Biggest game of Antetokounmpo’s career pulls Bucks back into series in Game 3

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We have a series.

In the Milwaukee Bucks‘ first Finals game at home in 47 years, they did not disappoint a riled-up crowd inside Fiserv Forum or the estimated 25,000 people outside the arena taking it all in on the big screen.

The Bucks were largely in control throughout before they blew it open with a dominant third quarter to set the table for a 120-100 win. The Bucks will need to continue their momentum in Game 4 on Wednesday, but there was nothing that happened in Game 3 to think that can’t happen.

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Some takeaways:

1. Somewhere, Eric Bledsoe had to be shaking his head. After being pushed aside in the playoffs in consecutive years – both times as the first seed in the Eastern Conference – there was bound to be changes in Milwaukee. First, the Toronto Raptors and then the Miami Heat proved that they could slow down Giannis Antetokounmpo by building a wall of defenders in the lane where the two-time MVP has always done most of his damage. The key to that was abandoning Bledsoe on the perimeter and packing the paint.

It worked because for all of Bledsoe’s strengths – he’s been an all-NBA defender three times in his career, including his last two seasons in Milwaukee – he’s not a reliable deep threat under pressure. Against the Raptors in the Eastern Conference Finals in 2019 he shot 5-of-29, most of them on wide-open looks. Against the Heat in 2020 he was 3-of-14 in the four games he played. Milwaukee had seen enough and made Bledsoe the centrepiece of an off-season blockbuster that landed Jrue Holiday. It was an all-in bet.

The Bucks sent three future first-round picks to New Orleans and recently signed the 31-year-old to a four-year contract extension worth $135 million. So far? The returns haven’t justified the investment. Holiday came into Game 3 having made just 1-of-7 threes and averaging just 13.5 points a game. A tweet from Stat Muse was even more scary if you’re a Bucks fan. In a side-by-side comparison there was essentially no difference between the two players.

Holiday’s struggles looked they were going to continue in Game 3. He hit his first three but missed his next four and was 1-of-5 from deep in the first half. But Holiday kept shooting and eventually the lid came off.

In the pivotal third quarter, the Bucks point guard hit 4-of-5 triples as Milwaukee blew the game open with a 30-9 run. He finished with 21 points on 14 shots and was a game-high +22. If he can be the three-point threat the Bucks need to take pressure of Antetokounmpo, this could prove as competitive a series as many were predicting.

2. It’s hard to have a favourite in this series. If you’re not already a fan of Phoenix or Milwaukee, there are plenty of ready-made storylines to stir your rooting interest. Seeing Chris Paul cap off his Hall-of-Fame career with a ring is an obvious one; similarly, seeing Antetokounmpo get a title to silence his critics after failing to follow up MVP regular seasons with playoff success would have a nice feel to it.

So far both principals are doing their part. But as well as Antetokounmpo has played for the most part in the post-season, he was at his best in Game 3. The knee injury that kept him out of the last two games of the Eastern Conference Finals is well behind him and not only did Antetokounmpo finish with 41 points and 13 rebounds on 14-of-23 shooting, his six assists all seemed to be smart quick reads where he found teammates for easy baskets, making the Suns pay for crowding him. He got DeAndre Ayton into foul trouble and he shot 13-of-17 from the free throw line.

He’s had some huge games in this Bucks run – his 40 and 13 effort in Game 7 against the Brooklyn Nets comes to mind – but given the Bucks were facing the possibility of going down 0-3, it might have been the biggest game of his career. And he did it easily and comfortably, and elevated his teammates in the process. If Antetokounmpo is healthy, confident, and flowing, the Suns should be very worried.

3. One of the hardest things to coach, or learn, is shooting touch. It’s different than shooting. A lot of below-average perimeter shooters have turned themselves into competent ones or even good ones by focussing on their mechanics, footwork and shot selection. It takes time, but almost anyone who is a good enough athlete to make the NBA is talented enough to figure out how to shoot the ball well enough to be average or better. But touch is different thing.

Touch is everything that goes into making shots that are hard to make – in motion, in traffic, under contact, from different angles. It takes good hands on the catch, the ability to stay on balance or adjust when off balance; it takes the skill to use different shots in different situations, but most of all it all adds up to the ball going up high and landing soft, no matter how chaotic the circumstance of the launch.

All of which is to say, Suns third-year centre DeAndre Ayton has amazing touch. It might be the most subtle of his many gifts – it takes a while to get past how fluidly he moves and runs even though he stands over seven feet. But once you do, it’s hard not to be amazed at how often Ayton makes tough shots look easy. The ball rolls off his fingers with arc and spin, even in tight. He never seems to be out of control or rushed and his shots seem to have that magical quality where they hit the rim and eventually drop in rather than roll off.

Ayton shot 63.9 per cent from the floor in the regular season, and through his first 18 career playoff games he was shooting 69.5 per cent from the floor. In the third quarter as the Bucks were getting ready to run away with the win, Chris Paul hit Ayton on the move in the paint, stopped under control and lofted a one-handed floater that touched only mesh. He was 8-of-10 from the field at that point. He finished 8-of-11, his output being curtailed by some foul trouble. But seeing him catch and finish so easily is really enjoyable.

4. I watched a fair amount of Canada’s games at the U19 World Cup this past week. Canada finished third, losing a semi-final match-up to the USA before bouncing back and taking care of Serbia in the consolation final to earn the bronze medal. One of Canada’s best players on a deep team was Zach Edey a seven-foot-three centre from Toronto heading into his second season at Purdue. He averaged 15.1 points, 14.1 rebounds and 2.3 blocks was named to the tournament all-star team.

It will be interesting to see what his basketball future ultimately holds. The value of traditional bigs has never been lower in the NBA, but there is still a place for them. If I was Edey I’d make Brook Lopez my role model. Lopez is massive, but no gazelle. He’s been able to transition from being a low-post, first option to being a complimentary offensive player who can shoot threes when open while still finishing in the paint. But what Lopez does very well as a ‘traditional’ big is guard well in drop coverage.

The Bucks don’t ask Lopez to chase guards on the perimeter. They keep him in the lane. But Lopez isn’t stationary. He does a great job of bluffing to the ball-handler while keeping tabs on the big man rolling, and being ready to protect the rim also. It’s the art of being two places in once. Edey has got miles to go before he’s NBA ready. He needs to develop the ability to finish with both hands in the paint; square-up and shoot from at least 15-18 feet and be a good free-throw shooter. But get all that down and it will be his ability to defend like the Bucks’ Lopez that will determine his NBA future.

5. As good as the Suns are, I can’t help thinking about how much better they could be. They got to this point by making three good choices on draft night, so give them some credit. Devin Booker was a fantastic choice at 13th overall in 2015, but then the Suns missed huge when they took Dragan Bender 4th in 2016 — passing on Jamal Murray, Buddy Hield and Jakob Poeltl, among others — and Josh Jackson fourth in 2017, missing out on De’Aaron Fox; Donovan Mitchell and Bam Adebayo.

But as in investing, you can make big gains with a few smart decisions at the draft, erasing previous sins. Drafting Ayton No. 1 overall has worked out, even with Luka Doncic and Trae Young looking like possible MVP candidates in the future. Acquiring Mikal Bridges on draft night in 2018 was brilliant and then Cam Johnson on draft night in 2019 almost equally so. Johnson nearly kept the Suns in it single-handedly with 10 points off the bench on 4-of-5 shooting, including a massive dunk where he almost hurdled PJ Tucker, who was unsuccessfully trying to draw a charge.

It’s not the first time Johnson has delivered instant offence when the Suns have needed a spark. His success is proof that teams don’t need to be perfect on draft night, but they have to get just enough decisions right.

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