The Milwaukee Bucks picked up their first win in the Finals behind a decisive Game 3 victory over the Phoenix Suns, and the result passed the eye test.
In a game where Suns' All-Star guard Devin Booker had his lowest scoring output of the playoffs and worst shooting night of the entire 2020-21 season and rising star centre Deandre Ayton played his fewest minutes of the postseason due to foul trouble, disaster loomed as Phoenix's hopes of taking a historically insurmountable 3-0 lead began to diminish.
Booker finished with just 10 points while shooting 3-for-14 (21.4 percent) from the field and 1-for-7 (14.3 percent) from 3-point range, making it a night to forget for the 24-year-old who has otherwise been stellar in these playoffs. Game 3 marked just the 10th time in the last four seasons that Booker scored 10 or fewer points in a game, and his 21.4 percent shooting from the field was his most inefficient mark since February of 2020.
From the get-go, Booker struggled to find a rhythm. He shot just 1-for-7 from the field in the first quarter, which was eerily similar to his 2-for-8 start in Game 2. However, at home, Booker was able to shoot himself out of a funk, proceeding to go for 25 points on an efficient 10-for-17 from the field over the next three quarters.
Game 3 on the road was a different story.
Shooting 2-for-11 from the field and 1-for-6 from 3-point range by halftime, Booker simply didn't have it. The smooth scorer would typically continue to fire away until he found his stroke, but instead, he attempted just three shots the entire second half and sat out the whole fourth quarter with the game's outcome already decided.
Although Booker has been less efficient on the road so far this postseason, his scoring output hadn't yet been affected the way it was in Game 3.
So what did the Bucks do differently to throw off the star shooting guard?
In Game 1, Jrue Holiday was Booker's primary defender but targeting centre Brook Lopez in pick-and-rolls allowed him to hand-select his matchup on any given possession. In Game 2, head coach Mike Budenholzer moved Holiday on to Chris Paul, using a bruiser in PJ Tucker and a longer defender in Khris Middleton to try and slow down Booker. The way the game started, it seemed the strategy was working, until Booker put on a shot-making display that screamed "good defence, better offence."
But Milwaukee went back to a similar strategy in Game 3 and Middleton and Tucker did their job, making life difficult for the Suns' primary source of offence. More Giannis Antetokounmpo at the five made pick-and-roll switches less enticing. Once Booker went cold, he started pressing, settling for perimeter jumpers off the dribble.
"I can get better (shots). We'll make that happen," he stated after the game. "...But there's nights like that. The most important part to me is winning the game, and we didn't do that. I'm more frustrated about that."
It's also tough to win a game where your starting center who has been arguably the biggest difference-maker in this series cannot stay on the floor.
Ayton deserves a piece of the blame pie as well, getting in to foul trouble early which altered the trajectory of the game. The 22-year-old had done a great job of defending without fouling to this point in the playoffs, never recording more than four fouls in a contest until Game 3. In fact, he only reached four fouls in six of the 18 playoff games, three of which came in the first round against the Los Angeles Lakers.
Antetokounmpo has feasted whenever Ayton isn't on the floor in this series, as the Suns don't have another viable option to contain the unstoppable force. As NBA.com's Scott Rafferty noted, Antetokounmpo is shooting 11-for-25 from the field when Ayton is the primary defender in the Finals, versus 25-for-30 against the rest of the roster.
The two-time MVP attacked Ayton early and often, playing a huge part in Phoenix's center tallying three fouls by halftime. When Ayton picked up his fourth foul in the first two minutes of the third quarter, he was forced to spend the remaining 10:25 of the frame on the bench. The Bucks busted the game open during that stretch, and although Ayton returned to the floor in the fourth quarter, he picked up his fifth foul with just under nine minutes on the clock, checking out for the remainder of the contest.
As a result, Antetokounmpo went for 23 points while shooting 7-for-10 from the field and 9-for-11 from the free throw line in the second half, putting the game out of reach with ease in the absence of the Suns' rim protector.
"He's a big part of our team and he's the anchor of our defence. So I feel like any team would love for him not to be on the court offensively and defensively," veteran leader Chris Paul said after the loss. "We got to protect him better and make sure we're showing that wall."
Game 3's loss is the first taste of adversity that Phoenix's young duo has faced in the Finals. Even in Ayton's quiet Game 2 performance, the rest of the team was able to pick up the slack and come away with a victory. How Booker and Ayton respond in Game 4 could decide this year's champion, as the Suns look to maintain control of the series and give themselves the opportunity to close things out at home in Game 5.
Can Booker get back to knocking down shots in a similar fashion to Game 2? It starts by playing within the flow of the offence, using ball-screens effectively when orchestrating the offence or running hard around screens to get better looks when Paul is teeing him up.
Can Ayton stay out of foul trouble while still playing aggressive? Antetokounmpo will surely continue to go right at him, and he'll smell blood in the water if Ayton comes out passive in Game 4.
The answer to those two questions will play a pivotal role in which direction this series trends in moving forward.
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