The Bucks roared out of the gate in Game 2 of the NBA Finals Thursday night. It was clear they’d had some conversations after their dispiriting 13-point Game 1 loss: their offense was a lot more direct; their non-Giannis scorers were a lot less tentative; and, most encouraging of all, they fought over screens and blitzed and hectored Phoenix’s ball-handlers further up the court, which had the effect of pushing the Suns overall offense further away from the basket. Phoenix scored an improbable zero first-quarter points inside the paint, MIlwaukee led by as many as nine in the frame, and for a while the game had the rhythm of a comfortable Bucks victory. The Suns would close to within a possession or two, the crowd would go into a frenzy, and then the Bucks would stiff-arm the charge and push the lead out to five or seven with a couple crisp, decisive possessions. They say a series doesn’t start until someone loses at home, and for a long moment there it looked like we had a bonafide series on our hands.
Here’s the problem: The Suns right now simply have too much juice for that. The Bucks were red-lining on a mix of desperation and improbable shot-making—the very opposite of juice—and the Suns were running their offense, taking what the defense provided, pinging the ball around joyfully, and raining hellfire from beyond the arc. Results were beating process, but that rarely lasts long. After one frame, the scoreboard misrepresented the distribution of juice, but it caught on soon enough. The Suns grabbed a two-point lead on a go-ahead three-pointer from Cam Johnson with about seven minutes to go in the second quarter and never trailed again. By the final minute of the first half the game was going like this:
That is what it looks like when one team has all the juice. The Bucks were playing small, with Giannis and P.J. Tucker as the nominal bigs, and Jrue Holiday, Pat Connaughton, and Khris Middleton filling out the lineup. This is very possibly the best available lineup for Mike Budenholzer, long and physical enough to bang around inside and compete on the glass, but athletic enough to switch and press and close out on shooters at one million miles per hour. And that defensive sequence is the absolute most you can ask of that or any other lineup: Middleton rotates away from the corner to discourage a Jae Crowder three-pointer; Tucker sprints from the opposite elbow to run Mikal Bridges out of the corner; Middleton coolly passes Crowder off to Holiday on the wing; Giannis sprints out to take away an open look from Chris Paul; Tucker sees a skip pass coming and meets Devin Booker at the ball and then absolutely stones him on his first and second moves, then doesn’t take the foul-bait and forces a desperation pass; Middleton closes out under perfect control and deflects a touch-pass from Crowder; and Holiday steps up to cut off Bridges at the elbow. It’s 22 seconds of hell-bent, white-knuckle determination, a genuinely stirring and inspirational team effort.
And then Pat Connaughton glitches out for a split second and fails to anticipate the final dump-off pass, leaving Ayton unguarded in the dunker spot for just the briefest of moments. The Suns, playing fast to stay ahead of the rotating defense but feeling no pressure whatsoever from the ticking shot clock, simply make one more pass, and Ayton not only drops in the contested layup but drains the freebie to push Phoenix’s lead out to 11 points, their largest of the game to that point. Brutal! Absolutely brutal and crushing.
It feels almost appropriate to say that Milwaukee’s defense at least improved in Game 2, simply because they shored up the most glaring vulnerability from Game 1, but even that small grace must be denied: Phoenix scored another 118 points Thursday night, and produced a terrifying 124.2 offensive rating, nearly nine points per hundred possessions better than their fantastic Game 1 showing. Milwaukee forced Phoenix out to the perimeter, and all the Suns did was bang home 20 three-pointers on 40 attempts, all of them from perfectly capable volume shooters. That’s not defensive progress; it’s the basketball equivalent of carefully preventing Mike Tyson from landing a body shot and instead having him pound your head down into your thorax like a garden stake. By the end of the third quarter there was a distinct air of what the fuck to the whole proceeding:
Probably it would be premature to say before their first home game that the Bucks are in the deepest of shit, but they will need some things to shift pretty dramatically as things move to Milwaukee. They’ll need Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton to find some kind of rhythm and shoot a hell of a lot better than they’ve done so far: Thursday night they were a combined 12-of-37 from the floor; for the series they’re now 28-of-77, including a putrid 7-of-25 from beyond the arc. They’ll need to figure out whether or how to use Brook Lopez and Bobby Portis, who were less glaringly helpless in Game 2, but with the same result. They’ll need to find a way to hide Jeff Teague further from the action, possibly by stuffing him in a shipping crate and air-mailing him to Palau. They’ll need to find some way to fluster Phoenix’s mojo, which right now looks extremely not possible. The balance of juice is, unfortunately, a zero-sum kind of deal, and the Bucks will not gain any until they can squeeze a little out of the Suns. On that front and all others, they’ve got their work cut out for them.