Suns’ formula for success in uphill NBA Finals remains the same as ever

NBA Playoffs, Phoenix Suns

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The Phoenix Suns are on the brink of losing the 2021 NBA Finals after dropping Game 5, but their recipe for success is still within reach, and it remains the same as ever.

For the first time in the 2021 NBA Playoffs, the Phoenix Suns are on the brink of elimination. After losing their third straight NBA Finals matchup with the Milwaukee Bucks and dropping Game 5 at home Saturday night, they remain where they were 11 days ago: two wins shy of that elusive first title.

It was a missed opportunity for Phoenix after storming out to a 16-point first-quarter lead in front of a roaring, newly-dubbed Footprint Center. And it’s one that will haunt the Suns and their fanbase for years to come if they’re unable to end their current three-game skid on the road in Game 6.

“We came out and did what we intended to do, get off to a great start and we let it go,” Devin Booker said. “They stayed resilient and they kept playing through. So, tough loss for us.”

Booker, who became the first player in franchise history to record back-to-back 40-point games in the Finals and just the 13th player all-time to record multiple 40-point games in the same Finals, finished his night with 40 points on 17-of-33 shooting.

Unfortunately, much like Game 4, all that will be remembered of Book’s 40-point night is that it came up short in a critical loss the Suns really should’ve closed. Also like Game 4, the Bucks highlights and Suns lowlights from Game 5 are the stuff therapy appointments are made of:

Coughing up a 16-point lead in a matter of minutes with Booker on the bench to start the second quarter. Cutting the lead to one point with under a minute to play and Booker getting stripped by Jrue Holiday. Milwaukee turning that turnover into an and-1 alley-oop for Giannis Antetokounmpo after a costly, dangerous foul from Chris Paul. Failing to secure the rebound after Giannis missed the extra free throw.

But while Antetokounmpo’s Game 4 block and Game 5 alley-oop are the individual plays that will stand the test of time, from Phoenix’s perspective, both games exhibited an alarming, potentially series-defining trend of losing games they should’ve won.

One game after becoming the first team in NBA history to lose a Finals game where they shot above 50 percent while holding their opponent below 42 percent, the Suns became the first team in league history to lose any playoff game while shooting 55 percent from the field and 60 percent from 3-point range.

In Games 1-2, the Suns only lost the battle for points off turnovers, second-chance points and fast break points by one (85-84). In Games 3-4, they got demolished in those categories, losing by a whopping 81-point margin (111-30). They got back to basics in Game 5, only losing that three-pronged fight by six points (49-43).

It didn’t matter; despite shooting 68.4 percent from downtown, despite Booker’s 40 points, despite the 37-21 advantage by the end of the first quarter, and despite the Suns being 13-0 coming into the night when leading by double-digits during this postseason run, the Bucks still won. And now they have a chance to close out Phoenix at home, where Milwaukee is 9-1 in these playoffs.

“I just think that the turnovers and the offensive rebounding, we corrected that but they shot 50 percent from 3,” head coach Monty Williams said. “That was something that kind of gave them the edge. So, they didn’t get those points off of turnovers and offensive rebounding, but they got it from the 3-point line. We shot 61 [percent], we just didn’t generate enough [attempts]. The ball, when it moved tonight, it looked like Suns basketball. But we just didn’t generate enough 3s.”

We’ve written about the Suns facing massive tests with their poise and resilience; this latest challenge, coming off back-to-back debilitating losses that could have been wins, leaves everything that came before in the dust.

“We knew this wasn’t going to be easy,” Chris Paul said. “We didn’t expect it to be. It’s hard. Coach said it all year long, everything we want is on the other side of hard, and it don’t get no harder than this.”

The Phoenix Suns face uncharted yet familiar territory

It’s fitting that the Suns’ third straight loss — only the second time all season this team has lost three consecutive games — comes at this critical juncture. The last time Phoenix lost three games in a row was in late January, when they dropped to 8-8 after an uneven 16-game start to the season. Some nights they looked like contenders; others, their starting lineup looked discombobulated and they coughed up double-digit leads in games they should have finished off.

At this end-of-season inflection point, Suns fans will be hoping their team responds as they did the last time. That loss to the lowly Oklahoma City Thunder that dropped Phoenix to .500 became a major turning point of the season, igniting this group into a legitimate championship contender. The Suns finished the season 43-13 from there, posting the NBA’s best record, second-best point differential, best offense and seventh-best defense in that stretch. Their starting lineup jelled, boasting a Net Rating of 10.2.

They only lost back-to-back games on three occasions the rest of the way. The most recent instance occurred after dropping two straight against the Los Angeles Lakers to go down 2-1 in their first-round matchup. Phoenix didn’t lose back-to-back games again ….

Until the Finals. Until this Bucks team. Until getting blown out on the road in Game 3, letting a seven-point fourth-quarter lead slip through their fingers in Game 4, and then watching an absolute stinker of a second quarter erase a 16-point lead in Game 5.

“Tables are turned now,” Deandre Ayton said. “Now we’re the desperate team. We had our chances of being up and trying to finish the job, now we’re in the same position that they were in. They’re up and now we gotta go get it.”

So what do the Suns need to change in Game 6 to force a decisive Game 7 back in the desert?

There are a few tactical adjustments. While blaming the last two losses on Booker for a few iso-heavy quarters would be outright foolish, in Game 5 especially, there were stretches where the offense devolved into the type of mismatch-hunting that Phoenix has gotten a bit too carried away with during these playoffs.

It was a natural progression for Saturday’s contest; the Suns were waxed by 16 points in the six minutes Booker sat in Game 5, and their 16-point lead evaporated during his second-quarter rest. Phoenix’s supporting cast looked shell-shocked by the drastic change in momentum, and Book, being who he is, wasn’t going to go down without a fight. He dominated the third quarter with 14 points on 6-of-11 shooting, but the Bucks were content with letting him cook.

Why? Because Milwaukee was still getting whatever it wanted on the other end, and the math of trading tough Suns 2s for open Bucks 3s worked in their favor.

“Yeah, we got to move it around,” Williams said. “We know what Book can do with the ball, but the one thing we talked about was getting to the paint, finding guys on the back side. 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 got to move it around, and in order to beat this team, that’s what you got to do.”

Chris Paul, who finished with 21 points and 11 assists on 9-of-15 shooting despite playing a mediocre first three quarters, said the ball stopped moving as early as the second quarter.

“Yeah, it definitely did, especially in that second quarter when I was out there, and we talk about it all season long, we have been a ball-movement team and sometimes the switching can cause you to do that,” he said. “We exploit it at times and sometimes we don’t. We’ll go back and look at the film and see what we could have did better.”

The ball started moving again in the fourth quarter and everyone got involved again, but by then, the Suns were still chipping away at a 10-point lead. They got it all the way down to one, but Holiday made a great steal and assist to seal the deal. In Game 6, aside from Paul being more aggressive and keeping a better handle on the ball and his passes, Phoenix has to stick with its offense and generate 3s — even after dry spells like the one in the second quarter that swung Game 5’s momentum.

For all the tired debate about Booker’s playing style and how it affects Phoenix’s offense, however, the Suns’ biggest problem was on the defensive end. The Bucks outscored them 79-53 over the middle quarters, and their Big 3 of Giannis, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday scored a combined 88 points on 38-of-66 shooting (57.8 percent).

Even while Booker was going off in the third quarter to try and resuscitate Phoenix’s offense, their inability to get stops had them fighting an uphill battle.

“The whole third quarter was pretty much that,” Booker said. “We were trading basket-for-basket for I think five minutes straight. But we’re at our best when we get stops and get out in transition, so that’s what we hang — I always say we hang our hat on the defensive end and that’s where we have to be better.”

How the Suns go about making Milwaukee’s Big 3 more uncomfortable remains to be seen. With the exception of Game 2, Middleton has torched Mikal Bridges all series, and despite some inconsistent shooting around the rim, Jrue Holiday’s strength has been a massive problem for both Paul and Booker in the backcourt. Williams switched Bridges onto Holiday to bother him with some length late in Game 5, which saw some success, as did Booker matching up with Middleton. Perhaps those adjustments could carry over into Game 6.

Either way, one thing the Suns need to carry over is the kind of response they showed the last time they lost three straight games, six months ago, when no one knew this group had a Finals run in them. They’re on the brink of falling short of their ultimate goal, but they’re also one two-game win streak away from finishing the job. At this point in the series, with very few punches left to be pulled, it’s about execution, poise, resilience and desire.

This is new territory for the Phoenix Suns. And yet, it fits right in with what they’ve been preaching all season long.

“Head space, mental stamina, all that stuff, like, it boils down to getting it done,” Williams said. “We gotta win one game to put them back on the plane. That’s it. And you have to have that determination that you’re willing to do whatever it takes to put them back on the plane.”

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