MILWAUKEE — The Phoenix Suns are proving at the worst possible time what has made them such a terrific team this season.
For the second straight game of the NBA Finals against the Milwaukee Bucks, the Suns were boat raced in the margins. After a Game 3 loss in which combined totals for points off turnovers, second-chance points and fastbreak points were 53-18 Bucks, it was an even worse 58-12 advantage for Milwaukee in Wednesday’s Game 4.
Suns guard Devin Booker had his entire team hop on in his backpack, but those mistakes by Phoenix leading to those 58 points kept putting more and more weight on his shoulders until it was too much to hold on for in a 109-103 loss.
Booker had 42 points on 17-of-28 shooting, using a downhill mentality to score after a poor performance in Game 3 where he settled a time or three too many.
In a game the Suns mostly led, the Bucks shot 40.2% from the field and a woeful 7-for-29 (24.1%) at three-point range. But Suns turnovers (17) and Bucks offensive rebounds (17) allowed Milwaukee to take 19 more shots than Phoenix, which is how the Suns lost despite shooting 11.1% better (51.3%).
“Well, the turnovers just crushed us tonight,” head coach Monty Williams said. “We shot 50 percent from the field, but they got 19 more possessions. Over the course of the game when you just give it up that many times the turnovers and offensive rebounding was a bit of a hill for us to climb.”
Wasted opportunity doesn’t even magnify it enough from there, because Booker was all alone. He was the only Suns player in double figures through three quarters.
And in what is a testament to this surely being the weirdest game of a weird series, Booker managed it through foul trouble.
“It’s hard, because he’s — he could have gone for 50-plus tonight,” Williams said.
A strange first quarter saw the Suns lead 23-20 when the advantage should have been much higher after a subpar opening 12 minutes by Milwaukee.
The Bucks snapped out of it in the second quarter while the Suns were seemingly on autopilot, repeatedly crashing into the same wall over and over again. The offense was falling apart after a decent string of possessions to start the game, clearly suffering from a Chris Paul who did not look right all night.
With six minutes left in the first half and Milwaukee up four, it felt like Game 3 again, where the Bucks were surely going to blow the game open and take a powerful grasp of it.
But that’s where Booker got cooking, scoring 12 points over 4:10 of gametime. It was a tie game at half and easily could have been the Bucks up 10-15 if not for Booker.
The second half is when Booker’s foul issues came in.
After two in the first half, his third foul was a silly grab at the Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo just two minutes into the third quarter to stop a transition opportunity, leaving him no wiggle room to pick up another the rest of the quarter.
Booker continued to score, shooting 4-for-4 before committing his fourth foul four minutes later. Williams had to take him out, even though it was clear the Suns’ offense had little chance of producing much without Booker while leading by four.
Paul’s only signs of life were the two straight buckets he got after that across 23 seconds. From there, the Suns’ offense stalled, scoring two points in two minutes until Booker came back in for Paul with 3:25 left in the third quarter and the lead down to one.
And then Booker got right back to it. He made his other three shots in the quarter, making him a perfect 7-of-7 plus four free throws for 18 points in the third.
The Bucks started sending outright doubles to Booker, and with that, the Suns were able to move the ball into good shots. Cam Payne hit one of those toward the close of the third quarter, a 3 that put the Suns up seven and drew the biggest reaction all night from Phoenix’s bench.
The momentum shift was evident with the way the Suns defended to close the quarter and it felt like a potential turning point, but nothing developed from there.
Booker’s monstrous shot-making carried the Suns to a six-point lead through three quarters. Booker’s 38 points were nearly half of the Suns’ 82.
While fans implored Williams to keep Booker in when he had four or five fouls, the two-guard proved why his coach sat him after getting his fifth foul going in too fast on a boxout with 10:50 remaining.
Williams again checked Booker out with a six-point lead and waited as long as he possibly could until being forced to place him back in.
Seconds must have felt like minutes.
“I wanted to get him in maybe a minute earlier than I did, you’re just holding on trying to get as many stops and solid possessions as you can, but it’s not an ideal situation,” Williams said. “But I thought we managed it well tonight. We were able to get him back in when the game was still tight and we actually had the lead, I think.”
Booker was back with 5:55 on the clock when the Bucks cut the deficit to three, a huge victory for Phoenix to still be in front after nearly five minutes of Booker sitting.
At that point, however, Booker didn’t have anything superhuman left. He was 2-of-6 shooting in the fourth quarter. And where he dropped the baton, Milwaukee’s Khris Middleton picked it up and ran with it.
Middleton’s 26 points prior to the fourth quarter had 14 more added onto ’em in the fourth for his own 40-piece.
And Booker shouldn’t have even had the opportunity to match him in another example of why Williams kept him on the bench due to foul problems.
On a Bucks fastbreak after a Paul turnover with 3:44 left, Booker foolishly went to block Jrue Holiday’s layup.
Somehow, there was no foul called when it was clear that Booker not only had his one arm wrapped around Holiday but made contact with Holiday via his other arm.
Alas, the game went on, and it will ultimately not be remembered as one of the worst no-calls in Finals history due to Middleton’s closing act.
At 2:15 remaining, the Suns were up two. Middleton hit a midrange jumper, Booker failed to convert on his answer and then Middleton drained another.
Now Milwaukee had the edge by two, and on the next possession, Booker made the right play with a rapid-fire lob to Deandre Ayton from the side of his body.
The degree of difficulty on the pass, though, will never get talked about, because after Ayton got the ball, Antetokounmpo improbably recovered back and blocked the dunk attempt.
The clock now stood at 1:13. That time would tick away quickly for the Suns because of what they had been failing to do the last two games, the basketball gods bringing it full circle.
A Middleton jumper was no good but the miss was grabbed by Holiday. While Middleton also failed to score on the next possession, it was a precious extra 10 seconds that were gone.
With a 2-for-1 opportunity down two and 40 seconds remaining, Paul pushed for an attack of the basket, but slipped and lost the ball for his fifth turnover. Worst of all, it was a live-ball turnover, one Middleton scored on to affirmatively give the Bucks all the control at 103-99 and 27 seconds left.
On the next possession, Booker couldn’t get a layup to go, Middleton was fouled and it was officially safe for Bucks fans to celebrate after a whacky, whacky game.
The Bucks went plus-8 on free throws (24-of-29 vs. 16-for-19) and were ahead 19-7 on second-chance points. Even with the Suns trying to push the pace and emphasizing it ahead of the game, they were outscored 15-0 in transition.
Points off turnovers were difficult for the Suns to come by since they only forced five, which led to a 24-5 Bucks shellacking in that category.
Paul was 5-of-13 from the floor for 10 points. He was not attacking in the usual spots he does with his jumper and had a loose handle, where obvious distinctions lie from his normally excellent play in those two areas.
He admitted after the Western Conference Finals that he had partially torn ligaments in his right hand and also had an MRI on one of his wrists, presumably his left due to the rough fall via Patrick Beverley’s foul in Game 5 and that being the one he’s fiddled with the most since.
Perhaps it was that or something else. Either way, Williams denied anything was wrong.
“No, he’s fine,” he said. “Great players have games like that. We expect him to bounce back.”
Ayton was outstanding on the glass, grabbing 17 rebounds and some big-time contested ones, but his touch around the basket was off to 3-of-9 shooting for six points.
Jae Crowder was the only other Sun to help Booker much at all, recording 15 points, eight rebounds, three assists and three blocks.
Cam Johnson made impact plays once again. His 10 points made him the fourth and final Sun to be in double figures.
Antetokounmpo had 26 points, 14 rebounds, eight assists, three steals and two blocks. The Suns did a better job defending him, ending his streak of two straight games with 40 points, and it speaks to how dominant of a player he is that he still managed that type of line through that.
Both teams now head back to Phoenix and will also for sure be back in Milwaukee at a 2-2 series scoreline.
While the flow of the series would indicate the Bucks have all the momentum, Williams’ postgame locker room speech that the ESPN cameras caught shined through where the Suns currently stand, with Williams telling his team “all of this is correctable.”
It’s on the Suns to do that and get back to performing better at the little things, and their ability to will likely determine the outcome of the Finals.