In the four NBA Finals games prior to Saturday night, there was no discernable edge to be found between Milwaukee and Phoenix. However, after a Game 5 win at Footprint Arena, there is an edge in this series in favor of Milwaukee, and it is not just a 3-2 lead.
The Bucks have outscored the Suns by 10.9 points per 100 possessions over the course of their three-game winning streak, and the once-staunch Phoenix defense is struggling to find answers in a series it is now one game away from losing.
There are many areas in which Milwaukee has thrived these past three games, but it is hard to look past what this team has done in transition since the series went to Fiserv Forum. The Bucks are killing the worst transition defense in the NBA by averaging 1.58 points per play and they have added 7.4 points per 100 possessions on offense through transition play alone. Specifically, Milwaukee has thrived off missed shots by Phoenix.
According to Cleaning The Glass, the Bucks are averaging 1.591 points per play in transition off of live-ball rebounds. For context, the league leader in the regular season (Utah) put up 1.332 points per play off live rebounds and 1.338 in transition. Milwaukee is simply crushing Phoenix on the fast break, and this is not an advantage that is going away anytime soon.
Therein lies the problem for the Suns. The adjustments that need to be made for them to win this series are either inherent weaknesses or tools the team does not possess. When shots do not fall, leading to rebounds for Milwaukee, usually the antidote is a steady diet of shots at the basket. However, Phoenix took the least amount of shots of any team within four feet of the hoop in the regular season, and in the postseason their frequency of attempts at the rim (26.8%) is even lower than it was in the regular season.
Rebounding has been another strength for the Bucks in this series. Milwaukee has grabbed 51.7% of the available rebounds in the five games played, and a lot of the damage has come on the offensive glass.
The Bucks have rebounded 31.5% of their missed shots this series, and as a result they are outscoring the Suns by 9.4 points in second-chance points per game. Not only does Milwaukee have dynamic rebounders, but the rebounding is also a product of their offensive game plan. Attempts close to the rim are easier to rebound on offense, as opposed to jump shots which tend to lead to long rebounds. The Bucks have had a consistent edge on the interior for this entire series, and their willingness to play to their strengths has put them one win away from an NBA championship.
The betting market has finally come around to these strengths for the Bucks, and we have seen a real adjustment in this betting line.
Most operators opened Milwaukee as a 3.5-point favorite in both Games 3 and 4, but for Game 5 we saw an opener of -5 almost everywhere. The adjustment is strong, but it is apt. The Bucks have taken full control of this series with the changes to their lineup and strategy.
The Suns have no answers for their small-ball lineup, and do not have the pieces to exploit the weaknesses that the Bucks still have. Phoenix likely has the ability to score, hunting mismatches that come as a result of switching everything like Milwaukee does, but it is hard to see a scenario which includes a Game 7 back in Phoenix. Expect a high-scoring affair on Tuesday night, and expect Giannis Antetokounmpo to be holding up his first Larry O’Brien Trophy.