Moore’s NBA Finals Angles: Giannis vs. Ayton Key for Bucks’ Chances of Evening Series

Moore’s NBA Finals Angles: Giannis vs. Ayton Key for Bucks’ Chances of Evening Series article feature image
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Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images. Pictured: Giannis Antetokounmpo defends Deandre Ayton during Game 3 of the NBA Finals.

The Bucks are back in it. Unless they’re not.

That’s helpful, right?

Here’s a 10,000-foot view of where we’re at in the 2021 NBA Finals through three games, using just a broad overview of information:

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And more …

Greek Freaking Monster

Giannis Antetokounmpo is basically a monster at this point. Forget The Greek Freak, he’s the Kraken. The list of players to average at least 28 points, 12 rebounds, 5 assists, one steal and one block per game in a playoff run is: Giannis. That’s it. That’s the list.

The Suns were built with one true big, Deandre Ayton. They played Dario Saric as a smallball counter but he went out with a torn ACL. He wouldn’t have helped vs. Giannis defensively but would have given them the ability to space 5-out in the non-Ayton minutes.

The tide definitely turned in the last two games. After a frustrating Game 2 where the Bucks outplayed the Suns but Phoenix outshot them, the Bucks made some shots in Game 3 and got a win. More importantly, the Bucks are now +3 in minutes where Antetokoumpo is on the floor vs. Ayton over the course of the three games. The Bucks are +21 with Giannis on and Ayton off, and -20 with Ayton on the floor when Antetokounmpo sits in just 20 minutes.

So now things are getting tough. The Bucks can’t afford for Antetokounmpo — still nursing a hyper-extended knee — to sit almost at all; the Suns can’t afford for Ayton to sit, either. In Game 3, Frank Kaminsky was a -12 in 13 minutes as Monty Williams tried to survive the non-Ayton minutes. The Bucks played the Suns to a tie in Game 3 when Giannis sat, a product that I will tell you now is not going to carry forward.

(The Bucks have an offensive rating of 106 and a defensive rating of 110 when Giannis sits in this series.)

In the realm of things that can’t be predicted: If Giannis gets in foul trouble, Game 4 swings one way. If Ayton gets in foul trouble, it swings heavily the other. This isn’t revolutionary, but it’s pronounced. The Suns’ jumper advantage gets neutralized to a degree if the Bucks are punishing them inside every possession with Giannis and slowing the game down both by forcing Phoenix to take the ball out and getting free throws.

Forgot About Deandre

The Suns have this weird habit of just forgetting Ayton exists. They will feed him for a quarter, have success, and then … just kind of lose him.

Ayton had 16 points on 7-of-9 shooting in the first half of Game 3, and helped them actually get a lead despite how much energy the Bucks came out with. Then he had two points on two field goal attempts and no free throws in the second half, and played fewer than five minutes.

Some of that was foul trouble, some of that was Williams basically waving the flag and moving on to Game 4.

But in Game 4 and moving on in this series, the Suns basically need to mirror Antetokoumpo’s minutes with Ayton. They just can’t survive Giannis minutes without him, and they need to make sure he’s involved on the other end as well.

Booker Shelved

Devin Booker shooting by half:

First Half Second Half
Game 1 4-of-11 4-of-10
Game 2 4-of-12 8-of-13
Game 3 4-of-11 1-of-3

That’s one good half out of six. Booker is shooting 31% for the series outside of the second half of Game 2. Booker also has just five free throws — total — since Game 1.

Booker is shooting 1-of-12 when defended by Jrue Holiday in this series, via NBA.com’s admittedly wonky matchup data, and 3-of-10 against Antetokounmpo.

Booker was benched in the fourth quarter of Game 3. There’s been no report of any injury issue or if Williams benched him out of rest concerns.

Booker’s likely to bounce back in this series, and probably in a big way. Even if he continues to struggle, there will be one game he puts his stamp on. That game is likely to be a Suns win. Which leads us to the greater blueprint of the series…

Title Structures

The volatility of this playoff series is staggering. The Bucks going into Game 3 were up against what felt like an impossible task: having to win four of five from the Suns, who had been the best team in basketball for quite some time. Now, that’s flipped to 3-of-4 which still seems difficult, but when you think of it as “win two of three to force a Game 7” it becomes a different matter.

This series is a lot closer in the aggregate than it feels currently.

Points off turnovers: Bucks 43-41
2nd chance points: Bucks 46-28
Fastbreak points: Bucks 50-33
Points in the paint: Bucks 150-112
3PM: Suns 40-39
FTM: Suns 48-44
FGM: Bucks 125-124
Turnovers: Suns 37-32

— Hardwood Paroxysm (@HPbasketball) July 13, 2021

If you had told me before I looked those figures up that the Bucks had just one fewer made 3, I would not have believed you. If you had told me the Bucks were so dominant in fastbreak points, I wouldn’t have believed you either.

In Game 1, the Bucks played fine, hit 3’s, but missed layups and mid-range shots, while the Suns had their biggest (and lone) advantage at the free throw line. In Game 2, the Suns had their biggest shot variance advantage, as they shot 10% better on effective field goal percentage than their quantified shot quality, per Second Spectrum data provided to The Action Network.

Notably, in Game 3 the Bucks didn’t exceed their expected mark by a significant amount; they shot roughly what you would expect them to based on location and how close defenders were. That’s mostly because they shot a ton at the rim with GAntetokounmpo again just whomping on everyone.

Through three games in the series, the Bucks have the higher expected shot quality than the Suns. That may feel wrong based on watching the Bucks’ offense, but most of it comes down to Game 2, where the Suns had an expected eFG% in the 0 percentile — that’s right, zero percentile — and out-shot that mark by 10.4%.

What I am trying to tell you is that the Suns absolutely should not have won Game 2 and they did.

That tilts the series toward Phoenix in terms of win probability. It’s not that the Suns won Game 2, which is 25% of their required win output. It’s that the converted what should have been a low-success-opportunity game into a win. That swings things.

Think back to Game 2 of the Clippers series, with the Valley Oop. That one play swung their series price by 750 points according to one bookmaker. Game 2 wasn’t as dramatic, but winning a game they should have lost dramatically increases their margin for error and drastically reduces Milwaukee’s.

However, the broad trends in this series are promising for Milwaukee. The Bucks had nightmarish outcomes in Games 1 and 2, but those were road games. Their win probability would have increased, obviously, if that Game 2 had gone their way, but getting Game 3 stabilizes them a bit.

They’ve gotten better shots, the injury luck has shifted their way with Dario Saric’s injury (though Donte DiVincenzo would help a ton). The Suns’ depth doesn’t matter if the Bucks have one matchup (center) they can target and destroy as they did in Game 3.

The Suns can play a lot better than in Game 3. Not only did Booker struggle, but the Suns had a higher turnover rate, Ayton had foul trouble, the Suns’ transition defense was poor, etc.

Game 4 is obviously important, every game as a series progresses is hugely important. But think of how we reframe the task in front of Milwaukee if it wins Game 4 vs. if it loses.

If they win, the Bucks need to win two of three to secure their first title in 50 years.

If they lose, they need to win three straight vs. a team that hasn’t lost three straight since January 27th.

If the Suns win, it’s 3-1 and, despite various collapses in recent years (and Chris Paul’s in 2015), it’s probably over.

If the Suns lose, they still have homecourt and just need to hold serve but the momentum has shifted.

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So … Game 4?

I’m betting it’ll be close, and I’m betting against offenses. The Bucks got a great whistle in Game 3, Giannis in particular. That is likely to return to the hackfest he’s faced most playoff games.

The Bucks have figured out some defensive coverages. Booker may break out, but Paul is unlikely to maintain a 64% eFG% for the duration of the series, nor is Jae Crowder likely to continue to shoot 52.9% from 3-point range.

Cameron Payne is shooting 68% at the rim at home in the playoffs, and just 32% at the rim on the road. Cam Johnson’ goes from basically Klay Thompson at 48.6% from 3 at home in the playoffs to just a really good shooter at 37.8% on the road from 3.

The Bucks have found something with the Giannis-Bobby Portis minutes, averaging 25 second-chance points per 100 possessions. The Suns can counter that by playing Paul more in Portis’ minutes and targeting him defensively, but there is only so much pressure they can apply minutes-wise.

I like the under in Game 4 (after betting the under in Game 3), and the Suns +4.5. The implied odds of Bucks ML -185 (64%) seem heavy, and I wouldn’t play Milwaukee unless it moved to -143 or better.

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