Khris Middleton nets 40 as Bucks even series

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As we get down to the nitty-gritty here in this 2020-2021 NBA season, it would seem as though we’ve seen it all in this 6.5-month span. Well, various aspects of Game 4 would beg to differ, and it was one for the books to say the least.

Bucks 109, Suns 103 (series tied 2-2)

The Bucks were not making their shots at a high clip by any means tonight, shooting just 40.2% from the field and 24.1% from downtown. However, they got going in other ways, highlighted by the inversely correlated offensive rebound to turnover ratio - Milwaukee had 17 offensive rebounds and turned it over just five times, while Phoenix had just five rebounds on the offensive end and turned it over 17 times. While plenty of other variables go into the deciding factor of a basketball game, the major discrepancy in these two categories speaks volumes on its own.

After combining for just 29 points in Games 2 and 3, Khris Middleton came to play in Game 4 on Wednesday evening, scoring a playoff career-high 40 points to go with six rebounds, four assists, two steals and three 3-pointers in 43 minutes. He was especially invisible in Game 2, and it’s no secret that when Middleton plays well (especially down the stretch), the Bucks are a much better basketball team. In fact, he outscored the entire Phoenix team by a margin of 10-4 in the last 2:15 of Game 4, so saying Middleton was clutch could arguably be an understatement. Giannis Antetokounmpo wasn’t totally himself early, but bounced back in a massive way to finish the contest with a full line of 26 points, 14 rebounds, eight assists, three steals, two blocks and just a single turnover in 43 minutes. He wasn’t the player of the game, but he did have the play of the game (and possibly the play of the series if all goes well for Milwaukee) with a huge block on Deandre Ayton with just 1:15 left in the game to completely shift the momentum in the Bucks’ favor. I don’t think it can be said enough how impressive and improbable it is to see Giannis playing at this level just two weeks after his scary knee injury, and some of the things he’s doing seem near impossible even with two fully functional legs. He’s a freak and will never get enough credit for the little things he does either, and we’re a lucky bunch that we get to witness him for another decade and then some.

The only person that could possibly stop us from watching Giannis’ greatness is Jrue Holiday, who is probably taking years off of his (and the entirety of Milwaukee’s) life with his inexplicable inefficiency in this series. He finished Game 4 with 13 points, seven rebounds, seven assists and three steals, and while his counting stats are always there, his embarrassing 4-of-20 mark from the field tonight will never be acceptable. In fact, he made the wrong kind of history, becoming the fourth player (Kobe Bryant, Kenyon Martin, Russell Westbrook) to take at least 20 shots in a Finals game and shoot 20% or worse from the floor. For all I know, he could drop 40 on 80% shooting in Game 5 and shut me up incredibly quickly, and while I’m rooting for him to get it together, I wouldn’t bet on it. Pat Connaughton was fantastic yet again, playing 32 minutes off the bench on his way to 11 points, nine rebounds and three more 3-pointers, and has been a huge part of the Bucks’ success at home in these Finals. Brook Lopez scored 14 without much else to show for it, and P.J. Tucker was scoreless in his 29 minutes of playing time.

Regardless of who you’re rooting for, you can’t help but feel bad for Devin Booker tonight. He gave it his all and scored a game-high 42 points with just one board, two assists, no three-pointers and four turnovers in 39 minutes. He had 20 at halftime and 18 in the third quarter on a perfect 7-of-7 mark from the floor, but cooled down significantly when it mattered most. Booker also accomplished the impossible, tallying six total fouls and not being sent to the bench - jokes aside, he had five fouls with about 3:40 left in the game and completely wrapped up Jrue Holiday on a three-on-one Bucks fast break, and not a single whistle was blown. It was one of the most bizarre non-calls of not just these playoffs but in recent history, as D-Book should simply not have been eligible to play after that foul. All this aside, Booker was fantastic, and even more so after scoring a measly 10 points in Game 3. The term “bounce-back” barely does this justice.

Unfortunately for Booker, he got very minimal help from this Suns team, and the second Phoenix player to reach double digits was Jae Crowder, and it didn’t happen until 41 minutes into the game. Crowder actually ended up having a great game on both ends and pumped out an incredible 9-cat gem, racking up 15 points, eight rebounds, three assists, three steals, three blocks, and three 3-pointers in 39 minutes of his own. Crowder’s defense will always be there, and it’s a nice bonus that his offense has also been there in the last three games where he’s averaging 14.7 points and four made 3-pointers per game in that span. Chris Paul, no matter which way you look at it, did not play well in this one, scoring just 10 points (5-of-13 FG) to go along with four boards, seven assists, no triples or defensive stats, and (most uncharacteristically of all) five turnovers in his 37 minutes. It feels so weird seeing CP3 make some of the mistakes he did tonight, and we’ve held him to such high standards basically since he entered the league that it’s even more shocking. Make that 15 turnovers in Paul’s last three games, giving him his most in a three-game stretch in the playoffs since 2012. He is sure to be better in Game 5, and if we see another 35+ point, mid-range filled performance out of Paul on Saturday, don’t say I didn’t warn you first. Deandre Ayton was quiet on offense with just six points to his name, but did everything else spectacularly, including ripping down 17 boards and dishing out five assists. His defense was phenomenal too as he blocked three shots tonight, and it’s been crystal clear that we’re watching a young center blossom into stardom right before our eyes. Cameron Payne had nine off the bench and Cam Johnson had 10, and they’re about as reliable as they come in terms of bench options.

Team USA

The 2021 USA Men’s Basketball Team went through a stretch of three games in four days starting this past Saturday, and things did not necessarily go as expected to say the least. For anyone new to Team USA, they are generally quite dominant in their Olympic runs, with the exhibition games being no different. Well, just to add to the bizarre nature of this last year or so, Team USA lost their very first exhibition game to Nigeria this past Saturday by a score of 90-87. To anyone curious how lopsided this one “should” have been, Vegas had the USA as 28.5-point favorites, so the fact that they lost is simply mind-boggling. The early problem here is that this USA team is composed of a bunch of insanely talented guys with no chemistry that aren’t used to playing with other stars (for the most part). This was a huge wake up call for Kevin Durant (he led the team with 17 points) and crew, but give plenty of credit to Gabe Vincent (Miami Heat member, who scored 21 points with six triples) and the rest of Nigeria for playing and executing so well all night.

So, one must think that Team USA would come back with something to prove against Australia two days later, right? Think again, as Team USA failed to get things done yet again, falling to Australia 91-83 on Monday evening. Before these two losses, the US had been 54-2 in exhibition games since the pros started playing in 1992, and doubled the number in their loss column in a span of 72 hours. Again, give plenty of credit to Australia as well, led by familiar NBA faces Patty Mills (22 points, four dimes) and Joe Ingles (17 points, three 3-pointers). Once again, Team USA simply needs to find their stride, and there’s no point in overreacting to exhibition games - the real action doesn’t start until later this month. In the third of three games in four days, the US finally got a mark in the win column against Argentina, cruising to a 108-80 victory on Tuesday. Bradley Beal and Kevin Durant both led the way with 17 points and six rebounds apiece, while Zach LaVine was close behind with 15 points and five rebounds of his own. They’ll get two more exhibition games to figure things out, the first being a rematch against Argentina on Friday, and the second being the finale against Spain on Sunday.

Looking Ahead: We now have a best-of-three series on our hands in these thrilling Finals, with the first of these three to be played Saturday evening back in Phoenix. The winner of Game 5 will have a gargantuan advantage heading into the now-inevitable Game 6 on Tuesday, and if you’re like me, I’m just glad this whole "two days of rest" thing is not standard procedure for the entirety of the postseason.