I’ve never understood the adage that an NBA playoff series “doesn’t start until the road team wins a game.” It’s nonsense. It doesn’t start because, over 82 percent of the time, it’s already over once the higher seed goes up 2-0. Only four times in history has a team lost the first two games of an NBA Finals and come back to win: The 2016 Cavaliers, 2006 Heat, 1977 Blazers and 1969 Celtics.
So, if you’re the Milwaukee Bucks, now down 0-2 to the Phoenix Suns after a 118-108 defeat on Thursday, do not look to historical precedent in search of a silver lining. It does not bode well for your chances.
Instead, look to the Game 2 dominance of Giannis Antetokounmpo, who put up 42 points, 12 rebounds, four assists and three blocks on Tuesday. He shot 15-for-22 from the field, including 14-for-17 on 2-pointers 11-for-18 from the free-throw line. He started aggressive and never took his foot off the gas. He muscled and spun his way to the rim in the half-court. He steamrolled in transition. He hit one-foot foul-line fallaways and turnaround baseline jumpers. His 20 points in the third quarter are the most in a single NBA Finals quarter since Michael Jordan scored 22 in the second quarter of Game 2 of the 1993 Finals against, oddly enough, the Suns.
Giannis recently said he thought he’d be out for a year after his left leg bent backward in the shape of a V in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals. He wasn’t alone. It looked nasty. It turned out to be “just” a hyperextension, and that Giannis is back and playing somewhere near full strength is the brightest sign of hope in Milwaukee’s otherwise dismal outlook. This is a best-case scenario for the two-time MVP, and by extension, the Bucks.
So far in this series, the Bucks have beaten the Suns with Giannis on the floor (plus-4 over 75 minutes, 28 seconds of game time). The problem is they’re getting demolished when he sits (minus-27 over 20:32). It’s not often that single-game on-off numbers align so perfectly with the underlying story, but in this case, it could not be more blatant: Giannis needs help.
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On Tuesday, Khris Middleton finished with 11 points on 5-for-16 shooting, including 1-for-6 from beyond the arc. Jrue Holiday, who has been on and off (mostly off) throughout the playoffs, shot 7-for-21. It doesn’t take a genius to know that your second- and third-best players going a combined 12-for-37 while generating a meager 0.75 points per shot attempt isn’t going to cut it, particularly when the Suns shoot 10-for- 20 from 3 as a team, as they did on Thursday.
On the flip side, Milwaukee’s 3-point shooting has been so bad this postseason, it’s actually remarkable they’ve gotten this far — the injuries to Kyrie Irving, James Harden and Trae Young notwithstanding. During the regular season, the Bucks shot 38.9 percent from 3, which was tied for 4th best in the league. In the playoffs, they’re shooting just 31.8 percent, the lowest mark of any team that got out of the first round.
Middleton, for his part, has fallen from just under 42 percent in the regular season to 33.8 percent in the playoffs. Holiday is down from 39 to 29 percent. Bryn Forbes, who in the regular season boasted the league’s third-best 3-point percentage (45.2) of anyone who attempted at least four per game, is down over seven percent in the playoffs. Antetokounmpo, who should never shoot a single 3-pointer (don’t even start with this keeping-defenses-honest nonsense), has fallen from 30 percent to 19 percent in the playoffs.
I generally hate narrowing NBA games, and series, down to make-or-miss propositions. I tend to believe when you’re missing a lot of shots, you’re usually taking bad ones. The Bucks could definitely do more to create better looks, but at some point, if Middleton and Holiday are supposed to be championship-level co-stars, they have to start finding the net.
Middleton has had star stretches in these playoffs. Holiday had a good series vs. Atlanta, and perhaps it’s not coincidental that he and Middleton combined for 110 points over Games 5 and 6 vs. the Hawks when Antetokounmpo didn’t play. There is more space without Giannis on the floor. Middleton and Holiday are given total pick-and-roll/isolation control of the offense, as opposed to Mike Budenholzer feeling the need to give Giannis the ball at the top of half-court sets so he can run straight into a wall.
The Bucks are decidedly more predictable when Giannis is initiating. It’s another story for another day, but Giannis should be playing more as a secondary creator in the half-court. He should be attacking against defenses in rotation rather than ones that are set and waiting for him. He should be cutting, rolling, operating from the high-post. The crash-dummy drives are not it. Budenholzer moved Giannis around on Thursday, but when the two-time MVP got it going, he too often defaulted back to just giving Giannis the ball at the top with no clear path or plan.
If Giannis ever adds a reliable mid-range jumper, all of this will change. I wouldn’t rule that out. He’s got pretty decent form and he has made big strides as a shooter already. But until that happens, this will remain a major glitch in the Giannis-as-your-best-player equation. In a perimeter-oriented game, it’s hard to put him in consistent scoring spots while trying to navigate the shooting — and lack-of-dribble counter moves — hole. He doesn’t necessarily make offense easier for those around him.
That said, one thing we do know is this: Giannis is going to give you everything he has. This guy is a fighter. He isn’t afraid of failure, perhaps to a fault (as I said, stop shooting 3s). He has looked his free-throw struggles in the eye and continued to attack the basket. He was phenomenal on Thursday. On both ends. The guy’s motor never stops. He pushes hard in transition, flies around defensively, crashes the glass. He’s a leader. A positive teammate at all times. He is a superstar in every sense. I haven’t always been ready to hit him with that label because of some of the holes I’ve mentioned, but I’ll relent. Giannis is awesome.
But again, the problem is the Suns have two superstars.
When Booker and Paul are playing like that, not to mention Mikal Bridges chipping in 27 points of his own on Thursday, Giannis needs a wingman or two to show up. The Bucks did what they could to limit Paul and Booker. Give Holiday credit for how hard he fought to get over ball screens. He was successful for much of the game in limiting Paul’s mismatches on switches, and he wasn’t allowing Paul to get downhill into his mid-range jumper, either. He was getting above the screen and cutting Paul off as well as anyone can possibly be expected to do.
But Paul and the Suns are kind of inevitable right now. The Bucks went to drop coverage against Booker more often, and he cooked them. They collapsed in the paint and dug down hard from the wings on drivers, limiting Phoenix to just 28 paint points, but that left a lot of 3-point shooters open and the Suns made them pay.
You just can’t defend everything against these Suns. Everyone can shoot. Everyone can put the ball on the floor. There are weapons all over the court. What Milwaukee has to do, if it has any hope of winning Game 3 and making this a series, is keep up with Phoenix with its own scoring.
The Bucks scored scored a league-best 120.1 points per game in the regular season. They are scoring just 106.5 through the first two games of the Finals. That has to change. Middleton and Holiday have to live up to the $300 million-plus Milwaukee is committed to paying them. Even down 0-2, with all the statistical history working against them, you could still argue this may be Milwaukee’s best chance to win a title with Giannis. But the man needs help. And he needs it now.