NBA Finals: Suns’ Monty Williams irked by free-throw disparity in Game 3, but numbers tell a different tale

The Phoenix Suns were blown out of Game 3 of the NBA Finals 120-100 by the Milwaukee Bucks Sunday night, and whistles were certainly a part of that defeat. Two key Suns, DeAndre Ayton and Cam Johnson, racked up five fouls in the loss, and Ayton did so early enough that he had to sit out the bulk of the second half. In the 24 minutes he sat, the Bucks outscored the Suns by 14 points. In total, Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo took more free throws (17) than the entire Phoenix roster (16). 

Suns fans were already on edge before Game 3 when it was announced that Scott Foster would lead the officiating crew. Chris Paul’s teams have lost their last 11 playoff games officiated by Foster that Paul himself has participated in, and Ayton’s foul trouble was only more fuel on that fire. 

Suns coach Monty Williams addressed the officiating at his post-game press conference. While he opened by saying he would not publicly complain, he went on to directly mention the free throw disparity between Milwaukee’s two-time MVP and his entire roster.

“I’m not gonna get into complaining publicly about fouls. I’m just not gonna do that,” Williams said. “But you can look. We had 16 free throws tonight. One person had 17. So, DA, we’ve gotta learn from that, we’ve gotta beat guys to the spot. He’ll grow from this. I promise you, he will. “

Aside from almost immediately breaking his vow not to publicly complain about fouls, Williams also left quite a bit of important context out of the equation. The Suns averaged only 18.7 free throw attempts per game in the regular season, the second-fewest in the NBA. The Bucks allowed opponents to shoot only 18.8 free throws per game in the regular season, the fewest in all of basketball. In that light, Phoenix attempting 16 hardly appears unusual.

Antetokounmpo’s 17, meanwhile, isn’t particularly abnormal either. He has averaged 10.9 free throw attempts per 36 minutes over the past three seasons, and this is a Finals game. It’s only natural that he would attack the basket more aggressively. The Bucks facilitated that with some of their lineup choices. When Phoenix went small due to Ayton’s foul trouble, the Bucks moved Antetokounmpo to center with shooting in the other four lineup spots. With so much space, the Suns had little choice but to foul him when he attacked the basket. He took 11 of his 17 free throws in the second half, when Ayton played fewer minutes. He went above his average in Game 3, but not overwhelmingly so.

It should also be noted that while Antetokounmpo is drawing quite a few fouls, his teammates are not. The rest of the Bucks combined to take only nine of them in Game 3. They combined for nine in Games 1 and 2 of the Finals combined. Khris Middleton did not attempt a free throw until Game 3 of this series. Through three games, the Bucks are averaging almost the exact same number of free throw attempts in the Finals (21.67) as they did in the regular season (21.4). The same is true of the Suns, who have averaged 18.67 free throws per game in the Finals after averaging 18.7 in the regular season.

The Suns do a number of things very well on the court. Drawing fouls is not one of them. It’s a symptom of their jumper-heavy offense. Milwaukee’s goal offensively is to attack the basket. Antetokounmpo is one of the best players in the NBA at doing just that, and his overwhelming physical gifts force defenders to foul him more often than they’d like just to prevent him from getting easy dunks. On balance, there is little evidence suggesting that either side has benefitted all that much from the officiating. The Suns are going to lose the free throw battle most of the time by virtue of their roster and playing style. It’s up to them to make up for that by winning the rest of the game convincingly enough for calls not to matter. 

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