The Milwaukee Bucks and Phoenix Suns treated fans to the most exciting matchup of the NBA Finals to this point in Game 4 as the Bucks ultimately came out on top with a 109-103 hard-fought win at Fiserv Forum Wednesday night .
Devin Booker was phenomenal for the Suns as he finished with a game-high 42 points and made NBA history along the way as well. He was also involved in one of the most controversial plays of the night as he appeared to foul Jrue Holiday late in the fourth quarter, a foul that would have been his sixth of the game, which the officials seemingly disregarded. In the end, Booker’s offensive explosion wasn’t enough to overcome the Bucks as Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton combined for 66 points to lead the charge for Milwaukee and, ultimately, help them even this series.
With the win, the Bucks carry all the momentum into Game 5 in Phoenix on Saturday night as this is now, essentially, a best-of-three series. Here are three takeaways from Milwaukee’s Game 4 win.
1. An all-time duel
Shaquille O’Neal and Allen Iverson. Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley. Jerry West and John Havlicek. Khris Middleton and Devin Booker. Those are the four sets of opposing players in NBA history to both score 40 points in an NBA Finals games. The first six were all obvious Hall of Famers. If the game they played tonight is any indication, Middleton and Booker are headed down that same path.
Neither was particularly impressive in a first quarter that included only 43 total points. They then combined for 21 in the second before Booker erupted for a staggering 18 in the third without missing a shot. At that point, it looked as if the night belonged to him. Middleton had other ideas. With Booker relegated to the bench due to foul trouble, Middleton scored 14 points on 5-of-9 shooting. When Phoenix’s incredible defense took away all of their team-based actions, Middleton stepped into pick-and-roll jumpers that could not be denied. He turned a six-point deficit into a six-point win in the fourth quarter.
Middleton and Booker have both been derided for their inconsistency at points this postseason. Middleton scored only 11 points in Game 2. Booker shot 3 of 14 in Game 3. That’s what happens in the Finals. Unless you’re named Michael Jordan, great defenses make your life more difficult. Those same defenses took everything away from their teammates in Game 4, and it came down to these two superstars stepping up and carrying their offenses afterward. Middleton did a teensy bit more when it counted, and now, this series is tied at 2-2.
2. Booker’s foul trouble
Both fan bases have plenty to gripe about when it came to Devin Booker’s whistle. Had the Bucks lost this game, Booker’s blatant foul on Jrue Holiday with 3:30 remaining would have been the story. Booker, who already had five fouls, should have been knocked out of the game with his sixth. The officials missed the call. The Bucks won anyway. Crisis averted. Now, let’s look to the Suns’ side of the ledger.
Booker played only seven minutes and five seconds in the fourth quarter. He sat two minutes and 28 seconds in the third as well. When he played in this game, the Suns battled the Bucks to a draw. When he sat, they lost by six points. So that raises the ultimate question: Should Monty Williams have stuck with Booker regardless of his foul trouble? Or was he right to put him on the bench?
Well … that’s a complicated question. It’s one Phoenix already had to wrestle with in Game 3, when Deandre Ayton played only 24 minutes due to foul trouble and the Bucks killed the Suns in the minutes he sat. But Booker wasn’t held out of almost an entire half as Ayton was. He still managed to play 38 minutes and 30 seconds in total. Without foul trouble, Booker probably plays more. He nearly reached 46 in Game 6 of the Lakers series and was above 44 in Game 2 of the Finals. But could Booker have sustained such an effort for that long?
And could he have kept from committing that sixth foul? That depends on how you look at the one that didn’t get called. A proper call would have knocked him out, but did the refs give him some leeway because of his star power? Would they have given him that same leeway if he hadn’t sat? This is all unknowable, but Booker fouling out early in the fourth quarter would have been a death sentence for the Suns. One of their major advantages in this series is that they have two elite guards and Jrue Holiday can only defend one of them. Remove Booker from the equation and he gets unleashed on Chris Paul, depriving the Suns of both of their shot-creators.
A few more Booker minutes might have swung this game. If the Suns lose this series, they’re going to look back on Game 4 as the turning point. But this isn’t the same situation they were in with Ayton, where his absence was inexcusable. This was a tough decision from Williams, and he managed to balance it in such a way that still allowed them to get plenty of minutes out of Booker.
3. The best player in the series
There comes a point in the NBA Finals when the things that got you to that point no longer matter. A championship-caliber opponent has figured you out. They’ve mastered your play-calls and adjusted to all of your adjustments and the series slows to a crawl. When that happens, you just have to hope that the best player in the series is on your side.
When the series opened in Phoenix, it looked like Chris Paul might be that player. After a stellar run through the Western Conference, Paul dropped 32 points and nine assists in a Game 1 thrashing. Devin Booker made his claim to the title at points in this game, when it appeared as if he might be on his way to a Finals MVP award with an all-time scoring performance. But both have had poor games in this series. Both have had issues defensively. When the Bucks have locked in on both, they’ve had success.
The Suns have no answer for Giannis Antetokounmpo, though. In a game in which they devoted practically all of their defensive resources to stopping him at the rim, he still scored 26 points by functioning as a garbage man and taking easy points where they presented themselves. He used that extra attention on him to rack up eight assists. He set the screens in pick-and-roll that allowed Middleton to score 40. And when it counted most, he did this:
This is what wins championships. This is a legendary player making a legendary play that nobody else in the series can make. It’s LeBron James blocking Andre Iguodala and Michael Jordan switching hands and Julius Erving going around the backboard. It’s the sort of play that no amount of coaching or teamwork can prepare you for. The Bucks had a player who could do that. The Suns did not.
There’s still plenty of time left in this series. It’s not over yet. But the Bucks are significantly better at handling Phoenix’s best players than they were when this series began. The Suns have gotten no better at handling Giannis than they were in Game 1. When they pack the paint and double him, the Bucks can win the way they did tonight. When they don’t, they can win the way they won in Game 3. They have the best player in this series, the one source of stability in an otherwise fluctuating matchup. If Phoenix can’t crack the Giannis code quickly, it’s going to lose this series and become a footnote in his ascent.