NBA Finals: Deandre Ayton’s foul trouble burned the Suns, but Game 3 loss to Bucks went beyond that

When Chris Paul sat down next to Devin Booker for his postgame press conference on Sunday, he peeked at the box score in front of his teammate. Paul eyeballed the sheet of paper for 20 seconds, then grabbed it for a closer look. Eventually, a reporter asked what stats stuck out to him. 

“I was looking at my turnovers,” Paul said. “Looking at free throws. It’s a lot. It’s a lot to take in. But you gotta look at the game as a whole.”

The stats painted a bleak picture: The Milwaukee Bucks outscored the Phoenix Suns 73-48 in the second and third quarters in a 120-100 victory in Game 3 of the NBA Finals. Milwaukee scored 20 second-chance points to Phoenix’s two. Giannis Antetokounmpo went 13 for 17 from the line in his 41-point performance, and the Bucks attempted 10 more free throws than the Suns. And yes, Paul turned the ball over four times, not a terrible number for a primary ball-handler but an unusually high one for him, especially after he coughed it up six times in Game 2.

As the Suns prepare for Game 4, though, one stat looms large: Deandre Ayton’s 24 minutes and 23 seconds of playing time. Ayton started the game on a rampage, mixing face-up jumpers with his normal finishes around the rim, but foul trouble left him languishing on the bench for about half the game.

Phoenix is here in large part because Ayton has starred in his role in the playoffs. His presence became even more crucial when reserve Dario Saric tore his ACL in Game 1 against Milwaukee. The Suns were annihilated in Frank Kaminsky’s 14 minutes on Sunday, and the bit of success they found playing zone with a small-ball lineup did not turn out to be sustainable. 

It would be trite, however, to say that the Suns simply need Ayton to stay out of foul trouble the rest of the way. They do, of course, but Ayton’s fouls don’t account for Booker shooting 3 for 14 and Jrue Holiday finally getting some shots to go down. In advance of Game 4, it’s worth looking at what went wrong for Phoenix and how much Ayton’s absence had to do with it. Let’s start on the offensive end: 

1. Suns’ corner 3s disappeared

Outside of the third-quarter stretch in which Cameron Johnson had an out-of-body experience and Jae Crowder rained fire from 3-point range, the Suns didn’t quite look like themselves offensively. They scored only 97.6 points per 100 possessions in the halfcourt, down from 108.8 in Game 2, and their assist rate plummeted from 65.1 percent to 52.5 percent. The most striking difference, though, was the complete absence of corner 3s. Phoenix went 10 for 17 on corner 3s in Game 2 and 0 for 3 in Game 3. 

Some of this is likely because of Ayton’s foul trouble. He doesn’t take corner 3s himself, nor does he create them the same way Ben Simmons or Russell Westbrook does, but he puts more pressure on the rim than anyone else on the roster. When Ayton — a lob threat and elite finisher — rolls to the basket, defenses tend to collapse. That’s when the Suns put their opponents in the mixer and find clean looks. More often than almost anyone in the league, those clean looks are in the corner.  

Phoenix’s assist rate was much higher with Ayton off the court than on the court in Game 3, though, thanks largely to that Johnson-led run in the third quarter. That’s when the Suns spread the Bucks out with a five-out offense. After giving up way too many open looks in Game 2, Milwaukee made a concerted effort not to overhelp, and part of the reason Ayton went off in the first quarter is that it was determined to stay out of rotation. Ayton got a dunk because no one helped on one of his rolls, and he scored in the post when the Bucks switched Holiday and Pat Connaughton onto him. 

Milwaukee staying out of rotation is why there were fewer corner 3s, and that isn’t just because of Ayton. He will need to assert himself the same way on Wednesday, though, if Phoenix hopes to make the Bucks change their game plan. 

2. Phoenix’s offensive rebounding went away 

The Suns do not prioritize offensive rebounds, but they grabbed 11 of them in Game 2. Ayton accounted for four of those, including the one that led to a wide-open corner 3 with about four minutes to go, which Paul called the biggest play of the game. Game 3 was a different story — the Bucks grabbed 13 offensive rebounds to Phoenix’s six. 

Ayton had two offensive boards, and if he had managed to stay on the floor, the Suns theoretically might have found some more second-chance points, particularly when Milwaukee was playing without a traditional center. They didn’t score a single second-chance point when he was on the court, though, so the Bucks deserve most of the credit here. Milwaukee has been one of the best defensive rebounding teams in the league for three years running, and Phoenix is more concerned about transition defense than crashing the offensive glass.  

3. Bucks got the ball moving

The defensive end is where the Suns really missed Ayton. The Kaminsky minutes were a disaster, with Phoenix effectively gifting the Bucks open looks by blitzing Khris Middleton’s pick-and-rolls. The Suns shifted to a zone after that, and while it disrupted Milwaukee’s rhythm at first, the Bucks eventually figured out that, as long as they were patient and got some dribble penetration, they could find spot-up 3s and easy layups off cuts. With the ball moving, they looked like a totally different offensive team than they had been in the first two games. 

Milwaukee shot 13 for 34 from deep before garbage time and excluding heaves, per Cleaning The Glass, and it had 28 assists on its 43 made field goals. Ayton was on the bench for the entirety of the Bucks’ 16-0 run to close the third quarter, and the Bucks outscored the Suns 53-38 in the 18 minutes that Antetokounmpo was on the court and Ayton wasn’t. Without Ayton, Phoenix surrendered clean looks from the perimeter and couldn’t match Antetokounmpo’s physicality.

It is worth noting, however, that the Suns started putting two on the ball against Middleton before Ayton took a seat for the first time. This defensive strategy is what gave Milwaukee’s offense the juice it needed, and even with Ayton on the court the Bucks took care of the ball and generated a ton of assists.

4. Milwaukee dominated the glass and the paint 

The Bucks scored 54 points in the paint and generally overpowered Phoenix. Johnson fouled Antetokounmpo three times around the basket, as did Jae Crowder. The Suns might have looked like the superior team through two games, but the third one made Milwaukee’s formula clear: Beat Phoenix up, win the possession game and dominate the free throw battle. 

This game plan is easier to execute when the opposing team’s most imposing player is Crowder or Torrey Craig rather than the 6-foot-11, 250-pound Ayton. It is not a coincidence that the Suns fouled like crazy when he was on the bench. 

But Milwaukee got to the line at a good rate with Ayton on the court, too, and it scored the same amount of second-chance points with him on as it did with him off. In Game 2, in which Ayton played 42 minutes, the Bucks scored an identical 54 points in the paint. The Suns had problems dealing with Milwaukee on the interior before Ayton got in foul trouble, and the foul trouble exacerbated those problems. 

“They were very aggressive, got to the line a lot more than we did, much like Game 2,” Paul said. “So we got to try to build a wall somehow, some way and try to limit the guys from scoring.”

Paul said that, going forward, Phoenix needs to protect Ayton better. “It’s tough, man, Giannis coming at you full speed like a running back,” he said, so the Suns must show help to discourage Antetokounmpo from attacking. This is true, but Ayton’s first foul was the only one that came against Antetokounmpo in isolation. 

In Game 4, the Suns have to worry about Antetokounmpo’s one-on-one bully ball, but his rolls to the basket, his offensive rebounds and his transition game are bigger concerns. They need Ayton to play heavy minutes if they’re going to slow him and the Bucks down, but, if they don’t play better during Ayton’s minutes, Milwaukee will tie the series. As Paul said, you have to look at the game as a whole. 

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