Jazz as well, and last season was a major reason the Miami Heat pushed aside the Bucks in five games as he shot 43 per cent from deep on 10 attempts a game, putting the “3” into his 3-and-D job description.
In the first quarter in Game 5, Crowder went off again with eight quick points on three shots. The Suns were up 16 in what it initially looked like Phoenix blowout win.
The game changed quickly, of course, and a big reason why was the Bucks’ own role player who has come up big more often than not: Pat Connaughton, who finished with 14 points on six shots and was plus-10 on the night. Crowder cooled off after his quick start and didn’t score in the second half.