MILWAUKEE — Chris Paul narrowly missed a double-double with 19 points and nine assists, but it was not enough as the Milwaukee Bucks topped the Phoenix Suns 120-100 Sunday night at Fiserv Forum to reduce the Suns’ advantage in the NBA Finals to 2-1.
The Bucks got 41 points, 16 rebounds and six assists from two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, and took control of the game with a 24-6 run in the third quarter that turned a 74-70 lead into a comfortable 98-76 cushion.
Milwaukee had a significant edge in many categories that Suns coach Monty Williams emphasized before the game.
The Bucks’ 13 offensive rebounds led to a 20-2 edge in second-chance points. They scored 17 points off 15 Suns turnovers. They had a 16-6 advantage in fastbreak points and a 54-40 advantage in points in the paint. After going 20-of-40 from 3-point range in Game 2, the Suns made only 9 of 31 attempts Sunday night.
"They played with a great deal of aggression for longer stretches than we did," Williams said. "We knew it was coming. We did not respond to it well tonight, especially in the second and third quarters. ... It was a tough lesson for us to learn."
Suns center Deandre Ayton scored 18 points on 8-of-11 shooting and added nine rebounds, but foul trouble limited his minutes in the second half. Cam Johnson tallied 14 points and five rebounds off the bench, including a soaring, posterizing one-handed dunk over P.J. Tucker as part of the spurt that cut Milwaukee’s double-digit lead to four points in the third quarter.
Game 4 is Wednesday night in Milwaukee. The Suns have won Game 4 in all three of their playoff series so far.
WHAT THEY ARE SAYING:
Monty Williams on Game 4: "I think we know that we have to play with an unreal amount of aggression and energy for 48 minutes. That's the deal. All of our guys know that we didn't. We have had this happen to us before in the playoffs, and so I expect our guys to bounce back."
Jae Crowder on the message in the locker room: "We have been preaching it all postseason. Whenever we win, we don't get too high. You just move on to the next one. You have a loss, you do the same. You got to do it with more focus, obviously. But I've been preaching that. That's all. That's my message, is just respond to it in the right way and do it collectively and we'll be fine"
Cam Johnson on what happened during the play he got injury: ”I took a shot to the rib, kind of knocked the wind out of me and in the process my ab cramped up. So that's why I was down on the floor. If any of you all had an ab cramp, you know it's just kind of tough to move. So I was okay, I just needed a second for it to calm down so I could get up."
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Deandre Ayton: 18 points, 9 rebounds, 2 steals
Chris Paul: 19 points, 9 assists, 1 steal
Cam Johnson: 14 points, 5 rebounds, 1 block
Jae Crowder: 18 points, 6 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 block
Devin Booker: 10 points, 6 rebounds, 2 assists
“Locked in” is a popular phrase used across sports at all levels to describe being singularly focused on the immediate task at hand. After a grueling 72-game regular season and three thrilling playoff series, it has never been more important for these Suns to exercise that mental approach. They will open the NBA Finals Tuesday against the Milwaukee Bucks, embarking on their last stretch toward the ultimate summit.
The Suns are locked in on a formidable opponent. They are locked in on maintaining their style of play and everyday habits that got them this far. They are locked in on seizing four more wins, and clinching the first NBA title in franchise history.
After the lengthy officials’ review, the crowd’s roar upon confirmation that his finish was legal and the endless hugs from teammates and coaches, Ayton emphatically agreed when asked if that was the best play of his life. The “Valley-oop” to beat the Los Angeles Clippers 104-103 to take a 2-0 lead in the Western Conference Finals is already an iconic moment in Phoenix Suns history.
It was also the latest reminder that Ayton’s consistent — and often dominant — play unfolding bit-by-bit during this electrifying postseason run has rapidly vaulted him into the conversation surrounding the NBA’s top-tier centers.
Johnson and Bridges are now known as “The Twins,” a nickname coined by Deandre Ayton because they are always around each other and play a similar position and style. After forming their initial bond heading into the 2019-20 season, Johnson’s and Bridges’ relationship flows from the locker room onto the court and epitomizes the Suns’ necessary trust, togetherness and overall synergy that has led them to the Western Conference Finals.
On June 20, 2019, Jones helped launch the construction of the Suns’ roster now up 2-0 in the Western Conference Finals. And on June 20, 2021, Jones was named NBA Executive of the Year. What a difference two years can make.
It takes talent, relentless drive and togetherness to become one of the NBA’s final four teams remaining in the postseason. But the Suns’ ability to reach this level of consistent, confident and clinical execution, particularly while winning a franchise-record seven consecutive playoff games, can be directly tied to their willingness to embrace the belief that everything counts. That attention to detail becomes even more critical with an NBA Finals berth on the line when Phoenix’s series against the Los Angeles Clippers begins Sunday afternoon, especially with Paul missing at least Game 1 while in health and safety protocols.
RIGHT PLACE, RIGHT TIME
Craig is a versatile defender and willing rebounder on both ends. He will dive for 50/50 balls and flash his athleticism via deflections and blocks. He has gotten more offensive opportunities with the Suns as an outside shooter and authoritative finisher off cuts and in transition. Now, Craig is showcasing all of those attributes during a playoff series against his former team while providing a jolt to the Suns’ championship aspirations.
‘THERE’S NOTHING LIKE IT’
That electric crowd is goosebumps-inducing in person and takes television viewers aback, prompting local pride and national attention. It has been praised by young Suns experiencing the postseason for the first time and veterans who have been through countless playoff games alike. That’s why it’s reasonable to wonder if — or conclude that — the Suns have quickly created the NBA’s best home-court advantage during these playoffs.
The formal definition of the word “relentless” is “oppressively constant; incessant.” That descriptor has followed the Suns throughout this season, applying to their on-court style of play and their everyday habits while navigating this unique season. Knocking off the defending-champion Los Angeles Lakers in the playoffs’ first round required a relentless approach, which now carries the Suns into the Western Conference Semifinals against the Denver Nuggets.
“It’s just how the guys are built, individually and as a collective group,” Booker said. “If you go down the list of all the players, there’s nobody that’s scared of the moment. There’s nobody that hasn’t prepared for this moment. This isn’t new. This is how we’ve been playing for most of the season. We’ve had ups and downs, but we’re a confident team and we play hard all the way through.”
Now in his third season as general manager of the Phoenix Suns, James Jones has taken his knowledge of what it takes to win a ring and is building a roster of like-minded players with high-IQs, unselfish personalities and relentless attitudes both on the court and behind the scenes. The result is Phoenix’s dramatic rise over the past two seasons. The Suns went 51-21 during the 2020-21 regular season, finished second in a loaded Western Conference and enters Tuesday with the opportunity to take a 3-2 lead in their first-round playoff series against the defending-champion Los Angeles Lakers.
Cameron Payne plays with a fiery passion that somehow looks both free and furious, prompting some to compare him to the “haboob” dust storms that disrupt the Valley air during the summer monsoon season. It’s a fitting style for Payne, a former lottery draft pick who had his NBA career stripped away in early 2019 and is now savoring his shot on a Suns team with championship aspirations.
“To be on the road and have your fans cheering for you, especially when you make a run, is pretty cool," head coach Monty Williams said. "We’re thankful, grateful and we’re fighting our tails off to make those fans that we have in this environment have something to cheer for.”
Whether traveling from Phoenix or different parts of California, Suns.com gathered personal stories from six Suns fans making the trip and cheer on their favorite team.
LIVING UP TO THE MOMENT
Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges and Cameron Johnson showed consistent effort all season, preparing them for the bright lights. They lived up to the moment in Game 1 and, in some cases, churned out historic stat lines — even during an intense game complete with the magnitude of the franchise’s first playoff game since 2010, a jarring injury to their Hall of Fame point guard and a scuffle that resulted in a teammate being ejected.
There are enough “Montyisms” for Monty Williams to write a compilation book — which Devin Booker has publicly and privately suggested to his coach. Even while repeating them to players, Cam Johnson said, Williams will preface by acknowledging some might call them “corny” or “goofy” or “coach speak.” Yet Johnson says those mantras are “big-time anchors” that have kept the Suns emotionally centered during the franchise’s emphatic rise to the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference. They create personal connections with players by instilling belief and relaying constructive advice. They provide reminders that resurface in the head and heart when one least expects it, and can apply to both basketball and life.
RALLY THE VALLEY
Suns.com gathered personal stories from 13 people connected to the organization. Some are longtime fans, and others are long-time employees in behind-the-scenes roles. Some are community partners who work with the Suns to make residents’ lives a little brighter. Some are natives, and some have returned home.
“You look around the league at some teams, and not everybody has a vibe like this or an energy like this throughout,” Booker said. “I always say it’s a great environment to get better in. When you have everybody supporting you, everybody being honest with you — those are the same people that can give me constructive criticism at any point in the game, and I’m listening to them — that’s the name of our group, man.”
Culture, chemistry and overall spirit are intangible qualities that cannot be measured by traditional stats or advanced analytics. But players and coaches know it — feel it — when those attributes have manifested within a team.