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The Milwaukee Bucks are in an extremely tough spot, largely of their own making. They find themselves in an 0-2 Finals hole, without homecourt advantage. Teams in that scenario have come back to win the NBA Finals just four times (out of 32 instances) and just 17 times in all 318 instances in playoff series of any round.
Precedent is against the Milwaukee Bucks but so are more recent indicators. The Phoenix Suns had a slightly better point differential during the regular season and that mark has actually increased, significantly, during their playoff run against more challenging competition. The Bucks’ point differential has declined in the postseason (which is more typical). All that is to say, there is a reason the Suns’ were the betting favorite coming into the NBA Finals, and given a roughly 68 percent chance of winning the series by 538’s pre-Finals prediction model.
And then there is the matter of which team has been luckier so far in the series, and which team might be primed for some progression or regression to the mean. But even on this front, the Bucks don’t have much room for optimism. They’ve shot about the same as the Suns on open and wide-open 3-pointers — 41.1 percent for Milwaukee to 44.1 percent for Phoenix. The Suns might not continue to hit this well from the outside but the Bucks’ could be in line for a similar drop-off.
And it’s not as though the Bucks’ starters are struggling — Giannis has averaged 31.0 points, 14.5 rebounds and 4.0 assists per game, on a 67.1 true shooting percentage. Khris Middleton has chipped in 20 points, 6.5 rebounds and 6.0 assists per game and made better than 40 percent of his 3s. Yes, he could be better inside the arc and Jrue Holiday’s shooting numbers are shades of Eric Bledsoe, but Pat Connaughton, P.J. Tucker, Brook Lopez and Bryn Forbes are 14-of-30 (47 percent) from beyond the arc.
So how do the Milwaukee Bucks get back in this series?
It really is hard to find an obvious variable that could suddenly break Milwaukee’s way, or an obvious lever for Coach Budenholzer to pull. The Bucks have missed 15 free throws through the first two games, but that’s a product of Giannis and probably not going to change. Defensive matchups don’t matter so much unless they’re going to abandon their switching scheme and let Devin Booker and Chris Paul try and beat them from mid-range, an iffy proposition in its own right. They could use better performances from Holiday and maybe a few less contested jumpers from Khris Middleton but that alone may not be enough to make up the margin they need.
A boost of confidence (or joy) could certainly help. There seems to be a palpable malaise around the Bucks’ right now, a tightness that comes from knowing, intimately, the stakes and ramifications of another playoff run without a title. But it might just be that they’ve run up against a better team playing better basketball. Sometimes it’s as simple as that.
Cameron Johnson deserves some shine for his first playoff run with the Phoenix Suns.
Landing the No. 4 pick in the 2021 NBA draft should make it easier for the Toronto Raptors to part ways with Kyle Lowry in free agency.
The Phoenix Suns have a “reps remove doubt” mantra, which is why it wasn’t surprising to see Mikal Bridges go off in Game 2.
Chris Paul has torched the Bucks’ defense in his Finals debut. How has he been so effective, and what can the Bucks to do slow him down moving forward?
In the latest WNBA Shootaround, a look at the dominant pairing of Liz Cambage and A’ja Wilson for the Las Vegas Aces, the latest on Chennedy Carter, Nneka Ogwumike’s Olympic snub and more.