2021 NBA Finals

5 things we learned from Game 5 of the 2021 Finals

A fantastically compelling Finals took another incredible turn that has Milwaukee one win away from the championship.

Steve Aschburner

Steve Aschburner

Giannis Antetokounmpo is on the verge of what few thought he could accomplish this season.

Five things we learned from the Milwaukee Bucks’ 123-119 victory over the Phoenix Suns in Game 5 of the 2021 Finals Saturday in Phoenix:


1. We must have a series…

… since a road team finally won. That’s one of the sillier cliches about the playoffs, never mind the Finals. What, had Phoenix won Game 5 Saturday night, lost in Milwaukee Tuesday and then won Game 7 back home on Thursday, this wouldn’t have qualified as a series because it was all home cooking?

Right.

Now if that truism were re-written as “We don’t have a really interesting series until a road team wins a game,” that would be defensible. It isn’t as much fun when you need to read no further into a game story than the dateline to know the outcome.

With the Bucks going into the Suns’ gym, taking on not just Devin Booker, Chris Paul & Co. but the sellout crowd 16,562 strong – including Paul’s buddy LeBron James sitting courtside – there’s a whole new texture to this championship series. Even the new underdog Suns kind of, er, welcome it.

“Yeah, I like it,” Phoenix center Deandre Ayton, opting for the half-full approach. “Tables are turned now. Now we’re the desperate team. We had our chances of being up and trying to finish the job. Now we’re in the same position that they were in. They’re up and now we got to go get it. That’s why it’s a little bit more fun.”

Milwaukee powers back from a 16-point first-quarter deficit to win Game 5 in Phoenix for a 3-2 series lead.

The Bucks wouldn’t trade places with the Suns at this point, but they might feel a little pressure to flex home court and not let this opportunity slip away. It’s not like they haven’t stumbled at Fiserv Forum this postseason – they dropped Game 1 of the East finals against Atlanta, watching Trae Young score 48 while Milwaukee’s preferred closer Khris Middleton shot 6-for-23.

OK, so Milwaukee has won its other nine home games so far in these playoffs. Meanwhile, the 123-119 Game 5 victory snapped Phoenix’s 12-0 streak in games decided by five points or less.

If nothing else, the Suns can be on a mission now to make sure their previously anonymous arena didn’t get its jaunty new name – the Footprint Center – for just one game.


2. Holiday trusts his teammate and himself

Let’s do what players claim never to do and what coaches probably do more than they let on: consider the down side of Jrue Holiday’s in-the-moment alley-oop pass for Giannis Antetokounmpo with about 14 seconds left. Ooooh, that could have backfired big-time.

And still …

Holiday had just ripped the ball loose from Booker’s grip near the opposite foul line. He dribbled into the frontcourt and veered left, seemingly intent on avoiding for as long as possible any Suns player hurrying to foul him. Instead, he saw Antetokounmpo dashing toward the rim and fired the ball on a trajectory to meet him there. The Greek Freak dunked – without banging his head on the backboard, no small achievement – and got fouled. The free throw and immediate sequence thereafter (more on that below) gave Milwaukee a four-point lead to effectively seal the game.

Jrue Holiday comes up with a key steal on Devin Booker, then finds Giannis Antetokounmpo for an alley-oop dunk in transition with 13.5 seconds left.

But it all could have gone wrong, in two different ways. Holiday could have waited to get fouled, gone to the line and, even if he made two foul shots, the Suns would have had the ball again in a one-possession game. Or his pass could have been just a bit off or hit the rim or Antetokounmpo could have bobbled it or whatever, and now Phoenix might have had both the ball and only a one-point gap to attack in the final 10 seconds.

The first would have been the safe route and it could have cost his team the game anyway. But the second, hoo boy, had the Bucks then lost, Holiday would have been excoriated for not playing things safe.

Heck with that. He made the play.

“He didn’t want to throw me the ball at first, but I was like, ‘Throw it, throw it, throw it.'” Antetokounmpo said. “And then he threw it. He trusted me. After the game I was like, ‘Thank you for trusting me.’

“He could throw it and make a wrong pass and that would be on him as the point guard. The coach would say, ‘You’re supposed to keep the ball.’ But he trusted me and he knows I’m going to finish the play. That says a lot to me.”


3. Watch those Giannis misses at the foul line

The alley-oops was so spectacular, on the heels of Holiday’s rip of the ball from Booker, that it’s easy to neglect what immediately followed. Human nature, too. What we had just seen was stunning, deflating for Phoenix fans, pinch-me plays for Bucks supporters.

And really, as something for the ultimate NBA playoffs highlight reel, “Holiday steals the ball!” isn’t that different from Celtics broadcaster Johnny Most’s famous “Havlicek steals the ball!” call near the end of Game 7 of the 1965 East championship against Philadelphia.

But remember, Paul fouled Antetokounmpo on the dunk. The Bucks star – who had missed two free throws around a timeout with 1:09 left – stepped up and did it again. Except Holiday had pinched up, leaving Milwaukee’s backcourt vulnerable if the Suns had rebounded cleanly, and got a hand on the ball. Then Antetokounmpo batted it back toward … someone from his team he hoped would be there.

Khris Middleton was, but that tap had little on it, with two Phoenix players nearly claiming it as it bounced. Middleton covered it and got fouled by Booker. Then he too missed a free throw before sinking the second with 9.8 seconds left for the game’s final point. Two-possession game.

There were a couple of things decidedly un-championship-like on the Antetokounmpo free throw, including this …

and this:

Too many players take for granted their team grabbing defensive rebounds off missed free throws. Certainly in Antetokounmpo’s case, they can’t claim to be lulled into assuming he’ll sink them – he has missed 27 total attempts in the series. Any time Milwaukee claims his miss on a live ball, it’s an opportunity lost for Phoenix.

Said Paul: “Everybody’s out there anticipating a miss, hell, even he is, you know what I mean? So, we got to keep trying to box out. And with his length, he tipped the ball up in the air, ain’t too much you can do.”

Better do something, fundamentally speaking.


4. It’s not the Suns’ shooting

Phoenix, in losing three consecutive games, has shot 51.6% overall. That includes 55.2% in Game 5, with a 13-for-19 (68.4%) performance from 3-point range. In Games 3 and 4, the Suns outshot the Bucks and they did the same on 3-pointers in Games 4 and 5. And still they lost.

Where are the biggest statistical differences showing up? On the boards. Milwaukee is plus-28 in rebounds overall and plus-32 in offensive rebounds. That has contributed to the Bucks having 31 more field-goal attempts through five games than Phoenix. Total field goals? Milwaukee 214, Phoenix 212.

Since both teams have made 60 3-pointers, those two field goals and three free throws account for the spread of just seven points across five games. Now, the Suns might not like that Milwaukee has gone to the line 25 more times, an average of five per game, than they have. But really, the breakdown in free throw attempts is:

Suns: 86

Antetokounmpo: 66

Other Bucks: 45

Booker explodes for 2nd straight 40-point game

As subjective as some fouls can be, it’s hard to argue that Phoenix often puts Antetokounmpo on the line on purpose, his struggles there the smarter choice when he has the ball near the rim. Remember, out of those extra 25 free throws for Milwaukee, the Bucks have only gotten three points. Antetokounmpo is 39-for-66, a 59.1% clip worse than his 61.2% mark from the field.

Of course, then there is the matter of closing time, with execution on offense and stops on defense, where the Suns have had problems. By the way, Game 5 was like a game within a game. Adding up the game’s first 12:21 and last 8:38 for 21 minutes overall, the Suns outscored Milwaukee 62-36. But those 27 minutes in between? That went Bucks, 87-57.

One bonus for Milwaukee in that stretch came at the start of the second quarter, when Antetokounmpo sat down and saw his teammates outscore Phoenix 25-12 over the first 5:46 of the period – 25 points in less than six minutes, as if an All-Star had broken out. It was a taste of how the Bucks played in Games 5 and 6 of the East finals, winning twice to reach The Finals while Antetokounmpo was out with his hyperextended left knee.

Perhaps not coincidentally Saturday, Devin Booker sat out the same 5:46 as Antetokounmpo as the Bucks turned the Suns’ 37-21 lead into a 49-46 game.


5. Overlook ‘small markets’ at our own peril

Are we not entertained by the 2021 Finals? Are folks really fretting about which teams and which big-name players aren’t participating?

This series has displayed fierce and tremendous competition, memorable time-capsule highlights, and a bunch of participants worth rooting for. Everyone on one of these teams is going to win his first championship ring. A whole bunch of nice guys with compelling stories are going to come up short.

LeBron James was sitting courtside Saturday with a bottle of booze, but did anyone even really care?

For Phoenix, Monty Williams has shined as a perfect, post-millennium coach with a poignant back story and calm, caring demeanor. His Bucks counterpart, Mike Budenholzer, is more old school, an observable worry wart who occasionally has cracked a smile.

Booker has been a breakout scoring star and at 24 mature beyond his years. Paul already has redefined himself and his legacy, win or lose, in getting the Suns to this point so soon in their time together. Ayton no longer has to leave the room when people talk about Luka Doncic and Trae Young.

Middleton has shown an ability to close games better than most MLB bullpens. Holiday is making Bucks GM Jon Horst look brilliant in doing what they both thought he could with that preseason trade.

And Antetokounmpo is looking and sounding like the worthy young face of the NBA now, ego contained, pride on a leash, humble in the biggest moments. He is on the brink of doing what so many doubted he could even approach in Milwaukee, before he has even seen one dime of the massive contract extension he signed before the season.

So many wanted to see him move, or at least wait to make the free agent market more juicy. Instead, getting that business out of the way early might have made this all possible.

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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.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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