July 13, 2021

The Bucks’ Secret Weapon is the Perfect Foil for Suns' Biggest Weakness

The Bucks’ season was on the line Sunday as they were facing the possibility of trailing the Suns 3-0 in the 2021 NBA Finals, but Milwaukee mustered up an incredible performance to give themselves a chance at evening the series at two games apiece. 

The Bucks did it by unleashing their secret weapon.

Through the first two games, the Suns' stars were firing on all cylinders and looked like the superior squad while two of the Bucks' best ballers — Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday — struggled mightily, until Milwaukee made the massive move that might've just saved the series by increasing Giannis Antetokounmpo's minutes at center.

The Greek Freak's move to center has been a long time coming, too. Milwaukee tested the waters for a handful of minutes in Games 1 and 2, and the Bucks actually outscored the Suns.

But what took Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer so long to make the game-changing decision? 

It's becoming increasingly difficult to space the floor with non-shooters in the NBA and Antetokounmpo, who's converting just 18% of his three-pointers this postseason, is best suited at the 5 spot. 

The problem is that Brook Lopez, a reliable rim protector and shooter, is a center and who forces the Greek Freak to play out of position. When Lopez is off the court, he’s replaced by either corner-three specialist P.J. Tucker or sharpshooter Pat Connaughton, which adds floor-spacing and allows Giannis to dominate the paint.  

Antetokounmpo is more than up to the challenge of serving as a team’s primary rim protector. He sports an impossibly long 7-foot-3 wingspan and has the strength to bang with behemoths like Ayton.

The Greek Freak can help compose a Milwaukee “small-ball” lineup that isn’t so small: Middleton, Tucker and Antetokounmpo are longer and beefier than some starting frontcourts, while Holiday and Connaughton both sport wingspans of more than 6-foot-7.

Going small allows the Bucks to put as many skilled players on the floor at once, and smaller guys tend to be more skilled than bigger ones. But Milwaukee gets the best of both worlds because their tall players have a high skill level. 

Unfortunately for Milwaukee, Phoenix is so good that going small isn't enough. The Suns are the most balanced team in the league, but they have one weakness that could doom them in this series: backup center. 

While Ayton is one of the rare centers who can consistently punish smaller opponents, the Suns are in big trouble when the former No. 1 overall pick is on the bench. 

Dario Saric, before tearing his ACL in Game 1, was the franchise's backup center, but now they've been forced to turn to third-stringer Frank Kaminsky, who is too slow and lacks athleticism to be anything but a liability. 

That makes Ayton's availability even more important. The Suns big man got in foul trouble in Game 3 and played just 24 minutes, which put Phoenix coach Monty Williams in a bind. Does he play either Kaminsky or go to his own small-ball lineup?

Kaminsky is a smart player, sure, but he doesn’t offer enough other than rebounding. Milwaukee relentlessly attacked the paint without Ayton on the floor:

This is some pristine ball movement and motion, but look at how easily Tucker scores. If Ayton were in that same spot on the floor, that possession probably ends in a block or Tucker backing the ball out in fear of getting swatted.

With Brook Lopez benched in Game 3, the Bucks outscored the Suns by 14 points. And if Ayton can’t stay out of foul trouble, the Bucks are going to give the Suns fits for the rest of the series.

Antetokounmpo has been absolutely fantastic in the playoffs, averaging 29 points, 13 rebounds and five assists on 53% from the field. He’s been even better against the Suns, averaging 34/14/5 on 62% shooting. Without Ayton, Antetokounmpo and the rest of the Bucks are in a great position to capitalize.

The Suns also suffer on offense without their star center. Their complex offensive machine is reliant on Ayton’s ability to suck defenders into the paint in order to stop his rim-running alley-oops which opens up space for shooters.

But if Ayton gets in foul trouble, he’s either forced to sit on the bench or play with much less aggression. Phoenix’s starting lineup was outscored by over 16 points per 100 possessions in Game 3.

As the NBA Finals rages on, the two keys to the series are clearly Ayton and Antetokounmpo. When either one is resting, their team is getting pummeled. After two games where it looked like the Suns had all the answers, the Bucks have turned the tables. 

Photo: Getty Images