By now you have probably heard about the tattoo Devin Booker has on his arm, “Be Legendary,” which was inspired by the advice the late Kobe Bryant wrote on his shoes after a game during his final season.
Booker idolized Bryant. Wanted to learn everything he could from him. Then he wanted to be like him. A lot of players his age did.
The only way to credibly put himself into the same sentence as a Hall of Famer like Bryant is to have a lot more games like he did Thursday night, when he scored 31 points to lead the Phoenix Suns to a 118-108 win over the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 2 of the NBA Finals.
Phoenix leads the best-of-seven series 2-0, and a very healthy discussion can commence on whether Booker or his backcourt mate Chris Paul is the leading contender for Finals MVP at this point.
Paul followed up his sublime 32-point Game 1 with 23 points and 10 assists in Game 2 despite the full attention of Milwaukee’s defensive stalwart, Jrue Holiday.
Giannis Antetokounmpo, who finished with 42 points and 12 rebounds, had willed Milwaukee through a sluggish three quarters, and the Bucks were finally getting some production out of their role players. But whenever the Bucks inched close in the fourth, the Suns would find a way to push them back.
Booker did so by nailing seven of the Suns’ 20 3-pointers on the night, including three straight during a 2 minute, 23 second stretch in the fourth quarter to stem a Bucks surge that had cut the lead to 90-84 with 9:41 to go. Paul would nail a 3 of his own, along with finding open shooters for clutch buckets, effectively putting the game out of reach.
Booker and Paul seized the moment, helping Phoenix inch closer to the ultimate prize.
— Ramona Shelburne
Giannis is back, but where are his running mates?
Though the Bucks made a solid push in the fourth quarter, the game’s telling stat came at the end of the third: Giannis Antetokounmpo, 32 points; the rest of Milwaukee’s starters, 32 points.
With the context of his injury in the Eastern Conference finals looming over everything he does, the way Antetokounmpo has responded is the mark of a truly great player. He isn’t 100% — but he still is the same matchup nightmare for any defense. Posting 42 points in a Finals game, on 15-for-22 shooting, plus 12 rebounds, is the kind of thing an NBA legend does.
His third quarter was one of spectacular force, charging at the Suns with his trademark downhill sprints and dominant, overpowering paint play. His 20 points in the third quarter alone are the most since Michael Jordan posted 22 in a quarter in the 1993 NBA Finals.
Still, it wasn’t nearly enough. By the end of the third quarter, the Bucks turned an 11-point halftime deficit into … a 10-point deficit.
When Khris Middleton has struggled on offense during the postseason, the Bucks usually have lost. Middleton averages eight fewer points in Bucks losses, and with just 11 points on 5-for-16 shooting in Game 2, there was a cutting secondary edge missing in the Milwaukee offense. Middleton tried all angles — forcing shots, playing decoy, attacking the rim to draw fouls. None of it worked. Holiday finished with 17 points on 7-for-21 shooting, and Brook Lopez was a non-factor with 8 points in 28 minutes.
For the Bucks to get back in this series, they simply need more from players not named Antetokounmpo. They’re not designed to be the Giannis show.
One more telling stat, this one available at the final buzzer: Antetokounmpo was a plus-3 for the game; the rest of the Milwaukee starting five? A combined minus-24.
— Royce Young
The 10 passes that epitomized the Suns
On the Suns’ final possession of the first half, Milwaukee’s rotations and recoveries couldn’t have been much better for the first nine passes, the last of which Khris Middleton deflected right back into Jae Crowder‘s hands. The Suns finally gained an advantage on the next pass, which ended up being a hockey assist after Mikal Bridges flashed to the elbow to catch the ball and quickly redirected it to Deandre Ayton cutting to the basket.
Ayton muscled over a too-late-arriving P.J. Tucker for the layup. All that effort by the Bucks ended in an and-1 for the Suns.
That possession, which stretched the Suns’ lead to double digits and delivered a blow to the exhausted Bucks’ psyche, exhibited a lot of the traits that have fueled Phoenix’s run to the Finals: poise, patience, intelligence, execution, connectivity and a little bit of luck.
Phoenix has stars capable of carrying the team, as Chris Paul did in the previous two games and Devin Booker has done on multiple occasions during his first postseason. But the Suns’ individuals rarely, if ever, try to do too much. The trust on this team is apparent, a testament to coach Monty Williams’ guidance, Paul’s leadership and the young core’s maturity.
The result: a beautiful brand of basketball that has the Suns two wins away from a title.
— Tim MacMahon
Where did Milwaukee’s outside shooting go?
Game 2 represented a major math problem for the Milwaukee Bucks.
The Bucks simply can’t allow the Suns to have as much success as they did from beyond the arc if they can’t get their own shots to fall.
After winning the 3-point battle 16-11 in Game 1 — but still losing the game — the Bucks fell woefully short from range Thursday night. The Suns outscored the Bucks by 33 points from 3, finishing 20-of-40 while the Bucks shot just 9-of-31 (6-of-18 on open 3s). The 20 3-pointers are tied for the second most in NBA Finals history.
According to ESPN Stats & Information research, teams are 735-348 (.708) this season (including playoffs) when a team hits more 3-pointers than its opponent.
When a team hits at least 10 more 3-pointers than its opponent, as the Suns did, those teams are 99-13 (.884) this season (including playoffs) and 6-1 this postseason.
If Phoenix continues to put up 118 points a game, as it has done in the first two games, Milwaukee has to match that output. If the Bucks can’t find consistency from outside, their first trip to the Finals in 47 years will be a short one.
— Andrew Lopez
Put some respect on Mikal Bridges’ game
When the term “3-and-D” became popular as a way to describe role players who make open 3-pointers and play tough defense, it came with an implied limitation. Typically, 3-and-D means that’s all a player can do at an above-average level.
Mikal Bridges was taken No. 10 overall in the 2018 NBA draft largely thanks to his 3-and-D capabilities, but he has proved to be more than that, as he demonstrated in Game 2, with the Bucks focusing more defensive attention on Chris Paul and Devin Booker. That meant more opportunities for Bridges to create, and he scored 27 points, a playoff career high.
Funny enough, Bridges (3-of-9 from beyond the arc) didn’t play a huge role in the Suns’ setting a franchise playoff record with 20 3-pointers. But he created four additional scores when the Bucks closed out too hard and he was able to score off the dribble — not typically a strength for 3-and-D players.
That included Bridges’ biggest buckets of the night: a driving banker with 3:35 remaining that pushed Phoenix’s lead to 11, and another drive that resulted in a trip to the free throw line with 1:21 left. Later, Bridges helped put the game away when Milwaukee repeatedly fouled him in the final minute. All in a night’s work that included far more than typical 3-and-D production.
— Kevin Pelton