Normally I would start out with some sort of conceptual framework or an obscure analogy to set up this column.
But this is the NBA Finals, and this is Game 5, the pivot point. So let’s skip the formalities and get down to the nitty gritty.
Back to the Future
The Phoenix Suns were -190 when Game 1 tipped off. They are currently -150. You are getting a better price on the series for the Suns now than you did at the start.
This, despite the Suns having won both home games. Despite the Bucks averaging 93 points per 100 possessions in halfcourt offense. Despite a terrible Game 4 from Chris Paul and a worse Game 3 from Devin Booker.
The Bucks won Games 3 and 4 by forcing turnovers and grabbing offensive rebounds. That is difficult to sustain as an offensive approach. Milwaukee’s effort on offensive boards was incredible, but effort is something that can be matched. It’s also tied to the trajectory of the rebound, which can simply not go one’s way.
The Bucks’ defense is awesome, it’s the most consistent part of their team. But forcing turnovers does take two to tango, and if Chris Paul, one of the greatest and most efficient point guards in league history, simply cuts down on his mistakes, the Buck’s 67-46 lead in points off turnovers evaporates.
The Bucks made a meal in Games 3 and 4 off the sides. They need an entree, and so far their entree, halfcourt offense, has been a pile of rusty nails on top of a bed of overcooked spinach.
Before the series began, the series spread and exact outcomes both indicated a long series. Suns in five had the same odds as Suns in seven (+350), with Suns in six longer at +450. But even with Suns in five shorter than Suns in six, there was still a lean towards a longer series.
Suns -1.5 in series win spread (Suns in six, now) was +135 before the series began. It’s now +300.
So at the start of the series, there was an expectation that the series would go long, it’s gone long, and yet the odds have improved.
I came into this series expecting to find reasons to bet the Bucks. I had bet Bucks over Suns at +165 during the Conference finals. But when I did the deep dive, the Suns had the value, even with the series line short because of what turned out to be too much skepticism about Giannis Antetokounmpo’s health.
The Suns still have homecourt in the series and the home team has won every game. The Bucks are 5-6 on the road in the playoffs with a negative point differential.
The point I’m trying to get to is that the series was priced towards a long series going in. It’s going long, and yet the odds have shifted. Of course some of that is the uncertainty baked into the lines being metered out (Suns in five is no longer on the table, etc).
But if you felt the Suns were going to win a long series, you’re getting better value now than you did to start the series.
The Tactical Matchups
Monty Williams said before Game 4 that pushing the pace was a priority. Then the Suns turned around and had the exact same pace as Game 3. Getting into their offense faster will generate better looks and combat the Bucks’ effort on the offensive glass.
Going back to this, the Bucks have a 93 offensive rating in the halfcourt in this series, per Cleaning The Glass and the Suns are at 104.3. That difference is critical. So many more possessions are in the halfcourt in a Finals series.
The Suns have given up 16.3 fast break points per game in this series. That’s compared to just 11.5 for the playoffs. The Suns were 22nd in transition points per possession in the regular season, then moved to second-best in the playoffs, but that’s mostly because they didn’t face a team who could challenge them there: the Bucks can.
However, the best chance for transition opportunities are turnovers, and after that it’s on missed shots. The Suns had the fourth-lowest turnover rate in the regular season and only allowed 6.063 live ball turnovers per game going into this series; it’s up to 7.75 in this series.
What I’m getting at is that all the advantages for the Bucks are things that the Suns have under their control: they can rebound better, get back in transition, and turn the ball over less.
The advantages for the Suns are things the Bucks struggle to contain: shooting. Milwaukee has the most games in the playoffs with an actual effective field goal percentage lower than their expected eFG% based on shot quality, via Second Spectrum. The Bucks have shot worse than expected eight times, compared to just four times for the Suns.
An informed projection of Game 5 looks like this: The Suns play with much more energy and intensity, clean up the turnovers, shoot much better and still struggle on the defensive glass. Meanwhile the Bucks shoot marginally to considerably worse and the Bucks’ substantial advantage inside dissipates against superior halfcourt execution.
The Suns have consistently been a better shooting team among playoff squads, the Bucks have consistently been among the worst shooting teams (vs. expectation) in the playoffs.
Why would we believe that’s going to shift now?
Foul trouble is the other part of this equation. It wrecked the Suns in Game 3. Not only did Giannis rack up trips to the line in Games 3 and 4, but he shot 68% on those attempts. On the road in the playoffs, he’s averaging just a 52% free throw percentage.
So even if he gets a friendly whistle in Phoenix, as long as the calls are not against Deandre Ayton specifically, the Suns are probably fine because his percentage likely dips back down.
That caveat in there is because without Dario Saric, the Suns have no alternative. Since Saric went down, the Suns have a -16.7 in Net Rating when Ayton sits. If he gets in foul trouble, the Suns are sunk. But Ayton has picked up four fouls just once in these playoffs and that was Game 3 vs. the Bucks.
I’m on Suns -3.5 which I got as soon as the line came out, it’s held around -4 since Thursday morning, despite 76% of the bets and 76% of the money on Phoenix via our Action Network app.
We have sharp indicators on the Bucks and our model thinks the Bucks +4 has value. However, I like the Suns’ shooting to stabilize and for the Suns to retake momentum, I’ll take the Suns -3.5 and their team total over of 111.5.