It is the law of suffering, of pain, of anguish. And there, in the dark night of souls, the Milwaukee Bucks has the upper hand, who has been receiving rude spanking for two years for his playoff skids; of not counting for almost anyone this season and of going back to the Nets (devastated by injuries, of course) a 2-0 after losing the second game 125-86 and becoming America’s favorite punching bag. That has value when the NBA Finals hit the ground they are now getting into, head first. The one to grit your teeth and find ways to win. Not taking into account who has a higher peak of talent, who seemed better a week ago or who was winning a little earlier: in games like this (109-103 final) it ends in the last minutes with the feeling that the first quarter was played a month ago. With that, in the dark night of souls, you also have to know how to play.
It is about knowing how to win, or knowing how to lose in order to win. Had he lost count of the defeats he has made his way through, what a remedy. To be willing to do anything. To transform negative energy into fuel, to take hits without going to the canvas. Those who are and who they are. To create an ecosystem in which you are the dominant species. And of not having memory, of playing without remembering what just happened. If you miss a shot, you try the next one again. If your opponent dismounts a good defense for sheer quality, or whatever, you repeat it in each sequence, over and over again. There is no past and the future comes too fast.
The 2021 NBA Finals came to Wisconsin 2-0 for the Suns with an obvious aroma of inevitability. Apparently far superior. But the series, including Game 2 at Arizona, has been veering sharply. Now it’s 2-2, and there isn’t much way to defend that the Suns are still clearly better. Not in the whole season or in the face of the next course: for the next seven days in which two or three games will be played, whichever end up solving the ring. With 2-0 against, the public at the Fiserv Forum (much, much noise), shouted Bucks In Six: the Bucks will win in six games. It seemed like a boutade, a way not to sour his first final in 47 years. But now, a few days later, the Bucks have secured a sixth game in Milwaukee. One that they will reach to survive, again, or to complete the revolution, the earthquake. A Final that started cold (the superiority of the Suns, the knee of Giannis Antetokounmpo …) is boiling, hysterical. It is a madhouse. Nothing counts anymore, only the next game. Only on Saturday, back in Phoenix. The drums of war no longer reappear: they thunder.
In two of the four times he has come back from 2-0, the champion linked four wins while everyone, including his rival, wondered what the hell was going on. It was done by Bill Walton’s Blazers in 1977 and was repeated by Dwayne Wade’s Heat in 2006., against Dirk Nowitzki’s Mavericks. From 2-0 to 2-4. The last to escape from that grave was the Cleveland Cavaliers, when they raised a 2-0 and a 3-1 to the Warriors from 73-9, a team that seemed pluperfect and with a superlative backcourt before the Final got into the mud . In the black night of souls. Those Cavs had, of course, LeBron James and Kyrie Irving. One of the (now) three pairs of teammates who have each added at least one 40-point match in a Final. Before, Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had done it with the Lakers. And now Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khirs Middleton have done it, with the Bucks. The muscle, the faith, the ability to survive and the own stars devouring those of the rival. Is the pattern repeating itself? Whoever wants has the right to imagine it. The Suns continue with their options intact, on the verge of a three-game miniseries with two on their court, including the hypothetical seventh and final. But they came to Wisconsin with a mattress that has simply vanished. On the win counter and on the psychiatrist’s couch. The Suns have the home court factor left. And the talent. To the Bucks, right now, almost everything else. Game 5 will be a pressure cooker in which the Suns will have to avoid that old poker axiom: if after five minutes you don’t know who the cousin is, you are the cousin.
Middleton steals the headlines from Booker
The Suns seemed to have assimilated their skid from the third game: 4-12 in four minutes with circulation, more bodies to seal the zone and move Giannis Antetokounmpo away from the rim and points from Devin Booker, who after ten of the previous crash played like the great stars do, without fear and without handbrake. The escort had great moments, true trance states during which it seemed that the rest of the script was conditioned by his talent. That the Suns would win. He scored 20 points in the first half and 18 in the third quarter, with a 7/7 shooting from the field. Without putting a triple and with a recital of wonderful suspensions from those temperate zones that many teams have been abandoning. But, in parallel, it was loaded with faults. And in the last quarter he made the fifth fast, he missed many minutes and only added 4 more points, and that after he was forgiven the sixth foul in a flagrant (very flagrant) action on Jrue Holiday. He finished with 42 points and already has (540 now) the record for points in a playoff debut (it was 521, by Rick Barry). But his delicious talent, his poetic baskets, were not enough. It was not the Booker game.
Why? Because late in the last quarter, no teammate had reached 10 points. They did it after Jae Crowder (15 with 8 rebounds and a lot of work) and Cam Johnson (10 and a heroic feint in that last quarter). DeAndre Ayton avoided taking fouls but his influence on the game (6 points, 17 rebounds, 5 assists) was little when it was most needed. Mikal Bridges was too transparent and Chris Paul played a horrifying game: 10 points on 13 shots and 7 assists for 5 losses. He made decisive and improper mistakes in the final attacks, and has accumulated 15 losses in the last three games and 17 in the series. More than four on average. Against the Lakers, prospect, he added 9 in six games; against the Nuggets five in four and against the Clippers, eight in another four. Something is wrong there: the body language was worrying (he touched his knees several times), the clairvoyance stayed in the hotel. Much to the merit of Jrue Holiday in, of course, a matter to be measured in what lies ahead. Paul’s Finals have dropped by the day after his first-game display. A metaphor for the general state of your team.
Giannis Antetokounmpo’s final flight
The Suns lost although they were winning 76-82 at the end of the third quarter. Despite the sense of infallibility that Booker conveyed at the time. Although they were 82-89 advancing in the last quarter, 90-95 a little later and 97-99 with 2:30 to go, your last advantage. They lost despite the fact that the Bucks seemed, over long stretches, unable to make a shot when their life depended on it: 40% on total shots, 24% on 3s (7/29). They lost because they regained a lot of attack rebounds (17-5 final), because they did not know how to suffer when there was no other left and because their collective finesse appeared with a dropper and very little after the break (12 assists before, 6 after). An anxiety made up by Booker. Y because they lost 17 balls (5-17). Between that and the attack rebounds, the Bucks had 19 more shots (97 for 78) and, again, more points from the personnel line (24-16 with 10 more thrown). The Suns lost and ended up looking cowering, timid, entangled in something that shouldn’t be happening. But what is happening. On Saturday they return home, and they need to. They need to hold on to it, suffer and forget. Play with the mind and the heart only in each play, as if nothing had happened before and nothing existed after. That’s what’s driving the Bucks. That is what, at this point, decides the rings.
The merit of the Bucks is colossal. Faced with their contradictions, a rival superstar in a trance already a few problems scoring at five against five that would have left others without spirit, less experts or less used to pain. Scars, after all, tell stories, bear witness. The Booker game ended up being the Middleton game because Khris Middleton always shows up. Go from very good player to super player when his team needs him most. He did it against the Nets, against the Hawks when Giannis was injured and he did it in this game when he was flying over 3-1 and heroes were looking for. From 97-99 he scored 10 points in a row, six more than the Suns in the last 135 seconds. He finished with 40, 6 rebounds and 4 assists. 24 points in the second half, 14 in the fourth quarter. Basket after basket as Paul unwound and Booker did not regain temperature after cooling down due to fouls.
Giannis Antetokounmpo finished this time with only 26 points but added 14 rebounds, 8 assists, 3 steals and 2 blocks, the last one a colossal action, which will be a legend of the Finals if the Bucks win the title: With 1:14 remaining and with 101-99, Booker threw a perfect alley oop to Ayton but Giannis recovered from far behind, devoured an impossible distance and put his hand in the sky of Milwaukee to sign a defensive action with the aroma of history . How did LeBron cap Iguodala in 2016? I insist, whoever wants to continue looking for parallels …
Giannis had more problems in static but he always pushed, carried all the consequences and was never discouraged. Nor did he let his team do it. He finished the second half at +8 after finishing his minutes in the first in negative (+5 total). He defended, rebounded and played downhill every time the Suns lost the ball. He did not seem so Superman this time, and that is why his match has even more merit, more importance. Like Jrue Holiday, who was again a disaster in attack (13 + 7 + 7 but 4/20 in shots) but a whirlwind in defense. If the Bucks win the title, his trap on Chris Paul from the second game will be one of the main reasons, whatever he does in the other basket. The energy and blind faith of Tucker and Connaughton (instrumental in the small quintets) did the rest. And the Fiserv Forum, and the feeling that the Bucks have taken so many hits of late that they don’t mind dying, they’re not afraid to look into the abyss. And there, in that fight of wills, you can end up deciding the title after this agonizing fourth game. There go the Suns too, what a remedy: nobody said it was going to be easy, right?