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The Bucks’ defensive adjustments weren’t enough to stop the Suns in Game 2

The Bucks made some adjustments, but the Suns still kept hitting shots.

NBA: Finals-Milwaukee Bucks at Phoenix Suns Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

During and after the Suns’ Game Two 118-108 win, many of the commentators asserted that the Bucks lost because they didn’t make defensive adjustments after the Suns’ guards had torched them. During the ABC halftime show, Jason Williams said that the Bucks “lack of adjustments has been embarrassing. Embarrassing.” I disagree strongly. Strongly.

In Game One, the Bucks switched all screens, sometimes switching even before a screen had been set. As a result, Bucks big men Robin Lopez and Bobby Portis often found themselves having to defend Chris Paul or Devin Booker in open space. That went about as well as one would expect. The Bucks also started the game with P.J. Tucker as the primary defender on CP3

Contrary to Williams’ assertion, the Bucks did not do those things in Game Two. First, they took my advice and made Jrue Holiday the primary defender on Paul. Second, while the big man covering the screener would “show” on screens, he did not switch. Instead, Holiday, or whoever was covering the ball-handler, would continue to pursue until he could catch up. While this adjustment did not result in a win, or a great defensive performance, it was a significant adjustment, and often effective.

The Bucks made another significant defensive adjustment: Unlike Game One, in which the Suns went to the line 26 times, making 25, the Bucks committed very few fouls. This led to the Suns shooting only 14 frees (making 12) — and six of those free throws occurred in the last 90 seconds when the Bucks had to foul to stop the clock.

So how did the Suns still wind up with 118 points? Put simply, they made shots, perhaps at an unsustainable pace — though they certainly sustained in for this one game, which is all that counted Thursday night.

Overall, the Suns made 20 out of their 40 three-pointers, a high number of attempts and a high percentage. For the season, much of which was played against teams not as good as the Bucks, the Suns made 38% of their three-pointers, making an average of 13 per game on 34 attempts. Put another way, the Suns took six more threes than their average in Game One, and made seven of those “extra” shots. Yes, I know that doesn’t make sense, but neither did the Suns’ shot-making. If they instead made their normal percentage on their forty attempts, the Suns would have made made fifteen — five fewer threes, translating to fifteen fewer points.

Everything else being equal, fifteen fewer Suns points would have made the final score Bucks 108 - Suns 103, and we would be praising the Bucks defensive adjustments instead of making believe they did not make any.

Other thoughts

  • The flip side of the Suns’ shot-making was the Bucks’ shot-missing. If we again just focus on three-pointers, the Bucks went 9 for 31, a dreadful 29%. During the regular season, the Bucks shots 39% on threes, making an average of 14 per game on 38 attempts. You can play the same game with the Bucks numbers as we did with the Suns, and you wind up in the same place. In other words, if either team shot their normal percentage on three-pointers in Game Two, the outcome would have been different. Sometimes basketball is just a make-or-miss game. This halftime graphic, when the Suns were up 11 points — essentially the same as the final score, says it all:
  • The Bucks’ shooting woes in Game Two has been a playoff-long issue. Someone with more free time than me determined that virtually all of the Bucks’ players are shooting significantly worse from three in the playoffs. Khris Middleton is at 34% in playoffs, after shooting 41% during the regular season. Holiday is at 29% in the playoffs after 39% in the regular season. Ex-Spur Bryn Forbes is at 38% after shooting 45% in the regular season, and so on. Part of that is better defense in the playoffs, but part of it just missing shots that these players normally make.
  • While Suns young center Deandre Ayton is a fine young player and seems to be a very likable guy, I was very glad he had a pedestrian 10 points on 4 for 10 from the floor, with 11 boards. I really did not need to see any more graphics where the three players on the screen were Ayton, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the Great Tim Duncan.
  • Miking up players rarely reveals anything very meaningful. One exception occurred Thursday night before the game. I have written before that most players and coaches have good relationships with the referees. An exchange between Jae Crowder and veteran official Tony Brothers was instructive. Crowder yelled out “Hey Tony! How many Finals for you?” When Brothers responded “Ten,” Crowder laughed and responded, “Whoa!! Trying to get there!” A good moment. I have always said players and coaches should know the referees’ names and talk to them as colleagues. Crowder did both, treating Brothers’ earning ten trips to the Finals as equal to the player’s quest to do the same. Which it is — both are based on merit.