It won’t be easy as the series now shifts to Milwaukee, where both inside and outside Fiserv Forum the Bucks faithful will be going crazy.
No team this post-season has been as successful as the Bucks on their home floor and they’ll need some serious home cooking to try to get back into the series.
Game 3 of the Finals between the Suns and Bucks goes Sunday at 8 p.m. ET on Sportsnet.
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Bucks seem loose and unintimidated
The series has been off for a couple days with Saturday being a big media day for both teams.
In the history of the NBA, approximately 93.1 per cent of teams have gone on to win a playoff series after going up 2-0 in a series.
From the way the Bucks were talking on Saturday, however, you’d never know that the odds were stacked against them.
“I’m just here not to get fined,” joked Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo as he took the Zoom podium on Saturday.
“You know, I personally think, obviously, I know it’s the Finals. Like, tomorrow, we all understand what kind of game we are getting ourselves into tomorrow. So we know what we got to do. But at the end of the day, you got to keep it light,” Antetokounmpo added. “You cannot tell yourself, ‘Oh, it’s the Finals, you got to do this.’ There’s so much pressure, man. No, like, it’s still basketball. It’s easy to say, ‘hard to do,’ but at the same time, you have to try to approach it that way. Just got to keep it light. Got to keep the ball light. You got to keep the atmosphere light.”
This confidence, plus the need and desire to keep things more airy than you might expect, is likely because the Bucks have been down 0-2 before just last month in the second round against the Brooklyn Nets.
They managed to make it through that test against some juggernaut-like performances from Kevin Durant and survive, so, in their minds, there’s no reason why the Bucks can’t just come back again.
“It helps tremendously,” said Bucks guard Jrue Holiday of what being down 0-2 to Brooklyn and coming back can do for his team in this hole. “Those first two games that we lost in Brooklyn were like, first one was bad and the second was really bad. But I think these last two games, we lost by 10. We felt like they kind of controlled the game, and to know that we have been in a position like this where we can come home and do the same thing is huge for us mentally.”
Added Milwaukee forward Khris Middleton: “Game 1 in Brooklyn, I think – I forgot how much we lost by. Game 2 we got smacked, embarrassed. A lot of people thought our season was done. We still believed in ourselves. We came back and had an ugly grind-it-out game that we found a way to win. Sometimes it’s not going to be pretty. Sometimes it’s going to be ugly. We just got to find a way to win one game at a time from here on out.”
Both Middleton and Holiday have been bad so far in these Finals, combining to shoot just 36.4 per cent from the floor over the first two games. They’ve had their hands full defensively – especially Holiday, who has spent a lot of time trying to slow down both Chris Paul and Devin Booker – but they need to do more if the Bucks are getting back into this thing.
“I think there’s things that we can hopefully tweak a little bit. I think there were some things that improved in the second game,” Budenholzer said. “We’ve got to keep working to get better. When you get good looks, good opportunities, it’s going to be helpful if we convert. And then sometimes you got to make some tough shots in the playoffs, too. You need a little bit of both. But I think we can get better. We can keep improving offensively going into the third game.”
Road warrior Suns focused and locked in
The Suns are definitely the team in the driver’s seat of this series right now, but they aren’t taking their pole position at the moment for granted.
From the sounds of things, they’ve been all business from the moment they landed in Milwaukee. They haven’t really left their hotel outside of practice and look to be a very focused group right now.
“For us, the biggest game of the year is tomorrow,” Paul said. “Tomorrow it’s a must-win game for us. We got to come out with that mindset. Know that they’re home, they’re more comfortable, they will be in front of their fans. But we’ve got to be us. We’ve got to be us and we’ve got to be the hungrier team, and so that’s what we’ll do.”
Said Suns coach Monty Williams: “For us, I think the thing that’s been consistent is the culture pieces that we try to implement every day, and keep our day the same on the road, at home. We have been a work team all year for two years since we have been in Phoenix. That’s been something that has helped our program and our young guys approach the game a certain way.
“And so, we’re going to have our film session today, we’re going to have a mental workout, we’re going to walk through things that we need to. We’re going to get our work in and we have enough veteran leadership on our team to help our guys with the differences between playoff home and playoff road.”
As good as the Bucks have been at home during this post-season, the Suns have been nearly as good on the road.
This is a team that simply doesn’t make many mistakes and loses the game themselves. They don’t turn the ball over much, they make their free throws and they make sure to stay sound defensively. It’s a good recipe for road success.
“I’d say we have a close team – I feel a lot of teams can say that. We spend a lot of time together. We get our laughs in together, for sure, daily. I don’t know, there’s a feeling about it,” said Booker of the team’s playoff success away from Phoenix. “We enjoy playing on the road, and I think that brings our team together even more. I know we spent a lot of time, a lot of our free time this year, especially with the COVID protocols, spending time together. Not with our families on the road, just somebody hosting. We’re playing cards. We have 10, 12 guys in the room at a time.”
Added Paul: “I feel like there’s a lot of athletes out there that will tell you they like playing on the road. I love our home crowd, but I also love playing on the road. It’s always been like that my whole career. When you go on the road it’s just you and your guys, just you and the team, the people that travel with you. So you really got to stick together. And it’s nice when you can silence a crowd. It’s fun, it’s entertaining. I think our team, we just had a right mindset for it.”
Suns preaching a “next man up” mentality if Craig can’t go
The Suns could be dealing with some depth issues in Game 3 as backup centre to Deandre Ayton, Dario Saric, is out indefinitely with a torn ACL that he suffered in the first quarter of Game 1 of the Finals. Then, late the third quarter of Game 2, Torrey Craig, the multi-positional forward who Williams used in Saric’s spot, suffered a right knee contusion and was forced to leave the game.
The latest reporting indicates that an MRI revealed no structural damage and his injury’s label has been changed to a right bone bruise, but his status for Game 3 remains up in the air.
If Craig is unable to go, then the Suns will be preaching a classic “next man up” line of thinking.
“We have a saying, ‘Next man up.’ We feel like we have enough in our locker room, no matter if one guy goes down, we hate that, but we are all in it together,” said Suns forward Jae Crowder. “That’s the message we sent to Dario is we have your back. We know it’s a tough situation for you but we have your back and we’re going to get this thing done for you collectively together.
“I think same thing with Torrey. If he can go or can’t go, he knows we know we’ve got to have his back and that’s by picking up your level of play. Someone else, next man up, gets minutes and you have to come in and affect the game. That’s our approach all year.”
As for who that next man might be, Williams hinted that instead of filling the potential Craig void with a bigger body like Frank Kaminsky, he might be looking to go smaller by giving more minutes to Cameron Johnson or Abdel Nader.
“He got some testing done yesterday. All of that came back clean, but he’s still sore, so I can’t make much of a statement on his availability or anything like that,” said Williams of Craig. “We’re going to get through today. We’ll have a light practice today and put him through some paces. We’ll be able to make a better statement about his availability tomorrow, and then we’ll adjust accordingly.
“We have guys that can play more minutes. Cam Johnson didn’t get a ton of minutes the other night, he can play more. And then you have Abdel, he can play in those minutes. So it’s still something we’re assessing, but his testing did come back favourably.”