The Long Two: How the Bucks fought back and won an NBA title

Milwaukee Bucks, NBA, Phoenix Suns

Behind a singular performance from Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Milwaukee Bucks stifled and overwhelmed the Suns to claim their first NBA title in 50 years.

The Milwaukee Bucks’ postseason finished the way it started — with four consecutive victories over a team they would have had good reason to fear. Milwaukee showed both sides of itself over the course of its championship run, squelching old playoff demons by routing the Heat, then immediately stumbling against Brooklyn in the second round. Whether by opponent injuries, personal soul-searching or both, the Bucks collected themselves and edged out a seven-game victory, dispatched the Hawks in six and, finally, dug out of another 0-2 hole by taking a balanced Suns team entirely out of its element behind a singular Finals performance from Giannis Antetokounmpo.

The Bucks used Giannis to overpower the competition

One of the only constants in Milwaukee’s inconsistent path was the imposition of its size, both at the rim and on the glass, on both ends of the floor. The Bucks ran up an 11-2 record this postseason when they rebounded at least 30 percent of their own misses, and went 10-3 when taking at least 30 percent of their shots within four feet of the rim. Fittingly, they hit both marks in Tuesday’s closeout game, opening lane after lane to the rim, barricading it on the other end and thoroughly dominating the offensive and defensive glass.

The key, however, wasn’t just in consistently bullying Phoenix on the interior, but doing so without having to play “big”. Playing Brook Lopez more minutes may well have widened those statistical margins, but it would have come at the expense of shooting and defensive versatility. It was the ability to deploy Antetokounmpo at center, with switchable defenders and competent playmakers around him, and still maintain those edges in the paint that gave Milwaukee a decided upper hand.

That flexibility is a direct reflection of Giannis’ brilliance. Few players’ on-court limitations are as glaring as his, but even fewer can incorporate the kind of scoring, playmaking, rim protection and defensive versatility he displayed in the Finals into a single skill set. The eventual Finals MVP nominally started every game at power forward, but over the course of the series served as a primary ball-handler, lob finisher, defensive anchor, offensive facilitator, transition catalyst and so much more. The bulk of his own production came at the rim — where Giannis shot 81.5 percent on nearly 11 shots per game — but the ripple effects reached every corner of a well-spaced floor.

Even when Deandre Ayton wasn’t working through foul trouble, the Suns had little success keeping Antetokounmpo out of the lane, which not only created direct shot opportunities at the rim and the foul line but opened up the rest of the offense when help defenders dug down on drives. The Bucks’ size disparity also showed up in transition, where they carved out massive advantages in Games 1, 3 and 5 because the Suns had no one to deter Antetokounmpo at the rim. Milwaukee, by contrast, diligently got back and consistently set their defense in transition, keeping Phoenix from the easy points they so desperately needed.

Defensively, Antetokounmpo turned in one of the better individual performances in recent Finals history, tying together the Bucks’ switching scheme with his ability to scamper out on the perimeter and clean up messes on the back line. His most memorable plays came at the rim in high-leverage situations, but his constant patrolling of the paint and perimeter erased innumerable Suns’ advantages before they even formed. The Suns had fleeting success in Game 6 darting past Giannis to the rim before he could set himself on switches, but he and the Bucks quickly remedied the issue and Phoenix sunk back into quicksand. The Bucks, meanwhile, kept rolling, growing stronger as the series wore on until they became overwhelming.

The Bucks took the Suns out of their offensive rhythm

The Suns got within two games of a championship not on the strength of one superstar, but through the collective efforts of an entire rotation. Though catalyzed by two All-Stars, their offense relied on ball movement, sound decision-making and multiple perimeter threats to create a steady flow of drives, passes and open looks.

The series shifted when the Bucks figured out how to interrupt that rhythm — thanks in large part to Jrue Holiday’s on-ball defensive masterclass — and Phoenix was almost completely taken out of its offensive element after Game 2. To the extent that the Suns found any balance between Devin Booker and Chris Paul, it came in the form of trading the reins from one stretch to the next rather than something more dynamic. Attacking Milwaukee’s switching defenders one-on-one helped the Suns reduce their turnovers, but it also stifled their ball movement, and Booker in particular often fell into the trap of playing the way his opponent wanted him to instead of how his own team needed him to. Phoenix’s fallback option became its primary means of attack, and a once-dynamic, thriving offense went stagnant.

“We gotta move it around,” Suns coach Monty Williams said after Game 5. “We know what Book can do with the ball, but the one thing we talked about was getting to the paint and finding guys on the back side, and we feel like that’s a formula. There were some times tonight where it just stuck a little bit, and against their defense, they don’t have to work against that. So we can score in iso ball, but to make that defense work we’ve got to move it around, and in order to beat this team that’s what you’ve gotta do.”

The Suns briefly made the correction in Game 6, moving the ball to shooters and finding more space for Paul, before the Bucks solved them once again. In the first two games of the Finals, the Suns averaged 48.5 potential assists (plays on which an assist would be credited had the shot gone in) while creating over 62 assisted points per game. Paul and Booker torched switches and conventional pick-and-roll defense alike, and their creative abilities at the point of attack generated opportunities for all five players on the floor. But in the final four games, the Bucks’ defense sealed most of the openings the Suns had so precisely targeted. They posted just over 37 potential assists and 48 assisted points per game in their four losses, and while they rediscovered some of their offensive continuity on Tuesday, they still couldn’t reliably create the kinds of shots needed to wear down an enveloping defense.

Perhaps no player exemplified that offensive rut more than Booker. The two-time All-Star still made a positive impression on the game, but the Bucks effectively narrowed his impact to the scoring column alone, which shaved off just enough of a margin to tilt the series in their favor. Individually, Booker had almost nine fewer potential assists and created 11 fewer points via assist in Games 3-6 than he did in Games 1 and 2. Instead of drawing help or creating exploitable defensive breakdowns, he drove to shoot, often between 10 and 20 feet with a defender crowding his space.

Absent their usual crisp ball movement, the Suns’ share of drive-and-kick 3s dried up, and with them went the system buckets that had worn opponents down all year. Phoenix attempted 42 percent of its shots from behind the 3-point line in its two wins and under 30 percent in four losses, and many of those looks were replaced by highly difficult mid-range attempts that yielded neither an extra point nor free-throw attempts.

That’s an acceptable bailout option to have at the end of a possession or late in close games, but without Kevin Durant or Kawhi Leonard leading your offense, it’s not a foundation conducive to teamwide offensive success. For a team like the Suns, which doesn’t have an elite offensive cornerstone, ball and player movement aren’t just aesthetic intricacies — they’re practical necessities. Booker and Paul getting a step, drawing help and finding the open man are essential to their team’s success, as are the extra passes and quick decisions that role players the players around them make when the ball eventually finds them. One advantage compounds the last until eventually, an open shot materializes. The Suns just couldn’t consistently create the initial opening required to kickstart those sequences, and the Bucks turned them into more of an isolation team than they looked at any other point this season.

At different points in the Finals, Milwaukee withstood scoring outbursts from either Paul or Booker but never allowed the danger to spread after Game 2. In confining those two to the mid-range and limiting Phoenix’s role players, the Bucks successfully kept the Suns away from the rim and the 3-point line, squeezing them into areas of the floor that even two of the league’s most prolific mid-range shooters couldn’t make profitable. That, as much as anything else, was responsible for Milwaukee’s comeback in the series, and the franchise’s first championship in half a century.

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