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 + 1.3 is what separates them, but that seems to be the case for this year’s NBA Finals. Most were preparing the obituaries for Mike Budenholzer and Giannis Antetokounmpo’s season after Game 2 of the series, but two games later not only do the Milwaukee Bucks have new life -- they have control.
In two games at home the Bucks crushed the Suns, outscoring them 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 so much about the final scores, as much as they were about how the Bucks achieved those results.
Mike 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 the last two games. Antetokounmpo is now Milwaukee’s primary center, giving the Bucks more versatility on defense, and allowing them to switch every matchup on the court that the Suns throw at them. 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 that switches onto him. The result is a stat line of 14.5 points per game on 48.1% shooting from the floor with 4.5 turnovers per game; he 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 Monty Williams can do much to mask it. The Suns finished last in the league in frequency of attempts at the rim on offense, taking jut 27.2% of their attempts within four feet. Their two best players, Paul and Devin Booker, barely challenge the rim as players. Booker took just 24% 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 their 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% 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 Phoenix has shown that is not who they are all season long.
Milwaukee’s small-ball lineup allows it 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 Finals allowing the second-most shots within four feet of all playoff teams. Over the last two games, the Bucks have lived in the restricted area, shooting 70% 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, and over the course of the last two games Milwaukee has rebounded 32.1% of its missed shot attempts and scored 39 second-chance points. The loss of Dario Saric leaves Phoenix with few options to combat these advantages, as 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, the 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 that Milwaukee is being overvalued by the market.