Change in scenery means change of fortunes

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In the first two games of the 2021 NBA Finals between the Phoenix Suns and the Milwaukee Bucks, both easy Suns victories for a combined 23 point margin, the Phoenix side were so overpowering that NBA pundits actually entertained the possibility that Finals first-timer Chris Paul and his ragtag crew of young hotshots and veteran reliables could be in for an improbable sweep of the series, eventually giving the franchise its very first championship after a couple of near-misses.

And really, no one is bold enough to blame them. In Game 1, six Sun players led by Paul, the Point God who is in the NBA Finals for the first time in his 16 seasons in the league, scored in double figures. Paul top scored for the game with 32 points, 4 rebounds, and 9 assists, leading his charges to a comfortable 118-105 victory. Devin Booker (27p-2r-6a) and DeAndre Ayton (22p-19r), the young guns of The Valley, contributed well as the two-thirds of the Suns’ three-headed monster to eclipse the Bucks, who only had the 29 points of Khris Middleton and the 20 points of the underperforming two-time league MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo to rely on for some much-needed scoring. The third wheel of the Bucks’ offense, Jrue Holiday, was only good for a pathetic 10 points as he elected to pass more (9 assists) than shoot.

In that game, the Suns (41-of-88) only had one more bucket than the Bucks in the same number of shots, with the latter actually converting more from deep (16-of-36 for 44.4%) than the former’s 11-of-34 (32.4%). The ballgame, however, was eventually decided from the free-throw line, where the Suns were almost perfect (25-of-26 for 96.2%) while the Bucks were a woeful 9-of-16 for just 56.3%.

In Game 2, again in Phoenix, it was the turn of Booker to lead the home team to a 118-108 win with his 31 markers coupled with 5 caroms and 6 dimes. Paul is still his usual captain-of-the-ship self with 23 pts, 4 rebs & 8 assts, while Mikal Bridges contributed an amazing 27 pts and 7 rebs in a virtual no-show off-night for Ayton, who only produced a 10p-11r-4a effort.

And while Giannis again played big for the Bucks in his Finals series debut with 42 pts, 12 rebs & 4 asts, his teammates all came up with so-so performances, with Holiday his biggest scoring support with ‘just’ 17 pts, Middleton having been limited to just 11 markers.

And while field goal percentage was close with 48.9% for the Suns and 45.2% for the Bucks, there’s an ocean of difference in three-point shooting, with the Suns converting on 20-of-40 shots for 50% to the Bucks’ 29% on 9-of-31 attempts. That also was true in free-throw shooting, with the hosts converting on 12-of-14 charities for 85.7% as opposed to the guests’ 15-of-23 free heaves for 65.2%.

In Game 3, the first Finals game to be played in Milwaukee in 50 years, there was renewed hope that the Bucks would shoot better at home and they did not renege on that belief. While they still lost by a few percentage points to the Suns in field goal percentage (47.8% to 48.2%), the Bucks had three more actual baskets, shot more and better from the rainbow arc (14-of-36 for 38.9% to the Suns’ 9-of-31 for 29%), and converted on more free heaves from the charity stripe (20-of-26 for 76.9% as opposed to their foes’ 11-of-16 for 68.8%).

More importantly, the Bucks moved with a wee bit more confidence at the Fiserv Forum in downtown Milwaukee, playing with more cohesion at home than the previous two games, with Giannis’ second consecutive 40-plus point production of 41 pts, 13 rebs & 6 assts leading the charge.

In addition, four other Bucks scored in double figures, with Game 3 proving that the Bucks only need a change in scenery—right in the middle of their adoring fans—to show the swag that had led them to the grandest stage of all. Jrue Holiday had 21p-5r-9a; Khris Middleton had 18p-7r-6a; while two others in big men Brook Lopez and Bobby Portis produced 11 points each.

The result? A 120-100 blowout of a game, the result of which was never really in doubt once the Bucks ended the first half with a 35-17 second quarter and followed it up with a 38-31 third stanza.

Now, with a renewed confidence in themselves playing in a city they call home, the Bucks are eyeing to draw even with the Suns with the same no-more-tomorrow-if-we-lose mentality that has served them in good stead coming into Wednesday’s Game 3. Let’s see a couple of days from now if the magic continues for the Bucks as they try to make this series a best-of-three affair when they return to the desert for the pivotal Game 5.

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