The Milwaukee Bucks know what it takes to come back from a 2-0 deficit after beating them in the round of 16 Brooklyn Nets. After falling 2-0 down in the NBA final, the Bucks return to Phoenix with two series-level games each. Can the Phoenix suns get going again at home or should the rally scream “Bucks in 6” become a reality? Our experts discuss the big NBA Finals questions that feed into Game 5 on Saturday (9:00 p.m. ET on ABC and the ESPN app).
1. Chris PaulSales: Nothing, Something, or Everything?
Chris Paul explains why he thinks the Suns will step up their game after a tough loss in Game 4 to the Bucks on the road.
Andrew Lopez: It is something and that is something Jrue vacation. The work that Holiday does on the defensive is starting to pay off, and we’ve seen Paul do something he rarely does: flip the ball in clutch minutes. Paul had two turnovers in clutch time in Game 4 – defined by the NBA as a game with a score within five points in the last five minutes – in Game 4. He had only 8 turnovers in 152 minutes of clutch time the previous season.
Zach Lowe: Something and close to everything. The Bucks win just about every number battle, including and most importantly, the property battle. You beat Phoenix on the offensive glass, force more turnover, get more on the line and generate (much) better shots. Unless the suns reverse one or two of these trends, I don’t think the only big math advantage they have – the home advantage – will be enough.
Paul’s uncharacteristic ball losses are a large part of this possession advantage. They also ignite Milwaukee’s deadly transition game. Phoenix has contained the Bucks in Half Court, but the transition is a different story.
Tim MacMahon: Something. Just ask Paul who said his turnovers were the Suns’ biggest problem in Game 4. Paul has averaged just 1.6 turnovers in his first 15 games of the playoffs, and he’s signed a total of 15 in his last three games. Some of them can be attributed to untypical sloppiness, but the relentless pressure of the all-defensive selection Holiday was a major factor.
Jorge Sedano: It is definitely something. Paul’s 15 sales in the last three games are the highest he has had in the playoffs in three games since 2012. The main reason for this is Holiday’s defense. According to NBA statistics, Holiday Paul guarded 78 properties and enforced seven turnovers. If the suns want to win, they have to get rid of “The New Chris Paul” and bring the old one back.
Nick Friedell: Something. All we’ve heard all season is how much stabilizer Paul is for the young Suns offensive. No matter how good Devin Booker plays when Paul keeps spinning the ball like this. As one of the greatest point guards of the era, imagine he will straighten up in game 5.
2. Fact or Fiction: Chris Middleton has become the main Bucks player?
Chris Paul flips the ball and then Khris Middleton hits a clutch layup on the other end.
Lion: Fiction. It’s close, but it’s still Giannis Antetokounmpo for his all-round game – as in the example of the all-time block Deandre Ayton to help the Bucks win game 4. Middleton’s 40 points and outrageous crunch time shotmaking in that game are still fresh on our minds, but Antetokounmpo scored 83 points on a 29-of-45 shootout in Games 2 and 3.
MacMahon: Fiction. And stupidity. Antetokounmpo is a two-time MVP who plays the best basketball of his career. Middleton is his high profile pal, but it’s silly to even claim that someone is more important than the man who averages 32.3 points, 14.0 rebounds, 5.5 assists and dominates defensively during the final.
Sedano: Fact. In Game 4, Middleton beat the Suns 10-4 for the last 2:15 of the game. The reality is that the Bucks are generally going like Middleton. This postseason the Bucks are 2-5 in games, with Middleton scoring 17 or less. In games he scores 18 or more points, the bucks are 12-2.
Friedell: Fiction. Middleton is great but he can’t do everything Antetokounmpo does. Middleton remains an underrated star and has proven to be the closer one for this team, but he doesn’t mean the same thing as the two-time MVP.
Lopez: Fact. Let me be clear, Antetokounmpo is the best player in the Bucks. That’s out of the question. The previous 32-14-5 line in the final tells us that. But as Middleton goes, so does the Bucks record. The only losses the Bucks had this season when he scored 18 or more goals were in Game 1 of the final (with Antetokounmpo just returning from injury) and Game 5 of the semifinals against the Nets, when Brooklyn was in the fourth quarter . When Middleton is playing at the level he’s capable of, the Bucks are very, very hard to beat.
3. Which non-star will play the biggest role in deciding game 5?
Giannis Antetokounmpo says he will have to go to the bathroom in the first quarters of Games 3 and 4 of the NBA Finals.
MacMahon: Mikal bridges. In Milwaukee, he was offensively MIA, scoring only 11 points in eight shots in the Sun’s two defeats. That came after his highest-scoring game in the playoffs, a 27-point performance in Game 2. Bridges’ worth is primarily in defense, but Phoenix needs him as a slasher and shooter to keep him going with the Bucks.
Sedano: Bridges is the main role-player in this series. His defense is clearly important. In this series, however, his offense may be more important. In Games 1 and 2 he scored a total of 41 points (including a huge 27-point performance in Game 2), but in Games 3 and 4 he scored only 11 points combined. He needs people who can make him look open. That can be done if Paul can get going again and Booker can ease his scoring load.
Friedell: I go with Bobby Portis. He has the fire and the talent to change the course of a game. If he can produce on a large scale outside of the bank while the Bucks are pulling strong performances from their core, there’s a good chance they’ll have a chance to party in Milwaukee after Game 6.
Lopez: If the Bucks want to succeed, Pat Connaughton must continue to lift the team off the bench. A brief breakdown of Connaughton’s shooting numbers in this series compared to the rest of the Bank of the Bucks:
Game 1: Connaughton: 3-6 FG, 2-4 3P; Rest of the bank: 5-11 FG, 4-7 3P
Game 2: Connaughton: 5-10 FG, 4-9 3P; Rest of the bank: 3-9 FG, 1-5 3P
Game 3: Connaughton: 3-5 FG, 2-4 3P; Rest of the bank: 5-20 FG, 2-7 3P
Game 4: Connaughton: 4-9 FG, 3-7 3P; Rest of the bank: 1-6 FG, 1-1 3P (all Bobby Portis)
Lion: Bridges just because his involvement in the Suns offense – especially the number of corner 3s he finds – seems like an editorial for the team. Phoenix averaged nearly 10 corner 3 attempts per game during the regular season. You have 28 to four games in this series, and 17 of those came in Game 2. Bridges didn’t play a role in Game 4. He’ll also be a big part of Phoenix’s efforts to get a grip on Middleton on the other end. Special mention to Portis and Cameron Payne; the suns desperately need someone to put outside pressure on the fringes, and Payne could be their best candidate in minutes.
4. What does it take for someone to win on the street in this series?
After Khris Middleton beat the Suns in Game 4 to tie the series, Khris Middleton explains to Malika Andrews that the main focus of the Bucks is figuring out how to play on the street as well as at home.
Sedano: Historically, role players play better at home. If any of the teams can get the outliers on the road out of their role-players, it will likely affect the series.
Friedell: An unbelievable achievement by a star who carries his team over the finish line. Booker almost made it in Game 4. Antetokounmpo tried to implement it in game 2. Someone will have to lay their team on their backs and deliver a career-defining performance on the street.
Lopez: For the Bucks it takes Holiday and Middleton to record. Holiday only shoots 33.3% of this streak and is 6-for-22 out of 3-point range. His defense was excellent, as always, but shots must be fired. In the regular season, Middleton shot 47.6% from the field and 41.4% from the deep. In the two games in Phoenix, these fell to 40.5% and 33.3%.
On the flip side, Phoenix has to protect basketball as it did in the rest of the playoffs. The 17 turnovers the Suns had in Game 4 were the most they had in a playoff game that season, and the 14 they had in Game 3 were the second most. If you stay at 12 or below – like the first two games – you stand a great chance of stealing a game in Milwaukee.
Lion: In general, the same things that it takes to win any game at this level: a few 3s more than normal, the necessary posture to avoid losing the ball and slow runs by the home team, and some luck.
MacMahon: Can all the stars of a team show up for a street game? Antetokounmpo didn’t get much help in the first two games in Phoenix, when Middleton and Holiday together shot 36.4% off the ground. Devin Booker had a dud in game 3. Paul had his worst performance of these playoffs in Game 4.
5. Which team will win the series and in how many games?
Giannis Antetokounmpo rushes for an amazing block to end Deandre Ayton’s alley-oop finish.
Friedell: I said Bucks in 6 before the series and I’m sticking with it. You have the momentum and can go to Phoenix on Saturday. If they can win Game 5 on Saturday, they’ll venture into one of the most electrifying atmospheres in NBA history for a potential game 6 game in Milwaukee.
Lopez: It feels like whoever wins game 5 is taking the streak … so I think I’ll go in 6 with the Deer District and Bucks.
Lion: I had suns in 7 before the series – partly because of the uncertainty about Antetokounmpo’s knees – and I don’t believe in changing the predictions as the series progresses. This has a solid chance of scoring, but I feel less confident now.
MacMahon: I stick with my prediction of Suns in 7 ahead of the series, though I have to admit I don’t have a lot of faith in them. I didn’t think Antetokounmpo would be so dominant when playing on a hyperextended knee that his status was called into question when he entered the series. However, the suns have home advantage, which clearly played a major role in these finals.
Sedano: My original choice was Sun’s in 7. I’m sticking with it. I think Chris Paul is the key. He’s too good and too smart not to understand his fluctuation problems. If he does, I like Phoenix’s chances.