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The Bucks found their form in Game 3 of the NBA Finals

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Is it just recency bias, or is it time to believe in the Bucks again?

2021 NBA Finals - Game Three Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

What a difference a game makes. After the first two games of the Finals, all the commentary was (1) the Bucks had no answer for the Suns’ offensive schemes and (2) the Bucks’ offense was incapable of scoring enough to support their one star, Giannis Antetokounmpo. Commentators debated whether Chris Paul or Devin Booker would be named Finals MVP after the inevitable Suns’ championship, perhaps via a sweep.

After Game Three, the commentary was a bit different. Some have even noted what I pointed out — the Suns’ hot shooting in Game Two, especially on three-pointers, was likely unsustainable. Indeed, if you take out Jae Crowder’s 6 of 7 from three, the rest of the Suns team in Game Three shot an incredible (in a bad way) 3 for 24 — 12.5%. Even with Crowder’s hot shooting, the team as whole made only 29%. A bit different than the 20 for 40 from three in Game Two? In fact, if you combine the first three games of the Finals, the Suns are at 38% from three. As pointed out in my comments about Game Two, the Suns season average is — you guessed it — 38%. Fortunately for the Suns, they are almost certain to return to something closer to their season average going forward.

But don’t let one game convince you that a team is as good or bad as they just played. Avoid what the psychology field calls “recency bias”, which all humans have to some degree.

Others noticed something that was just as true before Game Three’s Bucks win as after. This Suns’ team is very thin. And I am not talking about Mikal Bridges (6’6’’, 209 pounds).

Now that Dario Saric is lost for the season with an unfortunate ACL injury, the Suns simply do not have any big-man depth. Before the Finals, I said that any team that lost by 39 points in a playoff game (the Bucks’ 125-86 loss to the Nets in the second round) should not be favored to win the NBA Finals. After Game Three, I can say that any team that plays Frank Kaminsky 14 minutes in a crucial NBA Finals game should not be favored to win. (Frank was -12 during those 14 minutes.) As a result of his ineffectiveness, the Suns essentially decided to play without a center for 10 minutes, not a good idea against a team with Giannis Antetokounmpo, who made 13 shots (on 13 attempts) within 5 feet of the basket.

I would add that strong NBA teams should not give up 10-0 and 16-0 runs to end the second and third quarters of an NBA Finals game, as the Suns did in Game Three. Most people think runs result from great offense, when in reality they result from great defense. Think about it: To get 16 straight points, the defense must stop another NBA team somewhere between six and ten times in a row. And the Bucks had to do that against a team that had scored 118 points against them in each of the first two games.

Largely as a result of those two runs, the Bucks dominated virtually every aspect of the game, and thus the box score. The Bucks made three more baskets on ten more shots, five more threes on five more three-point attempts, nine more free throws on ten more attempts, had over double the number of offensive rebounds (13-6), committed six fewer fouls and had five fewer turnovers. Domination.

So does this game mean more going forward than the two that came before it? No — the Suns still lead the series 2-1. FiveThirtyEight.com gives the Suns a 74% chance of winning the series. The Ringer has the Suns at 72%. The numbers say that you should not bet on the Bucks even if someone gives you two to one odds. Whatever the numbers say, I would take the Bucks on that bet. Don’t blame me, blame recency bias. I’m only human.

Other thoughts

  • As much as I love box scores, they don’t do a great job of measuring individual defensive effectiveness. For instance, the box score for Game Three shows Khris Middleton with zero blocks and one steal, while Jrue Holiday had one of each. My coach’s eye tells me that both of the Bucks’ other stars had excellent defensive games. In particular, Middleton had some great shot contests without fouling, especially on Devin Booker, who wound up with only 10 points on 3 of 14 from the floor. Holiday was all over the floor disrupting the Suns’ offense, often by pressuring Chris Paul. And the Bucks as a team changed defenses depending on who they had on the floor, switching screens if Brook Lopez was on the bench, playing help and recover if Lopez was in. For this game, these adjustments worked.
  • Both ABC commentators mentioned how effective they thought P.J. Tucker was on the offensive boards. He had two in 30 minutes on the floor. If you do the math, that is one for every 15 minutes. In fact, that is what it is even if you don’t do the math. Much more effective were Giannis, with four offensive boards, and the enthusiastic Bobby Portis, who also had four in only 18 minutes. I like Tucker’s toughness and determination. But let’s not make him out to be a modern day Moses Malone. Especially because CP3 gets to rest on defense by covering him.
  • At the end of the first quarter, while the game was still fairly close, the Bucks had the ball with 18 seconds on the clock and the shot clock off. Crowder unsuccessfully tried to draw an offensive foul (off the ball) on Giannis. I think it was a smart move for a team. The odds of Giannis making both free throws was small, and it gave the Suns the chance to hold for their own last shot instead of having no real chance to score if the Bucks run the clock down. Alas, while Giannis missed his two free throws, the Suns missed at the other end when “Political” Cam Payne bricked his end of the quarter shot. I still like the idea. (Giannis missed only one more free throw the rest of the way, finishing 13-17. Do NOT believe that Giannis has suddenly become an excellent free throw shooter. Recency bias....)
  • They showed a Miwaukee fan in the stands wearing a Green Bay Packers jersey. Wrong season and wrong sport, but at least the right city (almost) and state. Not as bad as the guy I saw at a Lakers game wearing a Toronto Blue Jays jersey. Wrong sport, wrong season, wrong city and wrong country. At least he got the continent right.