The sound that you heard prevailing throughout the last two days was not that of leftover fireworks from the Fourth of July, but that of analysts, pundits and bettors shoveling dirt on the grave of the Milwaukee Bucks. Now down two games in the NBA Finals, both coming in the form of double-digit losses, most believe this series to be over but I would not be so quick to assume the Bucks have nothing left for the Phoenix Suns now that this series has changed venues.
First and foremost, Milwaukee still has Giannis Antetokounmpo on the floor, a question Phoenix does not have the answer for. Through four games, two in the regular season and two in the postseason, Antetokounmpo has scored 142 points (35.5 points per game) on 61.5% shooting from the floor against the Suns. DeAndre Ayton has improved dramatically this year, but he is no match for the Greek Freak defensively, and there is no other option on this roster that can match Antetokounmpo physically. The path to victory today, and in this series, run through the two-time MVP and he is going nowhere.
From there, the Bucks’ role players need to play their game. On Thursday night the likes of Khris Middleton, Jrue Holiday, Brook Lopez and Bryn Forbes combined to go 3-of-14 from beyond the arc, something that cannot happen again. Pat Connaughton was the only player for Milwaukee to hit multiple 3-point attempts, and as much as my colleague Tim Murray loves to see that, Mike Budenholzer does not. In Game 1, Milwaukee shot 44.4% from 3-point range, and that is still something that is replicable in this series. Phoenix has allowed the sixth-highest rate of wide-open 3-point attempts to opponents this postseason, and in this series 17.1% of the Bucks’ 3-pointers have been classified as such. In Game 2, they went 4-of-14 on wide open looks, something you have to assume regresses to the mean with the familiar sight lines at home.
That being said, Milwaukee still has no answer itself for Phoenix’s offense and that is something I do not believe will change as the series moves along. These two teams are tailor-made to exploit the other on defense, and we have seen that in droves for the Suns in the first two games of this series. Phoenix is averaging 119.8 points per 100 possessions on offense in this series, and is killing Milwaukee’s mid-range defense by hitting 47.7% of their attempts from that area of the floor. That is not surprising, considering the Suns were the best mid-range shooting team in the league in the regular season, and it shows how little options there are for Budenholzer’s staff.
Switch everything? The Suns will find Ayton in mismatches with smaller players and allow him to dominate, or Chris Paul will cook Lopez in space. Play drop coverage? Paul will exploit that drop area of the floor, or find open shooters and the Suns will go 20-of-39 from deep like they did on Thursday night. Many want Budenholzer to play Antetokounmpo at the five, allowing the Bucks to switch everything without putting a player like Lopez in space against Paul. That is where the absence of Donte DiVincenzo is felt. The optimal lineup with Antetokounmpo at center had DiVincenzo at the two, and that crew posted a mind-boggling + 51.5 net rating. Take DiVincenzo off the court and have Antetokounmpo at center and Milwaukee is outscored by 20.5 points per 100 possessions. Not exactly a figure worth relying on if you’re Budenholzer.
At the end of the day, Milwaukee’s defense was never going to stop Phoenix’s offense in this series. They can outscore them though if the pieces around Giannis come to play. That is more likely now that the Bucks are back home, but the way Middleton and Holiday have played it is hard to believe that will happen until we see it unfold.
Phoenix Suns at Milwaukee Bucks (-3.5, 222)
From a power rating perspective this line is extremely odd. Throughout the postseason oddsmakers have set homecourt’s worth at 2.5 points, but here we are with an eight-point swing from Game 2 in Phoenix to Game 3 in Milwaukee. So, either the lines in Games 1 and 2 were incorrect, or the Bucks’ power rating has been inflated to a desperate situation back home and down two games. I tend to believe it is the latter option at work here. Think back to Game 3 of the Bucks’ series with the Nets. Milwaukee was down two games in that series as well, and closed as a 3.5-point favorite despite getting waxed in Brooklyn the game prior. The Bucks would go on to win but did not cover. The next game it was the Nets favored on the road by a point despite suffering the loss. That was a truer number, but because Milwaukee was going to be such a popular play the oddsmakers taxed bettors with an inflated line. The same seems to be happening here, but the market does not care as Bucks are now -4.5 at most shops.
The value from a side perspective is squarely on the road underdog, but the value in the total is bit harder to find. In Game 1 we saw the total open at 217 and in Game 2 it opened at 219.5 and both games found their way over. As I wrote in the series preview, and as I still believe to be the case, this is a high-scoring series. Neither team has an answer for the other on defense, and should the Bucks’ role players find their stroke from deep this game figures to be another high-flying affair. The number for Game 3 has been pretty static at 222 at almost every shop, but Circa has flashed 221.5 this morning. We have yet to reach the totals for the two regular season contests of 226.5 and 232 and nothing I have seen in this series makes me believe the scoring is slowing down anytime soon.
DeAndre Ayton UN 16 Points
It seems the market has figured us out on Mikal Bridges made 3-pointers. After opening the over in the first two games at -120 and -130 respectively bettors are now laying as high as 165 at shops like Circa. One market to monitor now will be DeAndre Ayton points scored.
Some operators have moved from 15.5 to 16 now and there is an edge in playing this under the total. Ayton is a fine player, but the Bucks’ drop coverage in Game 2 eliminated him from the equation on offense. He did not find the switches onto smaller players as frequently as he did in Game 1 and I believe Milwaukee will continue rolling out that same defensive gameplan today. As noted in the open here, the small-ball approach will not work for the Bucks here without DiVincenzo. More drop coverage means more rim protection and less Ayton.