In Game 2 of the NBA Finals, Milwaukee Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo was nothing short of incredible.
While 42 points (on 15-for-22 shooting), 12 rebounds, four assists and three blocks from your superstar should be enough for a win, it wasn't. Milwaukee fell into a 2-0 series deficit to the Phoenix Suns after its other four starters combined to score just one more point than Antetokounmpo while shooting a combined 19-for-52 from the field.
NBA FINALS GAME 2: Takeaways | No excuses from Giannis after monster performance | Player ratings
P.J. Tucker was fine, scoring seven points (on 3-for-5 shooting) and Brook Lopez had his moments, scoring eight points and pulling down nine rebounds in under 28 minutes of action, but the Bucks absolutely need more from their star duo of Khris Middleton (11) and Jrue Holiday (17), who scored 28 points on combined 12-for-37 (32.4 percent) shooting from the field and 2-for-9 (22.2 percent) shooting from deep.
It's an issue that's exacerbated by the fact that each member of the Suns stars in their respective roles on a nightly basis. That hasn't been the case for the Bucks up to this point in the series.
In the words of Phoenix's head coach Monty Williams, I'm not calling Middleton and Holiday out, I'm calling them up. It wasn't all bad, they're much better than what they showed, and there's reason to believe they'll bounce back as the series shifts locations.
Let's start with Middleton.
To say the least, this postseason has been interesting for the nine-year veteran. Middleton, who shot 47.6 percent from the field in the 2020-21 regular season, has more games shooting under 40 percent (7) in these playoffs than games in which he shot at or above his regular-season average (6).
Balancing it out are Middleton's bounce-back performances, which have almost come to be expected from the 29-year-old. After shooting 13-for-43 in Games 1 and 2 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals, Middleton stepped up to score 35 points in a crucial Game 3 win that effectively kept Milwaukee's season alive.
In the Eastern Conference Finals, Middleton scored a total of 30 points in Games 1 and 2 before exploding for 38 points (20 in the fourth quarter) to go along with 11 rebounds and seven assists to steal back home court advantage in Game 3.
The Finals have been interesting in a different way, with Middleton opening the series with 29 points (on 12-for-26 shooting), only to follow it with a 5-for-16 outing that was highlighted by his eight assists and six rebounds.
Khris cooks early & P.J. connects from three!! pic.twitter.com/ObTAWZgqaR- Milwaukee Bucks (@Bucks) July 9, 2021
There's more to 5-for-16 than meets the eye, as Middleton just failed to connect on a number of good looks, something he acknowledged after the game. "Yeah (I was pleased with the looks I was getting), in the first half," Middleton told reporters. "I had more than a few go just in and out for me. So, that's that. I'll take them over and over again. Just didn't hit them in the second half."
Middleton's playmaking has been crucial and his presence alone is important, but to avoid the historically insurmountable 3-0 deficit in this series, he'll need to get those looks to go in order to deliver yet another one of his signature bounce-back offensive performances.
That his mind is already focused on the next, it makes sense that he's proven to be capable of it bouncing back a few times before.
Holiday sang a similar tune after the game, saying "we had a lot of open shots that we didn't make. I know me personally, there were a couple layups there that I usually make that kind of rimmed in and out. Had some good looks."
A look at Holiday's shot chart reveals that of his 14 misses, eight came in the paint - seven of which were deemed layups or finger rolls.
Like Middleton, Holiday was a plus with his playmaking, dishing out seven assists and committing just one turnover. Defensively, Holiday showed just why he is an All-Defensive First Teamer, hounding Devin Booker and Chris Paul while making a number of winning plays on that end of the floor, including an amazing chase-down block on Booker and a block/forced jump ball on 6-foot-11 center Deandre Ayton.
Jrue Holiday was making PLAYS at the rim during the 1st half on ABC.#NBAFinals presented by YouTube TV pic.twitter.com/nvs4EPGrB5- NBA (@NBA) July 9, 2021
Now, the thing is to get more of the same on offence from Holiday, hoping he gets those good looks to go on that end. He might be shooting just 11-for-35 (31.5 percent) to open the series, but Holiday isn't far removed from two signature performances to close out the Eastern Conference Finals.
After going 6-for-17 in a Game 4 loss to the Hawks, Holiday bounced back with 25 points, 13 assists and six rebounds in a pivotal Game 5 after the series shifted back to Fiserv Forum. He then built on that in Milwaukee's closeout Game 6 win on the road.
See a parallel? Like with Middleton, these playoffs have shown that Holiday knows how to bounce back. Specific to this instance, a change of scenery could be exactly what Holiday needs to get back to the star level Milwaukee needs him to play at.
Improved play from this star duo gives Milwaukee a scary Big Three again, and allows the team to stay afloat during the non-Giannis minutes. According to NBA.com Stats, the Bucks have posted a net rating of +2.6 in the 75 minutes that Antetokounmpo has played in the Finals. The 21 minutes without him? That number plummets to a staggering -53.7.
Much of this can be attributed to a defensive dropoff, but it's no secret that better overall play would make those numbers much less eye-popping.
If you're with the Bucks - or just hoping that they turn it around - there are two ways of looking at things. From a point of pessimism, you could be of the belief that a masterful performance from the two-time MVP was wasted as it didn't result in a win. From an optimistic standpoint, the series is now shifting to Milwaukee, and the two players that need to step up have acknowledged that they can be much, much better.
History supports the notion that they will.
In Game 3, expect the Bucks to come out with a sense of desperation that should be reflected in the effort and performances of their most important players.
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