Giannis Antetokounmpo Chris Paul at the top of their games
The Phoenix Suns and the Milwaukee Bucks face a similar problem: Coping with an opposing star player at the peak of his powers, with more than the outcome of the 2021 Finals in his hands.
Depending how well they cope respectively with Giannis Antetokounmpo or Chris Paul, one or the other likely will grab the Larry O’Brien Trophy, a championship ring and the Bill Russell Finals MVP Award.
The brink of Game 4 (9 p.m. ET, ABC) might seem early to be doling out any honors. But with the Suns leading the best-of-seven series 2-1, Paul and Antetokounmpo have been so effective, so central to what their teams have done, it’s not much of a leap to think that an NBA title and the Russell honor will be a package deal.
Each represents the No. 1 strategic challenge for the other’s team. Antetokounmpo is Milwaukee’s unstoppable attacking force, a relentless rim-rattler once he gets to the restricted area. With 42 and 41 points in the past two games, Antetokounmpo — so fortunate to even be playing after his ugly hyperextended knee injury in the East finals two weeks ago — is putting up historic numbers: 34.3 ppg, 14.0 rpg, 4.7 apg and 62.5% shooting.
Paul has been as dominant in his own way, nearly a foot shorter and far more floor-bound. But the veteran playmaker controls the game across other dimensions, such as time and pace and score. At 36, he plays more of a thinking fan’s game while tapping into the ooh-and-aah talents of teammates such as Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton and Cam Johnson.
His stats aren’t as gaudy as Antetokounmpo’s — 24.7 ppg, 8.7 apg, 56.6% shooting — but Paul is the Phoenix engine. In Game 1, he scored or assisted on 54 points, third most by a player making his Finals debut.
Paul is a better jump shooter, but how the points get up on the scoreboard doesn’t show up on the stats sheet.
“Regardless of how he scores, he does it,” Paul said of Antetokounmpo. “You know what I mean? He comes down there, he dunks, he dunks some more and he shoots a layup. So it is what it is. I think you got to figure out a way to stop him. We have to try to figure out a way to slow him down.”
The Suns are counting on Ayton to stick around for more than the 21 minutes played in Game 3, subbed out repeatedly for foul trouble. They need the big man to go toe-to-toe with “The Greek Freak” and keep him out of dunk range. It’s also imperative that a couple more Phoenix defenders help Ayton in building the so-called defensive wall to block Antetokounmpo’s path.
Said Ayton Tuesday: “I’m not going to let none of those foul calls change my aggression.”
The trick for the Suns is to not leave Milwaukee’s shooter too open and available for a pass from their lanky star.
“It’s a hard truth that you have to do both,” Suns coach Monty Williams said. “You have to be able to show a wall, but also have the integrity of your defense intact on the other side.”
The challenge for Antetokounmpo is to avoid charging fouls when he can’t slip or Eurostep past the wall. And then relying on his teammates when he has to give up the ball.
“Once I started seeing the wall two years ago, now it’s about trust,” he said. “And it’s kind of hard, because you want to be effective, you want to get downhill, you want to do everything. You have to not take it personal and make the right play, find the right guy. I’m doing it better. I’m trusting my teammates. I’m finding guys.
“[It’s] funny that there’s a defense out there called the ‘Giannis Wall.’ … I hate it though.”
That’s where Khris Middleton, Jrue Holiday, Brook Lopez or other Bucks hitting perimeter shots can help tear down that wall. Then Antetokounmpo would again have room to roam.
At the other end, the intricacies of Paul’s pick-and-roll weaponry – from different spots on the floor, at different angles, with his screeners setting picks that vary too – is the biggest concern for Milwaukee.
“Just not doing the same thing every time,” said P.J. Tucker, the Bucks’ burly 3-and-D veteran. “Knowing personnel, where we’re at, who’s setting the screen, who’s weak side, who’s strong side. So much goes along the lines of pick-and-roll defense, and it’s never the same.
“No two pick and rolls are the same. There are always different people in it, so it’s just deciphering that and making the right decisions and calls at the point of the screen. Whether it’s going over or under, knowing the spacing on the floor.”
Said Holiday, the Bucks’ primary defender on Paul: “It’s kind of like cat and mouse, trying to play chess. A lot of times you just have to figure out when it actually happens.
“So in real time, that’s why Chris goes into pick and roll. He’s one of the best at it. He doesn’t make it easy for the defender, and for the most part he gets to the spot or he gets a big roller. But that’s what makes it fun. I guess if you did something over and over again and you kind of figured it out, that would be boring.”
As with Middleton and Holiday for Milwaukee, Phoenix’s Devin Booker knows Paul and the Suns are more effective when he’s a relief valve making his shot. Trouble is, Booker — after averaging 29 points in the first two games — missed 11 of his 14 shots and scored only 10 points in Game 3. Mikal Bridges, a pesky defender who had 27 in Game 2, managed only four.
Williams isn’t inclined to question any of his players’ shot selection at this stage of the season. He is more concerned about intangibles and the intensity with which the Suns play.
“[When] we get five guys back, along with attacking the offensive glass and getting guys back, I know we’re playing with force,” the coach said. “[And] 50/50 balls, we couldn’t come up with those balls. There was a play where Giannis dove, Devin got a palm on the ball, we couldn’t get it. The ball hits Mikal in the face, we couldn’t get it. Cam Johnson had it, we couldn’t get it. Giannis ends up with it and dunks the ball. Those are the kind of plays that we just could not make go our way.
“And then just both ends, just the relentless sprinting, getting to the corners on offense, defensively getting back and showing a wall. That was what we thought was inconsistent, and our players thought the same when we watched film yesterday. They were all in agreement.”