Phoenix Suns’ ability to bounce back faces its greatest test yet in Game 4 of NBA Finals

NBA Playoffs, Phoenix Suns

The Phoenix Suns have bounced back from tough losses all year long. Now their ability to do so faces a unique challenge in the NBA Finals against a determined opponent.

The Phoenix Suns knew Game 3 of the NBA Finals would be their toughest challenge yet. They knew, with the series shifting venues and the Milwaukee Bucks trailing 2-0 in the series, that they’d be facing a desperate team. They knew they’d have to play with a sense of urgency and poise heading into the loudest road environment they’d encountered yet.

But as much as Phoenix has earned praise for playing with their trademark relentlessness and resilience, the Bucks are no strangers to bouncing back either, and Sunday’s end result — a 120-100 trouncing to make it a 2-1 series — felt like another wakeup call for this young team.

“There’s a lot of ways you can spin it, but they played with a great deal of aggression for longer stretches than we did,” head coach Monty Williams said. “We knew it was coming. We did not respond to it well tonight, especially in the second and third quarters.”

After taking a 36-30 lead in the second period, the Suns watched as Milwaukee closed the first half on a 30-9 run to build up a 15-point halftime lead. And in the third, after Phoenix had fought back and pulled within four, the Bucks closed on a 24-6 spree, including a 16-0 run at the very end of the quarter, to essentially put the game away.

It was hard to find an area where the Suns didn’t fall short. After keeping it close on the boards in the first two games, they were out-rebounded by 11 and outscored 20-2 in second-chance points. They lost the transition battle 16-6 in fast break points, as well as points in the paint, 54-40.

“Second-chance points, it goes back to the 50/50 balls that we lost,” Jae Crowder said. “I feel like on the road, we got to win that battle. It’s not about shot-making. It’s just about mano-a-mano, making sure your guy doesn’t get it and coming up with the ball. Some way, somehow, you have to find a way. And I felt like once it got that close, those guys scrapped a little harder tonight than we did.”

As if that weren’t bad enough, the Suns only shot 9-for-31 (29 percent) from 3-point range, compared to 14-for 36 (38.9 percent) for the Bucks. If you take out Jae Crowder’s 6-for-7 shooting from beyond the arc, the rest of the Suns only made 3 of their 24 long-range attempts.

“This is one of those games that you typically, in NBA speak, say flush it,” Williams said. “But you can’t in the Finals.”

The Phoenix Suns will look to bounce back after a disappointing Game 3

Devin Booker‘s 3-for-14 shooting night (including 1-for-7 from deep) didn’t help matters.

Williams cited the Bucks’ defense and aggression, as well as Booker just missing some makable shots, for the reasons behind his struggles in Game 3. Despite the 40-point triple-double in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals and a 31-point outing in Game 2 of the Finals, Booker has been in a bit of a shooting rut since the conference finals began, shooting 38.3 percent from the field and 30.6 percent from 3-point range over that nine-game span.

It’s a small sample size where a few bad outings can skew the overall numbers, sure, but the Suns will need more from their superstar in Game 4.

“He’s been in this situation before, as you guys alluded to,” Williams said. “When you get to the Finals, it means you’ve been in a number of situations. So this is nothing new to us anymore. He’ll bounce back.”

“It wasn’t well, obviously, but there’s nights like that,” Booker added. “The most important part to me is winning the game and we didn’t do that, so I’m more frustrated about that.”

The biggest reason they didn’t win, however, was the monster on the opposing side in Game 3.

Giannis Antetokounmpo finished with 41 points, 13 rebounds and 6 assists, shooting 14-for-23 from the field, including a perfect 12-for-12 within the restricted area and 13-for-17 from the foul line. The Greek Freak took more free throws (17) than the entire Suns team did (16), but before anyone goes crying “Scott Foster,” when you’re taking the majority of your shot attempts in the lane, chances are, you’re going to draw more contact.

Getting Deandre Ayton in foul trouble was a huge win for the Bucks that allowed Giannis to fully unleash his wrath on the basket in that decisive third quarter.

“He’s a big part of our team, especially he’s the anchor of our defense,” Chris Paul said of Ayton. “I feel like any team would love for him not to be on court offensively and defensively. So, yeah, we got to protect him better and make sure that we’re showing that wall.”

Giannis was methodical in getting downhill, forcing the issue by creating contact and living in the paint. Ayton’s fourth foul put Phoenix in a bind, especially with Dario Saric out, and the Suns’ ultra small-ball lineup in the third quarter worked for a stretch … until they had to ride it for too long and Milwaukee punished them for it with size, Giannis post-ups and offensive rebounds.

“We got to figure out or define what is a legal guarding position because there are times where he can move his hands out of the way, but it’s hard to tell a guy what to do when somebody is running into you,” Williams said. “But they were aggressive and we have to give them credit. I’m not going to sit here and complain about a team that is aggressive. But we have to understand how the refs are calling the game and then adjust to that. There’s a ton of physicality in the game, for sure, but as far as teaching him, we got to look at the film and see where he can have better body position and pick up some charges when they present themselves.”

Heading into Game 4, the Suns need to adjust their approach and their mindset. Jrue Holiday and Milwaukee’s role players looked much more comfortable at home. Booker was completely ineffective and Ayton’s foul trouble doomed Phoenix to either Frank Kaminsky minutes or trying to go small.

But this is a team that’s become renowned for bouncing back from ugly losses. A 20-point Finals defeat against a similarly resilient Bucks side, led by a guy whose dropped 40 in back-to-back games, is another animal entirely. But Phoenix deserves the benefit of the doubt given its track record in this regard.

“I think we know that we have to play with an unreal amount of aggression and energy for 48 minutes,” Williams said. “That’s the deal. All of our guys know that we didn’t. We have had this happen to us before in the playoffs, and so I expect our guys to bounce back.”

These Suns have only lost consecutive game four times since the start of the season, including only once in the playoffs. They may be 1-3 in Game 3s, but they’re 3-0 in Game 4s. After trailing 2-1 in the first round against the Los Angeles Lakers and losing back-to-back games, the Suns ripped off three straight wins to close in six. After blowing a golden opportunity to close out the LA Clippers in Game 5, they blew them out of the water in Game 6 to reach the Finals.

Now they’ll have to put that same penchant for responding to losses to its greatest test, on basketball’s biggest stage, against their toughest opponent yet.

Williams has referred to his group as “sore losers,” as this team stews on its defeats, studies the film, and comes out with renewed focus and energy almost every time whenever they take the court next. After getting routed by 20 on the road, Phoenix has two whole days to rue on a humbling Game 3 performance before Game 4 on Wednesday.

“Just regroup, refocus, go over film and respond,” Devin Booker said. “We’re on the road and we have to come in with the energy and effort. The 50/50 balls, the offensive rebounds, protect the paint — just the details that we talked about. But that’s what the playoffs is. That’s why it’s a series, and we have some room for improvement.”

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