If you told me during the preseason that the path towards winning the Western Conference championship is beating two LA teams and the squad of the freshly-minted Most Valuable Player, I’d say there is a very low chance of Phoenix surviving such an ordeal. So how are the Phoenix Suns defeating teams which, on paper, have more talent? It’s just All-Stars Chris Paul and Devin Booker leading par players; journeymen Jae Crowder, Cameron Payne, Dario ŠariÄ‡, and E’Twaun Moore; veteran reserves Frank Kaminsky and Langston Galloway; and the unproven Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges, Torrey Craig.
Besides, basketball fans wanted the Lakers in the finals, or the Clippers, or Utah Jazz, or the Portland Trailblazers. They want the best of the West to duke it out with the highly-touted Brooklyn Nets in the East. Fans wanted this level of superstar pedigree and offensive firepower for an entertaining seven-game finale of the NBA. They feel that these are the deserving teams.
But something else happened, and what’s really mind-boggling is Phoenix finishing second-best overall in the West and earning an early 2-0 series lead against Milwaukee despite a roster that’s far from superior compared to the profile of the teams they’ve faced, defeated, and subdued.
Sure, Chris Paul is point guard extraordinaire, but he is not alone in that rarefied air (and mind you, he missed crucial games during the Playoffs, temporarily replaced in the rotation by Cameron Payne). Sure, Devin Booker is a perimeter assassin, but he is not the only sniper on active duty in today’s NBA. But why are they winning?
I think the answer is simple: their advantage is they found out early—strengths and weaknesses all considered—how to best play Phoenix Suns winning basketball. Not Devin Booker basketball. Not Chris Paul basketball. Phoenix Suns basketball. System reigns supreme, not the superstar(s).
And after winning Game 3, I think the Milwaukee Bucks are getting there, too. Finally.
After cruising past Miami, a Kyrie Irving-less Brooklyn forced the Nets-Bucks series to seven games, and East’s fifth-best team Atlanta even made it to 4-2. Who knows how things could’ve ended in the Eastern Conference championship if Trae Young wasn’t sidelined, right? It’s not because Atlanta is the better team, it is because Milwaukee plays without the focused ferocity you expect from East’s third-best regular-season team.
My point is despite the overwhelming talent of Milwaukee, the quality of their game lacks confidence and promise, and that is a real head-scratcher considering they have a core of veterans with enough Playoff experience to bring some gravitas. When they lost Games 1 and 2, one thing is evident—Milwaukee is unsure how to win against Phoenix. Unsure, not incapable. There is no deliberate offensive action that creates problems for Phoenix’s defense, and despite sporadic bursts of life, their offense flatlines most of the time. It feels like they want to try something different every quarter, or every 5 minutes. Sometimes, it’s an aggressive Jrue Holiday taking the first shot as soon as he’s within range. Sometimes, it’s free-ranging Khris Middleton and forced two-pointers. Sometimes, it’s Giannis Antetokounmpo in isolation, slow to maneuver as he obviously favors his recently-injured leg. There is nothing wrong with diversifying your offensive set, but with Milwaukee, it feels like everyone is making the arbitrary decision to have their turn in offense based on a whim. And everyone is failing miserably. Some are not even trying at all, like PJ Tucker.
I’m saying this because how they played Game 3 is very different; a complete 180-degree turn. It feels like they are finally shoulder-to-shoulder with Phoenix in terms of self-awareness on a team level. They finally know how to win the game their way. There is rhythm and flow and direction. There is motion and design and intent. The offense does not feel disjointed or arbitrary anymore. They are forcing Phoenix to deal with the offense they are setting and not settling for what Phoenix’s defense gives them. Their offense feels centered, and that is when Milwaukee is at their most dangerous, and when they start burrowing, they can create a hole fast enough and deep enough to send the opposing team to an early grave and bury them. Watching Game 3, you can almost feel Phoenix’s dying gasps as the lead of Milwaukee ballooned, and the prospect of winning—and enjoying an insurmountable advantage—completely slipping from Phoenix’s grasp.
What’s left to do now is accomplish that other thing Phoenix has already crossed out of their to-do list: play consistently. That’s a question for another day. Game 4 will show us the answer.