The Milwaukee Bucks are in a jam. The Miami Heat took a 2-0 lead in the NBA Finals and are a win away from becoming NBA Champions. With just three wins they will not win the championship. However, the Bucks have a different problem. The Miami Heat are in a series of their own. They are in Must Win mode, while the Bucks are in Lockout mode.
As it stands, the Toronto Raptors have won the NBA Championship seven times, the second highest total in the league behind the San Antonio Spurs.
2:19 AM ET
PHOENIX – Jrue Holiday continued his slow start in the NBA Finals with a 7-for-21, 17-point performance in a 118-108 loss against the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 2 on Thursday night at Phoenix Suns Arena.
But with the series returning to Milwaukee for Game 3 on Sunday night and the Bucks two losses away from the season finale, Holiday has an important person in place: Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Keep talking to him, tell him to be aggressive, said Antetokounmpo, who made 42 points in 40 minutes in the postseason, when asked what he would say to Holiday for Game 3. No matter what, you have to stay aggressive and not give in to your feelings. It’s hard not to. You know, the NBA Finals, 20,000 people booing you and stuff, that’s pretty hard.
But ultimately, it’s not about me. This isn’t about him. It’s not about Chris [Middleton]. It’s not about the coach. This is true for all of us. … If there’s a game where you go 3 for 12 or whatever and you can get the ball back, intercept or do something else to help the team win, that’s what it’s about now. I think he understands.
I know he’ll be there for us when we need him most, and I’m not worried about that. He’s a great basketball player. He has played great all year and will continue to do so for this team.
Holiday made 11 of 35 shots in the first two games of this series and scored a total of 27 points – the same number he scored as Milwaukee dismantled the Atlanta Hawks in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals.
After the first game, Holiday said he decided to become more aggressive. That was also the case in Game 2, where he hit nine times in the first quarter alone, but the results weren’t much different. Holiday finished the first half just 3-for-14 from the field, and although he shot better in the second half, going 4-for-7 from the field, it was still a performance well below what the Bucks needed to keep pace with the Suns.
I think we had a lot of open shots that we didn’t take, Holiday said. I know myself personally, there were a few throws that I normally make, but they landed on the edge and didn’t hit. He’s got some good looks.
Giannis had a great game going to the basket and penetrating. I feel like we’ve done a good job of infiltrating other people and making games for them, but we just need to do a little better.
Antitokounmpo couldn’t be better. Just nine days after his potentially devastating knee injury in Game 4 against the Hawks – it later turned out to be a hyperextended left knee that caused him to miss a week and not return until Tuesday for Game 1 of the Finals – Antetokounmpo was excellent in Game 2.
He finished 15-of-22 from the field and 11-of-18 from the free throw line – more often than the Suns’ total – and added 12 rebounds, four assists, a steal and three blocks.
The problem for the Bucs, however, is that he hasn’t gotten much help, especially from Holiday and Middleton. In addition to Holiday’s 7-for-21, Middleton went 5-for-16 from the field in Game 2 and has yet to attempt a free throw in this series.
Their fellow Suns, Chris Paul and Devin Booker, on the other hand, scored 54-28 points more.
Holiday and Middleton’s combined performance (12-for-37) in Game 2 was the worst for a starting backcourt in the NBA Finals since Kobe Bryant and Ron Harper hit 10-for-37 in Game 6 in 2000 against the Indiana Pacers.
Shaquille O’Neal’s 41 points and 12 rebounds in that game were enough to lead the Los Angeles Lakers to the NBA title. On the other hand, Antetokounmpo’s performance is just a small bright spot on a night when the Bucks failed to tie the game in this best-of-seven series.
Just try to find that balance, Middleton said. At the same time, you should try to play through him when he plays like that. If he sees a crowd, we should be able to help him.
But Milwaukee’s shooting problem in the backcourt was only part of the Bucks’ problem in Game 2.
After the Suns broke their usual norms in Game 1 by committing 26 fouls – the second most in a game this postseason – and outscoring Milwaukee in turnovers, the Bucks repeatedly declared 48 hours between Game 1 and Game 2 that they needed to fix both these problems.
They succeeded in those goals, as Milwaukee won the second game by a 23-14 margin on free throws and 17-7 on fast break points. But while the Bucks spent time plugging those holes, other cracks have appeared in Milwaukee’s defense.
The Suns made 20-40 three-pointers, including 7-12 from Booker, including three at crucial moments in the fourth quarter when the Bucks threatened to come back into the game.
I think I went a little too far, Middleton said, when asked what has enabled Phoenix to hit from deep so often. Paul and Beech were able to activate the pick-and-roll and move to the middle. Ask for help from the audience from time to time. Sometimes we go too far and sometimes they hit hard throws. They did a good job of spreading the field, going to the middle, then leading and scoring, finding shooters.
Although Milwaukee tried to stave off Phoenix in the fourth quarter, including cutting back and using guard Pat Connaughton in place of center Brook Lopez to weaken the offense and create more pressure on defense, the Bucks failed to grab some key defensive rebounds.
The most embarrassing moment came when the Bucks were down by six points with less than five minutes to go. After Phoenix grabbed two offensive rebounds to increase the lead, Paul hit a three-pointer in the corner to extend Phoenix’s lead to nine points.
This is the closest Milwaukee has come.
That’s the beauty of the playoffs, Bucs coach Mike Budenholzer said when asked about his decision to play small and take Lopez off the field. Sometimes you have to play less, shoot more, etc., and that can hurt you in other areas. It’s like a lottery.
I think Brook had a few good minutes. I thought Brooke was helping us. But this little group, we’ve done it in other series, in other games. You’ll be fine. Everyone must participate. You should be able to do both.
The Bucks couldn’t do enough in Game 1 or Game 2 to get a win in this series. But while there was little chance of them losing 2-0 in Milwaukee, the Bucks could take solace in the fact that they were in the same situation a few weeks ago, when they lost their first two games on the road to the Brooklyn Nets in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Milwaukee won this series in seven games. And with the Bucs heading home, Antetokounmpo was confident that he and his teammates could find a way to turn things around in this series as well.
I don’t think it matters what we say, we know what it’s about, Antetokounmpo said. It’s that simple. We should go home and do our jobs. They’ve done their job. We have work to do.
We’ve been there and done that. I hope we can hit the road, believe in each other, play together and have fun. We can compete, we can dunk on the floor, we can make shots, we can put ourselves in position to win the game.
But we know what it is. We must go home and protect the house.
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