It is hard to say that one team has an edge over the other when a series is tied 2-2 and a net rating of just +1.3 separates them, but that seems to be the case for the NBA Finals this season. Most were preparing the obituaries for Mike Budenholzer and Giannis Antetokounmpo’s season after the Suns led 2-0 following Game 2 of the series, but two games later, the Milwaukee Bucks not only have new life, but they also have control.
In two games at home, the Bucks outscored the Suns by 13.4 points per 100 possessions and holding them to a 104.6 offensive rating. Milwaukee covered both games, but those two games were not as much about the final scores, as they were about how the Bucks achieved those results.
Budenholzer, often crucified for his lack of adjustments, did the unthinkable and changed his strategy. Brook Lopez, who has averaged 29 minutes per game in the postseason, averaged just 20 minutes on the floor in Milwaukee. Antetokounmpo is now the Bucks’ primary center, giving them more versatility on defense, and allowing them to switch every matchup on the court that the Suns throw at them. Phoenix’s Chris Paul can no longer exploit the slow, plodding steps of a traditional center, his bread and butter on offense. He is now faced with rangy defender after rangy defender, no matter the opponent who switches onto him. The result is a stat line of 14.5 points per game on 48.1 percent shooting from the floor with 4.5 turnovers per game. Paul averaged 1.9 turnovers in the 16 games prior.
Phoenix’s weakness on offense is rearing its ugly head in this series right now, and there is little reason to believe coach Monty Williams can do much to mask it. The Suns finished last in the league in frequency of attempts at the rim, taking jut 27.2 percent of their attempts within four feet. Their two best players, Paul and Devin Booker, barely challenge the rim. Booker took just 24 percent of his attempts at the rim in the regular season, and Paul took 62 attempts total. In Game 3, Phoenix hit just seven 3-point attempts and its offense suffered greatly.
Offenses combat cold shooting by attacking the rim, especially in transition, but the Suns did not do that. They took just 13 attempts within four feet, and started just 7.2 percent of their possessions with a transition play. The antidote for a small lineup like Milwaukee’s is to attack mismatches off the bounce and get in transition, but the Suns have shown that is not who they are all season long.
The Bucks’ small-ball strategy allows them to exploit a weakness that Phoenix has had all season long: rim protection. In the regular season, the Suns finished 24th in opponent shooting at the rim, and they came into the NBA Finals allowing the second-most shots within four feet in the playoffs. Over the past two games, the Bucks have lived in the restricted area, shooting 70 percent on 60 attempts at the rim and drawing 14 shooting fouls. Their strategy of pounding the ball inside has allowed them to dominate the glass as well. Over the course of the past two games, Milwaukee rebounded 32.1 percent of its missed shot attempts and scored a 39 second chance points. The loss of Dario Saric leaves Phoenix with few options to combat these advantages. The only other healthy center on the roster is Frank Kaminsky, a defensive liability who is -10 in just 18 minutes played in this series.
As we head to Game 5 in Phoenix, control is squarely in the hands of Milwaukee. The Bucks’ adjustments have worked brilliantly and forced the Suns into a matchup they do not have many answers for. Phoenix was -4.5 at close in both games at home in this series, and Game 5 opened Suns -4 at most shops, but that 8.5-point swing from venue to venue does not make much sense. Typical home-court advantage in this postseason has been factored in at about 2.5 points, meaning the normal swing should be in the range of five points. So, either the two numbers in Phoenix were too strong, or the numbers Milwaukee laid in Games 4 and 5 were incorrect. Given the advantages the Bucks have with their newfound strength, it is hard to believe Milwaukee is being overvalued by the market.