Five things we learned from the Milwaukee Bucks’ 109-103 victory over the Phoenix Suns in Game 4 of the 2021 Finals Wednesday in Milwaukee:
1. The Middleton Effect is fully engaged
What Milwaukee’s Khris Middleton did down the stretch Wednesday again was impressive. His knack for putting the Bucks’ attack on his back, again, is something that team has come to rely on in playoff situations — as long as they’re a couple games deep into a series.
Middleton scored 40 points in Game 4, getting 24 after halftime and 14 in the final 12 minutes. And what he did as the game went on mirrored what he has done this postseason as each series has gone on.
Here are Middleton’s primary offensive numbers in Games 1-2 of the four series Milwaukee has played: 18.0 ppg on 37.8% shooting.
Now here are the same numbers in Games 3-7 (13 so far): 27.1 ppg, 46.3%. He also went from shooting zero free throws, total, in the first two games to making 10-of-11 since.
Whether it’s understanding the opponents’ defensive tactics better, getting more comfortable when facing a team for the third, fourth or fifth time or something else entirely, the Bucks are pleased they have no more Games 1 or 2.
The more Milwaukee got the ball into Middleton’s hands, enabling him to read situations and make decisions, the better things went.
“He was being aggressive,” teammate Giannis Antetokounmpo said. “I kept communicating to him that there were things that we could do to get him wide open, to get him to the elbow jump shot, to get him turning the corner, because usually they are helping a lot when he’s turning the corner.
“But that’s what he does down the stretch. We want him to have the ball. We want him to be the decision-maker. We know he’s going to take big shots, and tonight he was incredible.”
Said Middleton: “Late in the fourth quarter, we just ran sets that allowed me to get to my spots. After that I just got to make reads. Whether to shoot, whether to find an open guy, Giannis on a roll. It’s just reading the defense at that point. Just luckily, thankfully, I hit some shots.”
2. Booker is a bounce-backer
A 24-year-old guy participating in his first NBA playoffs could be forgiven for a poor performance, such as Devin Booker’s 3-of-14, 10-point night in Game 3. Booker, though, wasn’t having it, and showed the same sort of resiliency and effort that worked so well for him in the regular season.
In what arguably were Booker’s five least productive games of 2020-21, the Phoenix wing shot 26.7% and averaged 11.2 points. But each time, in the very next games, the 6-foot-5 guard came back strong from the clunkers: 50% shooting and 24.0 ppg.
His bounce back in Game 4 was even bigger: 42 points on 17-of-28 shooting. He might have scored more if not for foul trouble that had him on the bench for about five minutes early in the fourth quarter. As it was, he scored 20 points before halftime, 22 after.
It was Booker’s third game with at least 40 points this postseason, tying him with Wilt Chamberlain in his first playoffs. Rick Barry had five such games as a newbie. Booker now has the mark for most points (542) by a playoffs first-time, too, though Barry got his (521) in just 15 games compared to Booker’s 20.
“He could have gone for 50-plus,” said Suns coach Monty Williams. “I wanted to get him in maybe a minute earlier than I did, you’re just holding on trying to get as many stops and solid possessions as you can, but it’s not an ideal situation. But … we were able to get him back in when the game was still tight and we actually had the lead.”
3. No foul, no harm
Gotta give credit to Booker, on such an explosive, Kobe Bryant-like scoring night, to still take the defensive end seriously enough to get himself in foul trouble. That included a play late in the game on which he appeared to pick up his sixth and disqualifying foul — but didn’t.
With 3:41 to go and Phoenix up 95-92, Booker wrapped up Jrue Holiday as he drove and got the Bucks point guard across the arm for good measure. A clear foul, except there was no whistle. Giannis Antetokounmpo grabbed the ball and laid it up to cut the gap to one point. Play continued, even though most of those involved and everyone watching knew they had just seen what should have been Booker’s final foul.
Apparently, the young player truly had reached the big time, getting a superstar non-call on The Finals stage.
The Bucks certainly would have traded Antetokounmpo’s layup for Booker’s exit. He stayed in the game to take four more shots and score four more points. Afterward, the officials acknowledged that Booker had fouled Holiday — the official play-by-play lists it as a “block” — but no one has to dwell on it since the call that favored Phoenix didn’t flip the eventual outcome.
4. A block for the ages
You might think it would be enough that Antetokounmpo’s breathtaking, jaw-dropping block of Deandre Ayton’s imminent alley-oop slam dunk preserved Milwaukee’s 101-99 lead with 1:14 left.
You might think the play, along with another block and two steals “The Greek Freak” had in the final quarter, would remind people that Antetokounmpo’s 2020 Kia Defensive Player of the Year award was earned for reasons, and that he doesn’t need to score 40 every game to make a huge difference.
You’d think that would do it, right?
You’d be wrong.
Almost immediately, fans and media folks felt compelled to determine just where in the hierarchy of great blocked shots that play ranked. It was easy enough to get the Bucks’ view, given its impact on their Finals hopes and, of course, recency bias. As guard Pat Connaughton said: “In my opinion, it’s the best block of all time. Obviously, we’re a little biased and you can talk about the LeBron block as well.”
Not just LeBron James’ chasedown swat of Andre Iguodala near the end of Game 7 in the 2016 Finals, which helped secure the Cavaliers’ championship. Other great playoff blocks include: Bam Adebayo’s finger-tips denial of Jayson Tatum last year in the Orlando bubble; Tayshaun Prince running down Reggie Miller in 2004; Horace Grant and Scottie Pippen stuffing Charles Smith four times in rapid succession in 1993; and maestro Bill Russell denying St. Louis’ Jack Coleman at the rim to save Game 7 in the 1957 Finals for the first of the Celtics’ many NBA titles.
C’mon now, does everything have to be ranked? Isn’t there enough space in sports for multiple great plays, players and teams? All this GOAT silliness starts to smell after a while. I like Russell, Michael Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as candidates for greatest NBA player of all time, for instance. There’s never going to be an official election or run-off anyway, so why bother.
And no, the irony of criticizing this obsession with ranking things in a “Five Things We Learned …” piece is not lost on this committee.
5. Chris Paul has it in his hands
Phoenix’s turnover totals so far in this series, starting with Game 1 have been nine, 12, 14 and 17, with five of that Game 4 total attributed to Paul. The veteran point guard, on the short list of the NBA’s best-ever at that position (careful, there we go again), has 17 turnovers in the Finals to go with his 33 assists.
That might not be bad for mere mortal playmakers, but for Paul, it’s atrocious, an assists-to-turnovers ratio of 1.94 to 1. His career ratio over 16 seasons is 3.92 to 1. And his lifetime playoff rate up until Game 4 was 3.22 to 1.
Paul had two turnovers early, one in the third quarter, and two late, contributing to the 24 points Milwaukee scored off those miscues. They cost the Suns possessions, too, limiting them to 78 shots to the Bucks 97 (Milwaukee had 17-5 edge in offensive rebounds that mirror the 17-5 disparity in turnovers).
“It was me,” Paul said. “It was bad decision making. That time we were down two and I tried to cross over right there, slipped, turned it over. I had some bad passes in the first half. They got a significant amount more shots than us, so for me I got to take care of the ball.”
Paul was off overall, scoring 10 points on 5-of-13 shooting. He looked tired at times, too, which is exactly what Milwaukee wanted to see. The Bucks had Holiday and even Jeff Teague making sure Paul had to work just to bring the ball upcourt. Then they threw traffic at him to make his sightlines tougher.
“I’m tired,” said Holiday, who avoided heat for his 4-of-20 shooting thanks to the victory. “I really do hope [the Bucks wore Paul down]. That’s kind of the point of us doing it, right? I think to be able to not give Chris just some easy baskets, easy view of the game. We know that he can control the game and just kind of put it in the palm of his hand.
“But I think being able to have his back turned most of the game, always thinking that me or Teague are going to be there, I think it could be frustrating. And then doing it 94 feet for 48 minutes, it can be a bit tiring.”
Now, with Paul — a certain Hall of Famer — two victories away from his first championship ring, will he have enough left at age 36 to gut through and make a difference in three more games? Or is he done, gassed, used up, forcing Phoenix to rely on Booker, backup Cam Payne and others?
Choose the latter at your own peril.
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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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