From overwhelming quality with quantity to leveraging physicality in the half-court and sapping ball movement with ball pressure, there’s no shortage of story lines to watch for and/or talk about as the Bucks look to cinch the title for the first time in 50 years.
In Game 4, Jeff Van Gundy suggested the possibility of top-locking Devin Booker (i.e. playing high-side on screens to induce a back-cut), to cool down his hot scoring. Given that booker has posted 40+ scoring outings in each of the last two games, the argument to mix in different coverages is clear enough, but the counterpoint is that Milwaukee’s lock-and-trail, drop coverage is working as intended. Since Game 3, when the Bucks switched Jrue Holiday over to Chris Paul and starting instituting more aggressive ball pressure, much of the playmaking and fluidity has been drained from Phoenix’s offense.
Column 1: PHX passes— Caitlin Cooper (@C2_Cooper) July 18, 2021
Column 2: CP3 time of possession
Column 3: Booker potential assists
Column 4: Booker isos
G1: 260, 10.5, 16, 7
G2: 268, 10.1, 12, 5
G3: 279, 8.3, 5, 3
G4: 246, 8.7, 5, 7
G5: 219, 7.3, 4, 11
Granted, passing isn’t everything. After all, the Bucks ranked 29th in passes per game during the regular season and are currently one win away from an NBA Championship. Still, by tilting more of the offense to Booker and giving up twos, what could be a corner three or result in multiple rotations, is allowing the Bucks to stay home and run cleaning in transition without being scrambled. In essence, rather than allow for the possibility of strong-side dribble hand-off counters with the big out of position to contest, as would be the case with top-locking coverage, Milwaukee is leveraging the Suns into “Booker, save us!” possessions and the Suns have mostly complied (Watch for this in Game 6).
That said, while both ends of the floor are tied together in many ways, the bigger issue in Game 5 was arguably the way in which the Bucks overwhelmed Phoenix in the open floor as well as with bully ball. Look at these numbers from a 21-minute stretch spanning the second quarter and middle of the third. That’s an offensive tidal wave!
The Bucks offensive rating during these 21 minutes was 182.9!— Ben Taylor (@ElGee35) July 19, 2021
They scored on 32 of 41 possessions during this stretch, 10 of which were layups. https://t.co/Q2VYOsK7wd
So, what does this have to do with the Pacers? Well, first of all, while it seems premature to rule out the possibility of Phoenix forcing a Game 7, why not provide a space to hang out and talk about the potential last game of what has been a fun series?
Beyond that, though, it’s tough to watch this series without thinking about a few things as it pertains to this past season (and the future) for Indiana:
1) Ball pressure backfired for the Pacers this season, in part, because of the short-comings of Nate Bjorkgren’s overall, whirling schemes, but also due to the absence of rim deterrence brought on by the lack of solid point-of-attack defenders on the roster. In that respect, give Jrue Holiday his flowers. Few defenders have his combination of size and strength at the guard position while also being able to stay attached and impact passing angles. Milwaukee put their future on the line to get Jrue, and it paid off big time in Game 5. For the rest of the league’s near-contenders, there might be a lesson to be learned about holding on too tightly to picks and assets.
2) Size matters. Whether the Pacers should continue with the two center experiment is another discussion for another day, but the value of targeting smaller guards (poor Chris Paul!) and banking extra possessions on the glass (+32 in offensive rebounding) has been evident throughout the Finals, especially as Phoenix has posted a higher effective field-goal percentage while trailing the series by just seven points. After all, to avoid playing Jeff Teague at one point in Game 5, head coach Mike Budenholzer even went so far as to trot out a jumbo lineup of Khris Middleton, P.J. Tucker, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bobby Portis, and Brook Lopez when Holiday went to the bench. Most teams have to choose between transition defense (Phoenix is only averaging nine fast-break points per game for the series!) and offensive rebounding. Milwaukee is doing both.
For the Pacers, they have a center who helps them with the former as a well as another center who helps them with the latter (in addition to crunching mismatches), but playing both together — without the same degree of mobile size — creates a dizzying array of cross-matches against the potential NBA Champions. Bottom line: Regardless of opinions in the never-ending double-big debate, downsizing with another guard next to Malcolm Brogdon and Caris LeVert isn’t guaranteed to be the answer, either.
When: 9:00 PM
Projected Starting lineups:
Bucks: Jrue Holiday, Khris Middleton, P.J. Tucker, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Brook Lopez
Suns: Chris Paul, Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges, Jae Crowder, DeAndre Ayton
As always, please leave your thoughts and observations on the game and anything else Pacers-related headed into silly season in the comments.