For the Bucks, Game 3 of the NBA Finals on Sunday is a must-win return to Milwaukee and Fiserv Forum. For the Suns, it’s a chance to all but clinch the franchise’s first title.
For everybody involved, it’s the biggest game of their lives.
“Yeah, you said it right there. For us, the biggest game of the year is [Sunday]. It’s a must-win game for us,” said Suns star Chris Paul, taking aim at his first championship ring in a surefire Hall-of-Fame career.
“We got to come out with that mindset: Know that they’re home, they’re more comfortable, they’ll be in front of their fans. But we’ve got to be us. We’ve got to be us, and we’ve got to be the hungrier team. So that’s what we’ll do.”
So far, the Suns have been the better team, running out to a 2-0 series lead in Phoenix.
Paul and Devin Booker were clinical in taking advantage of Milwaukee’s over-helping through the first two games, shredding the defense.
Now the Bucks head home trying to become only the second team to erase a pair of 0-2 holes in the same postseason.
“Obviously I know it’s the Finals. We all understand what kind of game we’re getting ourselves into. So we know what we’ve got to do,” Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo said. “But at the end of the day, you got to keep it light. You cannot tell yourself ‘Oh, it’s the Finals. You got to do this. There’s so much pressure, man.’ No, it’s still basketball. It’s easy to say, hard to do.
“We’ve come a long way to be in this position, and we’ve got to try to make the best out of it.”
That long way has included earning the league’s best record in 2018-19 and 2019-20 only to suffer early exits from the playoffs. This time, Milwaukee’s comeback from a 2-0 deficit in the second round against the Nets has buoyed their confidence they can do it again.
“It helps tremendously. Again, those first two games that we lost in Brooklyn, first one was bad and the second was really bad,” Jrue Holiday said.
“We learned a lot from Brooklyn, just being able to have that mindset that even down 2-0 you can still take care of business. … It’s about setting the tone. Our crowd here has so much energy, like the Suns had in Phoenix. The crowd here is awesome and they’ll have our back and we’ll play for them, but not only that, but to be able to win games and protect home.”
The Bucks will have to.
Against the Nets, Milwaukee bounced back from a 125-86 Game 2 caning and won the series by pulling out a tough Game 7 win. But to repeat that against Phoenix, the Bucks will need more help around Antetokounmpo.
The Greek Freak bounced back from his hyperextended knee, pouring in 42 points in Game 2. But Khris Middleton is shooting just 40.5 percent and is 6-for-18 from 3-point range in the series, while Holiday has hit just 31.4 percent and 1-for-7 from deep.
“Game 2 we got smacked, embarrassed [by the Nets]. A lot of people thought our season was done. We still believed in ourselves,” Middleton said. “We just got to find a way to win one game at a time from here on out.
“We’ve been down [2-0] before. Not saying we can do the same exact thing we did last time. It’s going to be tough, that’s a great team over there.”
The Suns have looked great so far. Paul is averaging 27.5 points and 8.5 assists in the Finals, while Booker is averaging 29.0 points with 6.0 assists.
Phoenix’s league-best 24-12 road record this season bodes well for Sunday, but the Suns haven’t always handled prosperity well.
The Suns had a 3-1 Western Conference finals lead on the Clippers, but didn’t finish them off in Game 5. There are lessons to be learned from that.
“Yeah, there were some games in the previous series where we didn’t bring it. Simple as that — just from the energy standpoint, energy and effort,” Booker said. “We can’t control if we make or miss shots, but the 50/50 balls and the intensity throughout the team can always have another level.
“It’s the Finals. We’re playing for the prize. I don’t think there’s going to be a storm that we haven’t seen. Those guys are bringing it, we’re going to bring it and that’s that.”