NBA Finals: Booker, Suns Leader vs. Bucks in Game 2

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PHOENIX — Devin Booker grew up in Grand Rapids, Michigan as a devoted Detroit Pistons fan. Ben locked onto Wallace’s energy, Chauncey Billups’ determination, Rasheed Wallace’s perseverance, and Tayshaun Prince’s versatility.

Most notably, Booker swept away YouTube clips of Richard Hamilton, attempting to turn Hamilton’s picturesque shooting form into muscle memory.

The Pistons of Booker’s childhood claimed a championship in 2004 as a fast-paced squad, a roster of veterans who didn’t hesitate to play team basketball and be endowed with generations of talent like Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal.

Like those Pistons teams, Booker’s Phoenix Suns is all about finding an open teammate in this year’s playoffs and then relying on him to shoot. They spread the ball and stretch the defenses, a strategy that allows their best options, while also recruiting players like Mikal Bridges to play against the Milwaukee Bucks in the NBA finals.

“There’s a saying in our team, it’s called ‘good to great,'” said quarterback Chris Paul. “We skip good shots to get great shots.”

These Suns also have a definite advantage over Booker’s juniors’ Detroit teams: These Pistons didn’t have a scorer of Booker’s creative caliber.

“If the book hits, I’ll wait for it to come in,” Paul said. “I get mad at him when he doesn’t shoot.”

Booker scored 31 points in Game 2 of Thursday night’s NBA Finals, leading the Suns to a 118-108 victory. Having won two games from scratch as the series moved to Milwaukee, Phoenix is ​​closer than ever to an NBA championship in its 53 years of existence.

On Thursday, Booker responded every time the Bucks, or more appropriately Giannis Antetokounmpo, cut the Phoenix lead to half striking distance. Booker didn’t enjoy his most economical performance – he missed 8 of his first 10 shots – but he did make 10 of his last 15 while looking for his right flank shot. He also hit 7 3-pointers.

“The thing about Devin is he shoots the same way in the first quarter, in the fourth quarter, it doesn’t matter, his shot looks the same,” said Suns coach Monty Williams. “He is a man who puts a lot of effort into his shot, but the mentality is calm in those moments. So we are grateful for those contributions in those moments.”

Three of Booker’s three-pointers came in a devastating succession after Milwaukee cut the 15-point lead to 90-84 early in the fourth quarter.

“Every time the book hit 3 or something, you could say it melted them,” said Bridges, who scored 27 points and pulled seven rebounds in Game 2. I was surprised too: I try to hit it in there, maybe I get an O board, it goes in every time.”

For a time, most of Booker’s shots gave the Suns enough offense to blunt Antetokounmpo’s unique impact.

Antetokounmpo scored 20 of his game-record 42 points in the third quarter, with Michael Jordan and two former Pistons – Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars – joining as the only players to score at least 20 points in a single quarter of a final game. He finished 22v15 on the field and 18v11 from the free throw line.

2. “I just tried to be aggressive,” said Antetokounmpo, who had a brief cramp in the game. I have to leave everything on the field.”

Milwaukee finished the previous two seasons with the league’s best regular season record and subsequently failed in the playoffs. Disappointments have led to speculation that Antetokounmpo, a two-time Most Valuable Player Award winner, will look elsewhere when he comes to the free-casting cast after last season.

Instead, the Bucks pledged to upgrade their roster and acquired the venerable Jrue Holiday by trading them to the New Orleans Pelicans. In December 2020, Antetokounmpo agreed to a five-year contract extension, a key commitment for a franchise hoping to win its first NBA title since 1974.

The problem with the Bucks is that the problems that have plagued Milwaukee in recent seasons are resuming with a new roster.

After a great performance to finish off the Atlanta Hawks in the Eastern Conference finals, Holiday and Khris Middleton are trying to score in the finals. Middleton’s typical feathered shot goes awry. Holiday is just 11 out of 35 from the field in the first two games, expending energy in each defensive position while trying to stick to Paul or Booker. He just scored a three-pointer.

“I will continue to be aggressive,” Holiday said. “All I can really do is press the circle and try to spread out for 3 seconds.”

Both games in Phoenix were played similarly until the final scores. Milwaukee’s secondary scorers did not ease the pressure on Antetokounmpo, who returned after overstretching his left knee against Atlanta in the first game.

The Bucks’ best scoring opportunities came only when Antetokounmpo was able to get into the post and pivot and spin, using his own length for dunks and layups.

“I know he’ll be there when we need him most, and I’m not worried about that,” Antetokounmpo said of Holiday. “He’s a great basketball player.”

The 2016 Cleveland Cavaliers were the last of four NBA teams to recover after losing the first two games of the finals. But Milwaukee has already done that at the end of this season.

The Bucks recovered from a 2-0 deficit to beat the Nets in the Eastern Conference semifinals, but only after Brooklyn lost Kyrie Irving to an ankle injury and Kevin Durant’s feats in Game 7 fell short on one foot.

This challenge requires more than Antetokounmpo’s production against a cohesive Suns team. Phoenix finished the first half whipping the ball around the court, with Milwaukee’s defense turning up hot. The Suns’ 10th pass resulted in Bridges’ passing to Deandre Ayton, who turned the layup while being fouled by PJ Tucker.

“This is who we are,” Williams said.

Booker has known the benefits of team cohesion ever since he enjoyed Pistons teams as a kid. As the top star of the playoffs, his shots are baffling, but Paul’s interest is fueled by Bridges’ widening and cutting at the appropriate times, and Ayton making forced picks.

“One to five,” said Booker. “It sets my man up, Deandre hits the screen, Chris gets enough attention to turn me on. I mean, it’s all a collective group. It’s team basketball and so I feel like we’ve been successful most of the year.”

It’s also just two wins from an NBA championship, a position few people expected to be in, like Booker’s favorite team years ago.

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