After winning Game 1 with a nonstop flurry of midrange jumpers, the Suns claimed a 118-108 victory in Game 2 on Thursday night thanks to a record-setting night from beyond the arc.
This was a classic case of adjusting to the adjustment. Intent on making life more difficult for Suns guards Chris Paul and Devin Booker, the Bucks decided to crowd their pick and rolls, thereby leaving more space for Phoenix’s shooters. The Suns, clearly prepared for this shift, moved the ball well and found the open man.
By halftime, Phoenix had registered 15 assists on 22 baskets and matched its Game 1 total of 11 three-pointers. By night’s end, the Suns had drained 20 three-pointers on 40 attempts, setting a franchise mark for three-pointers in a playoff game and equaling the second-highest total in NBA Finals history. Booker finished with a team-high 31 points, including seven three-pointers, two of which helped stave off fourth-quarter rallies by the Bucks.
“The guys work on it,” Suns Coach Monty Williams said. “We have a ‘let it fly’ mentality. [Fourth-quarter opportunities] are the moments that [Booker] lives for. He doesn’t run from it. Devin wants to prove to everybody that he’s one of the best players in the league. Not just from a stats and numbers perspective. I think he wants to prove it by winning.”
The Suns have a 2-0 series lead and a sterling 14-4 record during their playoff run because their starting lineup has five scoring threats. In Game 1, Paul, Booker and center Deandre Ayton handled the heavy lifting. In Game 2, forwards Mikal Bridges and Jae Crowder combined for 38 points and six threes.
“[Bridges] had it going and he takes a lot of pressure off everybody,” Booker said. "The most impressive part is that he guards the most dynamic scorer on the other team. [Khris] Middleton is not an easy matchup. That’s his matchup every night and he has to do a lot on the other end.”
There were plenty of promising early signs for Milwaukee, which after Game 1 sought to increase its defensive intensity, slow Phoenix’s transition attack and get more offensive contributions from Antetokounmpo and guard Jrue Holiday.
Milwaukee accomplished all these goals in the opening few minutes, with Holiday attacking the hoop as he had promised Wednesday and with Antetokounmpo putting on a one-man dunk parade. There went the two-time MVP, cruising to the rim in transition, sneering at Ayton after a slam and rising high to throw down a putback dunk, all in the game’s first five minutes.
While Paul and Booker combined to miss their first six shots, the Suns never wavered during what Williams called “a storm of aggression.” After falling into an early nine-point hole, they retook the lead by the end of the first quarter and stretched their advantage to 11 points by halftime. Phoenix never trailed in the second half.
Perhaps the biggest concern for the Suns as the series shifts to Milwaukee for Sunday’s Game 3 is their mounting injury woes on the bench. Dario Saric, a small ball center, was lost for the playoffs with a right ACL tear in Game 1. Torrey Craig, a defensive-minded forward who saw more time in Saric’s absence, had to be helped to the locker room after suffering a right knee contusion while defending a third-quarter Antetokounmpo drive.
For Holiday, whom the Bucks absolutely need as a consistent source of offense given their limited depth, it was another frustrating outing in which he often tried to do too much. The 12-year veteran, who is being asked to expend an enormous amount of energy defending Paul, shot 4 for 14 in his Finals debut on Tuesday and 7 for 21 in Game 2. Holiday wasn’t alone: Middleton, the all-star forward who has saved Milwaukee’s season at numerous points during this playoff run, was nearly invisible, scoring just 11 points on 5-for-16 shooting.
“Jrue was getting to the paint a lot,” Bucks Coach Mike Budenholzer said. “I liked his aggressiveness. We need all three of those guys. If they keep working, it will come good.”
That left Antetokounmpo as the sole source of reliable offense for the Bucks. He finished with a postseason career-high 42 points, 12 rebounds and four assists in a valiant effort, favoring his hyperextended left knee at multiple points. After scoring 20 points in a third-quarter flourish, he briefly left the court in the fourth quarter with cramping in his left leg but he was able to return.
The Bucks have struggled to find consistent outside shooting throughout the playoffs, and they combined to shoot 9 for 31 from deep, not nearly good enough to match the Suns or to adequately support their superstar.
“I want to win and enjoy the game as much as possible,” Antetokounmpo said, explaining his approach during his animated huddle speech. “In this situation, I understand there's so much pressure from the whole world, from the media, from the fans. At the end of the day, it's not about just us individually. It's about the whole team, everybody that worked to be in this position. We should be proud of ourselves and enjoy the game to the fullest. We haven't been here [to the Finals] since 1974.”
Phoenix, meanwhile, was not especially reliant on the long ball during the regular season, ranking 15th in three-point attempts. But the Suns’ starting lineup features great spacing thanks to four proficient three-point shooters, and they finished seventh in three-point efficiency.
Indeed, they have enjoyed breakout shooting nights in each of their playoff series: hitting 18 threes in a Game 6 closeout win over the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round, 18 threes in a blowout Game 2 win over the Denver Nuggets in the conference semifinals and 17 threes in a series-ending Game 6 smackdown of the Los Angeles Clippers in Game 6 of the Western Conference finals.
"With our team, we've got shooters," Paul said. "We've got real shooters. It's nice when you kick it and you expect him to make it."
If left to their own devices, Paul and Booker tend to settle into sweet spots near the free throw line, dancing and firing until defenses change up their looks. The mark of a great team is that it can beat its opponents in a variety of ways, and the Suns, who entered the season as relative afterthoughts and now sit two wins from the first title in franchise history, are increasingly looking worthy of that superlative. Their Plan B was devastating.
— Ben Golliver
Read highlights of Game 2 below.
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