The Milwaukee Bucks withstood a scorching start by the Phoenix Suns before their three stars carried them to a 123-119 road victory in Game 5 of the NBA Finals, putting them one win away from their first championship in 50 years.

Giannis Antetokounmpo scored 32 points, Khris Middleton had 29 and Jrue Holiday 27 in an entertaining to overcome a 40-point effort by Suns star Devin Booker and quiet the raucous Phoenix crowd. 

Like their fans, the Suns came out hot. Booker attempted Phoenix's first two shots of the game and missed both, but the Suns made 11 in a row from the field after that and held a 16-point lead after the first quarter. 

Their hot hand was short-lived, though, as the Bucks exploded for a 25-6 run and outscored the Suns 43-24 in the second quarter to take a 64-61 lead at the break. 

Milwaukee appeared on the verge of running away with the game, extending the lead to as many as 14 early in the fourth quarter before the Suns staged a late rally. 

Phoenix trimmed the deficit to three on a Booker three-pointer with 1:24 to play and Chris Paul fouled Antetokounmpo the next time down the court, forcing him to his least comfortable spot on the court: the free-throw line, where he would make just four of 11 Saturday.

The Greek star missed both free throws and Paul answered with a driving layup to bring the Suns within one with 56.6 seconds remaining. 

Antetokounmpo redeemed himself moments later, running the floor after Holiday stole the ball from Booker to finish an alley-oop dunk that put Milwaukee's lead back at three. 

After missing yet another free throw, Antetokounmpo tipped the rebound back out to Middleton, who was fouled and broke the Bucks' free-throw drought for a four-point advantage with 9.8 seconds remaining. 

That proved to be enough as Booker missed a jumper with five seconds to play and Phoenix could not get off another shot. 

According to Stats Perform, the Bucks are just the fourth team in NBA history to win Games 3 through 5 after dropping the first two games of the NBA Finals.

The 2006 Miami Heat were the last to do it and ended up closing out the series against the Dallas Mavericks in Game 6.

Suns at Bucks

The Bucks can claim their first NBA title since 1971 with a win in Game 6 Tuesday in Milwaukee. 

The Phoenix Suns will be grateful to be back home as they attempt to respond when hosting the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 5 of the NBA Finals on Saturday.

Phoenix had headed out on the road holding a commanding 2-0 cushion after a pair of impressive wins in front of their own fans, increasing the belief that this could be the year the franchise finally secures a first ever title.

However, the trip to Milwaukee did not pan out as hoped. Back-to-back defeats have put the best-of-seven series level at 2-2, with the Bucks now aiming to stop the Suns – and their bench in particular – rising to the occasion upon a return to familiar surroundings.

"It's always tough winning on the road in this league – it's always tough winning, period. But them especially, they really, really feed off the crowd and get going," Bucks big man Bobby Portis told the media.

"All their supporting cast play well at home, so we've got to try to limit them as much as we can.

"Obviously, it's going to be a hostile environment, but that’s what we play this game for. That’s why we work so hard in the offseason, during the season. This is why we sacrifice so much – to be in this position to lift the Larry O'Brien Trophy. I think everybody is locked in."

The key to the comeback for the Bucks has not just been about playing at home, though.

Phoenix had an offensive rating of 119.8 over the opening two games yet dipped to 104.6 across successive losses to a Milwaukee team determined to make a greater impact on defense.

Chris Paul had a combined 55 points in the Suns' wins but was stifled during the away trip. The veteran point guard managed just 10 points in Game 4, yet he insists experience has helped him quickly forget about such outings.

"In this league, when you play long enough – and I feel like I’ve played for at least a little while – you have to have a short memory. You can't dwell on it, win or lose," Paul said on Friday.

"You can win by 20 or lose by 20, you then start back at zero-zero and go from there. That's always been the mindset."

The Suns did lose by 20 in Game 3, before going down by just six points last time out. Their cause was not helped by shooting 30.4 per cent from deep in that most recent defeat, a statistic that needs to be a temporary blip rather than a set-in trend if they are to wrestle back the advantage, particularly when facing a Bucks team used to going the distance in these playoffs.

 

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Phoenix Suns - Mikal Bridges 

As Portis mentioned, the Suns were able to get contributions from a number of role players during the meetings in Phoenix. Bridges certainly played his part, too, scoring 41 combined points, including 27 in Game 2 as he played for over 37 minutes.

However, he struggled to have anywhere near the same impact on the road, taking just eight shots in total as he mustered 11 points. Phoenix needs him to get more heavily involved again in the offense again, particularly when it comes to outside shooting.

Milwaukee Bucks – Giannis Antetokounmpo

Who else, right? Antetokounmpo had 26 points and 14 rebounds in Game 4, yet his biggest play was the astonishing block on Deandre Ayton as the Suns center attempted a dunk.

The Bucks finished that contest shooting at a mere 40.2 per cent, in comparison to Phoenix's average of 51.3 per cent. Taking 29 free-throws (the Suns had 19) helped mask the deficit, but Milwaukee will be aware they must do better from the field, having landed just seven of their 29 three-point attempts on Wednesday.

Phoenix Suns head coach Monty Williams is bullish that Chris Paul will respond in Saturday's Game 5 after an uncharacteristic display with five turnovers in Game 4's defeat to the Milwaukee Bucks.

The Bucks squared up the NBA Finals at 2-2 with Wednesday's 109-103 win over the Suns, with Williams ruing his side's 17 turnovers which led to 24 Milwaukee points.

Paul was guilty of five turnovers, including a crucial late error allowing Khris Middleton to score as the Bucks raced away in the final quarter after trailing by six points at three-quarter time.

The 36-year-old Suns guard also only managed 10 points for the game, shooting at 38.5 per cent from the field and failing to hit one three-pointer but Williams backed him to respond in Game 5 back in Arizona.

"A blip on the screen, that's how I would term it," Williams told the pre-game news conference. "You're not going to see Chris having those kinds of games frequently.

"I've been around long enough and coached against him long enough. I'd term it a blip on the radar."

He added: "There's not a person in our locker room that's not expecting to not come out and play really well the next game."

Williams added that Paul, who has battled hand and shoulder injuries during the postseason, was fine physically and fully focused.

"I just see Chris being Chris," Williams siad. "He's always intentional about everything, he's focused.

"I find myself struggling when I can't help him. That's what we've talked about the last couple of days.

"Chris is fine. He's focused. He's all about winning. The conversations are all about basketball right now. We know what's in front of us."

Paul has averaged 18.7 points per game and 8.6 assists per game this postseason, shooting at 48.5 per cent from the field.

Cleveland Cavaliers forward Kevin Love has withdrawn from Team USA's roster for the Tokyo Olympics with two replacements confirmed.

Love joins Washington Wizards guard Bradley Beal, who has entered health and safety protocols, in dropping out of USA's original 12-man roster.

USA Basketball (USAB) announced on Friday that Denver Nuggets center JaVale McGee and San Antonio Spurs small forward Keldon Johnson have replaced the duo.

USAB said Love's withdrawal was due to "his ongoing injury recovery", having been returning from a right calf injury during the camp in Las Vegas where he did participate in exhibition games.

"I am incredibly disappointed to not be heading to Tokyo with Team USA," Love said in a statement released by Schwartz.

"But you need to be at absolute peak performance to compete at the Olympic level and I am just not there yet."

McGee averaged 7.3 points per game and 5.2 rebounds per game, shooting at 51.1 per cent from the field in the 2020-21 NBA season for the Nuggets.

Johnson, 21, averaged 12.8 points per game, 6.0 rebounds per game and 1.8 assists per game in the 2002-21 season for the Spurs.

Team USA are due to fly out for Tokyo on Monday, with their Olympics opener against France on July 25.

Star point guard Damian Lillard denied reports he will request a trade from the Portland Trail Blazers in an offseason of ceaseless speculation.

Speaking to reporters ahead of the Olympic Games as a member of Team USA, Lillard said he has yet to make a decision about his future despite rumours of an impending trade request emerging on Friday.

"I woke up to those reports, a lot of people reaching out to me," said Lillard. "But it's not true. I'll start off the rip and say it's not true.

"A lot of things are being said. It hasn't come from me. I haven't made any firm decision on what my future will be."

The comments from the six-time All-Star came hours after TrueHoop's Henry Abbott reported Lillard would be formally requesting a trade in the coming days.

Lillard also insisted he "expects to be" with Portland when the 2021-22 season tips off but reiterated that he does have some concerns about the Trail Blazers' title chances.

"I think if you look at our team as it is, I don't see how you say this is a championship team," Lillard added.

“My intention and my heart is set on being in a Trail Blazers uniform for my entire career. But over time … you want to win it all. And we have to make strides to do that.”

Portland has played in eight straight postseasons, including a run to the Western Conference finals in 2019 that ended in a sweep at the hands of the Golden State Warriors.

After first-round exits in the last two playoffs, Portland replaced long-time head coach Terry Stotts with Chauncey Billups, the first of perhaps many moves in a pivotal offseason for the Blazers.

Lillard is scheduled to meet with Billups and general manager Neil Olshey in Las Vegas before the Tokyo Olympics begin to discuss the future of the organisation.

Portland is 12-16 over the last three postseasons, despite Lillard averaging 28.3 points and 7.2 assists while shooting 39.6 percent from three-point range, leading many to believe it is time for him to seek a stronger supporting cast.

Lillard, who celebrated his 31st birthday on Thursday, is under contract for the next four seasons for $176.3 million.

"The best way to put it is be more urgent," Lillard said. "Be urgent about our next step and how we move forward. We've made the playoffs all these years. We're not a bad team, we're a good team.”

"It's a lot of positives. But we've reached that point where it's not enough.”

Damian Lillard believes changes need to be made by the Portland Trail Blazers if they are to end their now 44-year wait for an NBA title amid swirling speculation about his future.

A report on Friday suggested star point guard Lillard will request a trade from the Blazers having spent his entire NBA career in Portland.

He will reportedly address those claims during a media availability session for the United States' Olympic basketball team on Friday.

Lillard has been named an All-Star six times in his career and has helped the Blazers reach the playoffs in each of the past eight seasons.

It is his clutch shooting that has consistently kept Portland in the mix and, since he entered the league in 2012, only Stephen Curry (2,460) and James Harden (2,125) have made more three-pointers than Lillard's 2,051.

Portland reached the Western Conference Finals in 2019 but were swept by Curry and the Golden State Warriors.

However, this season's exit at the hands of the Denver Nuggets in six games was their fourth first-round elimination in five seasons and led to the Blazers parting ways with head coach Terry Stotts. Chauncey Billups is the man now tasked with leading them to a first NBA Finals since 1992 and a first championship since 1977.

Asked by Yahoo Sports if the Blazers have matched his commitment to the franchise, Lillard said: "To make it to the NBA, I had to give it everything I had.

"I was going to do what needed to be done to win games. I didn't come into the league worrying about what others were doing in the organisation. I didn't come in with that type of mentality.

"But I've been active in probably 95 per cent of the games in my career. I've played through injuries, and I've been a part of two rebuilds. I feel like I've experienced everything with the Trail Blazers, and I've worn that jersey as a badge of honour and with a lot of pride and care.

"I never felt like my job was to go in and critique what other people were doing in the organisation. My job was to make sure the team is functioning and trying to lead them to the best results. I've always assumed everybody’s mentality was the same.

"Even when I'm playing well and we come up short at the end of the season, I go home and the first thing I do is look in the mirror and tell myself we didn't win a championship. Or if I didn't play as well as I should have, I've had to look in the mirror and tell myself that my performance was unacceptable and I have to do better. And then you go do better.

 

"I think that's the stage we're at as a team where we all, not just me, not just my team-mates, not just our new coaching staff, the front office, everybody in this organisation must look in the mirror because we've constantly come up short.

"We have to look in the mirror and say I have to be better because whatever it is we're doing is not working and it's not giving us the shot to compete on the level that we want to compete on."

On why he feels this is a pivotal juncture in his career, Lillard added: "There are a few reasons: One being I'm not getting any younger. Our environment has always been great.

"We're not losing a lot, but we were eliminated by a shorthanded Denver team that I felt we should have beat. I just walked away from that really disappointed. I was like, 'Man, this just isn't going to work'.

"We're not winning the championship, but we've got a successful organisation. We're not a franchise that’s just out here losing every year and getting divided.

"We have positive seasons; we just don't end up with a championship. So I feel like at this point, I basically made the decision that if you do what you've always done, you'll always be where you've always been.

"Just like I hold myself accountable for a bad performance or hold myself accountable to make sure that I work my a** off when I’m training, I must be accountable for saying what needs to be said even if it's not popular. And that just comes with age.

"When I was younger, I felt like maybe I'll be out of place, but I feel like I've earned the right to say we must do better. We must do better if we want to win on that level."

The United States are always favourites at the Olympic Games – and rightly so. In 18 entries to the men's basketball event, Team USA have collected 18 medals, 15 of them gold.

But those three defeats serve as a warning for Gregg Popovich's side.

And any remaining complacency heading to Tokyo 2020 – in pursuit of a fourth straight title – should have been shifted by their initial pre-tournament exhibitions.

The United States lost to Nigeria last Saturday and then to Australia two days later, their third and fourth defeats in exhibitions since first fielding NBA players with the formation of the 'Dream Team' in 1992.

"It was better," as Popovich said, in Tuesday's win over Argentina – "bit by bit, every day, I hope," the coach added – but the pressure is still on, as consistent results must follow when the real action begins.

 

TOUGH START FOR TEAM USA SUPERSTARS

Of course, Team USA have never failed to advance from the preliminary round and that spotless record is highly unlikely to change this year. A kind draw has thrown up only one true test, but it comes first up: against France.

Indeed, Les Bleus dealt the United States their humiliating quarter-final exit at the FIBA Basketball World Cup two years ago.

Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert – the three-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year – put up a game-high 16 rebounds in that France victory and his size is a real problem for familiar opponents.

Gobert led the league with 2.7 blocks and 10.1 defensive rebounds per game in 2020-21, snaring 33.5 per cent of defensive boards while on the floor for the third-best mark in the NBA.

Bam Adebayo and Draymond Green might be versatile but, as the two preferred American options at the five, finding joy in the middle seems unlikely, while Team USA might also struggle to stop 7ft 1in Gobert on defense. His 67.5 per cent shooting was another benchmark.

However, the talent elsewhere in the Team USA lineup should ensure they have enough to win most matchups.

Kevin Durant shot 52.3 per cent from the midrange and 45.0 per cent from beyond the arc in the regular season; only two players made more threes than Damian Lillard (275), who then broke Klay Thompson's record with 12 makes from deep in a single playoff game against the Denver Nuggets.

The opener could either see Durant and Co lay down a marker for the rest of the tournament or provide other contenders with a blueprint for beating the United States.

 

BOOMERS BANG UP FOR MEDAL PURSUIT

Australia are far from the biggest team at the Games, but they have already shown the joy that can be found in the paint against Team USA, scoring 44 points from inside the key in their exhibition win.

The Boomers' effective, well-executed gameplan was all the more impressive given the unsettled nature of their team.

They have changed coach three times since the World Cup, and star name Ben Simmons is absent – working to "develop that skill package and improve in a couple of areas", Brian Goorjian said, after averaging an awful 9.9 points per game in the playoff series defeat to the Atlanta Hawks.

But Philadelphia 76ers team-mate Matisse Thybulle is still on hand to provide defensive energy, having led the NBA in steal percentage (3.9), while Patty Mills remains more reliable at international level than for Popovich's San Antonio Spurs.

Four times beaten in the bronze medal game, Australia will expect to finally secure some hardware, yet Group B also contains a dark horse in the form of Nigeria, who followed up their own victory against the United States by dominating Argentina.

Miami Heat guard Gabe Vincent had 21 points against the country of his birth, a total he has only once topped in his NBA career to date.

Nigeria have chemistry, talent and, in Golden State Warriors associate head coach Mike Brown, coaching experience. They have also played so far like they have a point to prove.

 

DONCIC DRAWN INTO GROUP OF DEATH

Second and third pool games against Iran and the Czech Republic respectively should see that there is no jeopardy for the United States early on, but Group C shows how tough this tournament can be.

There will be a rematch of the 2019 World Cup final between Spain and Argentina, while hosts Japan will hope to make some noise. Then there is Slovenia, led of course by Luka Doncic.

One of the most exciting young talents in the world, Doncic has already shown himself capable of dragging a team to against-the-odds victories single-handedly.

The 22-year-old, whose 36.0 per cent usage rate led the NBA this year, was unsurprisingly named the MVP at the Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Kaunas just three weeks after forcing the Los Angeles Clippers to go to a Game 7 in the first round of the playoffs.

Doncic has averaged 33.5 points across his 13 career postseason games – all of which have come against the Clippers. No player in NBA history has played 13 playoff games or more and averaged more, with Michael Jordan second on 33.4.

But Doncic has lost both of those series to date and is now faced with some hugely experienced players at this level. Argentina's Luis Scola and Spain's Pau Gasol – who moved to Barcelona specifically to prepare for the Games – are both in their 40s.

Should Doncic guide his country into the knockout stage, though, Team USA would undoubtedly be wary of taking on the two-time All-NBA First Team selection.

USA Basketball (USAB) has confirmed that Saturday's exhibition game between the United States and Australia has been cancelled due to growing COVID-19 fears.

The two sides were due to meet for the second time this week as part of their preparations for the upcoming Tokyo Olympics.

The cancellation comes after USAB confirmed on Thursday that two players had entered health and safety protocols.

Washington Wizards guard Bradley Beal had been ruled out of the Olympics after entering protocols, while Jerami Grant was also placed under protocols, as a precautionary measure.

Team USA are still scheduled to play Spain in Las Vegas on Sunday in their final preparation game before flying for Tokyo on Monday.

USA's opening game at the Tokyo Olympics is on July 25 against France, while Australia commence their Games campaign on the same day against Nigeria.

Australia had shocked USA 91-83 on Tuesday, following their upset defeat to Nigeria on Monday.

Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker was sensational with 42 points in Game 4 of the NBA Finals, but he said his performance "doesn’t matter at all" as his team lost.

The Milwaukee Bucks squared up the series at 2-2 with Wednesday's 109-103 win over the Suns.

Booker had scored 18 points in the third quarter to earn Phoenix a six-point lead heading into the final chapter, but the Bucks responded with an impressive 33-21 last-quarter charge.

The 24-year-old had a poor shooting display in Game 3 with 10 points, shooting at 21.4 per cent from the field.

But Booker's 38 points across the first three quarters in Game 4 was tied for the second most at that stage of a game in the NBA Finals across the last 25 years, behind only Stephen Curry (40) in 2019 and level with Allen Iverson in 2001.

Booker also surpassed Rick Barry (521) and Julius Erving (518) for most points scored in a player's first NBA playoffs campaign.

"It doesn't matter at all," Booker said at the post-game media conference when asked about his individual performance.

"I said that after last game too when I struggled shooting it. The main objective is to win the game. Anything that goes on throughout the game it doesn’t matter, for real."

Booker's team-mate Chris Paul had five turnovers for the game as the Suns offered up 17 as a team, which head coach Monty Williams identified as a chief reason for the defeat.

Paul took a back seat to Booker but was below his best, finishing with only 10 points, shooting at 38.5 per cent from the field and missing both of his two three-point attempts.

Williams insisted 36-year-old Paul, who has had injury troubles throughout these playoffs, was not hampered.

"He's fine," the Suns head coach said. "Great players have games like that. We expect him to bounce back.

"He had five [turnovers], but we had 17 and they scored 24 points [from turnovers]. That was pretty much the game right there, when you double that up with the offensive rebounding.

"It wasn’t just Chris. We've got to take better care of the ball."

Williams added that he knew Booker was ready to respond in Game 4 after his ordinary shooting display in the previous outing.

"When he can stop on a dime and get guys up on the air, he has his legs underneath him, it's something I see in the shootaround," he said. "I can see when he's got his legs."

The NBA Finals returns to Arizona for Game 5 on Saturday.

Paul added: "You can't just bank on the fact you've got home court. You've got to go out and play the game and execute. We'll do that.

"We tend to respond well. we know what we've got to do. Be better."

Giannis Antetokounmpo says he "thought he was going to get dunked on" for his remarkable last-quarter block to deny Deandre Ayton in Wednesday's Game 4 win for the Milwaukee Bucks.

The Bucks got home 109-103 over the Phoenix Suns, storming home down the stretch with a 33-21 final quarter after trailing by six points at three-quarter time.

Antetokounmpo, who had 26 points, 14 rebounds and eight assists, came up with a huge play with the Bucks 101-99 up with 1:15 to play, as Devin Booker tried to alley-oop Ayton, with the Greek forward recovering to leap up to block the center's attempt.

"Just hustle play. I thought I was going to get dunked on," Antetokounmpo said at the post-game news conference.

"Going down the stretch do whatever takes to win the game."

Antetokounmpo said he saw the play coming as Booker put the ball in his right hand, with Ayton looming in the paint behind him.

"I saw the play coming, so I was just going to jump vertical towards the rim and I was able to get a good block and get two points [down the other end]," he said.

"It doesn’t surprise me. I saw it coming. Once I saw him put it on his one hand, he was too far for a lay-up.

"You can feel it, I felt him rolling towards the rim behind me. I knew the only chance to get a stop was to jump towards the rim and cover that angle.

"I was late. If I was on the opposite side, it's a dunk."

Antetokounmpo's defensive contribution was significant but Khris Middleton finished with 40 points for the game, including 14 in the final quarter.

The 26-year-old Greek said he was "proud" of his team-mate for his ability to close the game out.

"We've done this a lot of times," Antetokounmpo said. "There's times going down the stretch, I've got to trust him and he's got to trust me.

"We've closed so many games. We've lost a lot of games but closing a game like this in the NBA Finals means a lot but we cannot be satisfied."

The series moves back to Arizona for Game 5 on Friday locked at 2-2, with both sides winning their games on their home courts.

Middleton added: "Whatever we're doing here, we've got to find a way to do it there. The only way we can win this series is to get one on the road. It'd be nice to get this next one but first we need to get some rest."

Washington Wizards guard Bradley Beal may be out of the Tokyo Olympics after entering the health and safety protocols at Team USA's camp in Las Vegas.

USA Basketball announced that a player had enter the protocols although they did not identify who, although he has widely been reported as Beal.

The Wizards guard played 30 minutes in Tuesday's 108-80 win over Argentina and was joint top scorer with 17 points, while he started both defeats to Australia and Nigeria.

“A member of the USA Basketball Men’s National Team has been placed under USA Basketball’s health and safety protocols,” the federation wrote in Wednesday's statement.

Beal could still be replaced in Team USA's final 12-member team for the Tokyo Olympics.

The Milwaukee Bucks have squared up the NBA Finals at 2-2 after a thrilling 109-103 victory over the Phoenix Suns despite Devin Booker's 42-point haul on Wednesday.

The Suns led by six points at the final change but the Bucks, who trailed 2-0 in the series, stormed home led by Khris Middleton's 14 fourth-quarter points, finishing with 40 for the game.

Middleton starred with strong support from Giannis Antetokounmpo (26 points, 14 rebounds and eight assists) and Jrue Holiday (13 points, seven rebounds and seven assists).

After scores were level at half-time, Booker had piled on 18 points in the third quarter but Milwaukee made the key plays count in the final quarter.

Antetokounmpo made a crucial late block to deny Deandre Ayton from Booker's alley-oop lob, while Pat Connaughton came up with a key three-pointer.

Chris Paul had five turnovers for the game, including a late costly error which allowed Holiday to assist Middleton for two which put the Bucks four up with 27.2 seconds to play.

Phoenix shot better from the field, going at 51.3 per cent compared to Milwaukee's 40.2 per cent although they lost their radar late, but the Suns had 17-5 turnovers, with the Bucks scoring 24-5 points on turnover.

Middleton was a key influence for the Bucks, shooting 15 from 33 from the field along with three three-pointers, with six rebounds, four assists and two steals.

Middleton's 40-point haul was his postseason career high, while he outscored the Suns in the final two-minute stretch with 10-4 points.

Antetokounmpo put up 11 from 19 from the field at 57.9 per cent, while Brook Lopez chipped in a handy 14 points, although he and Holiday both missed all five of their three-point attempts.

Booker, who had his worst game of the playoffs in Game 3, responded with an excellent performance, shooting at 60.7 per cent from the field.

The young Suns guard almost fouled out late, with a non-call on a Holiday bucket with 3:30 to go but ultimately it would not be decisive.

The Phoenix Suns enter Game 4 of the NBA Finals with a difficult question to answer: how can they contain Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo when Deandre Ayton is not on the court?

Milwaukee cut Phoenix's lead in the series to 2-1 with a 120-100 victory on their home floor in Game 3.

It came behind a scintillating 41-point performance from Antetokounmpo, the two-time league MVP delivering a performance few could have foreseen when he hyperextended his knee in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals.

Antetokounmpo also had 13 rebounds in putting up a decisive double-double, taking advantage of another knee injury that could well prove a turning point in the series.

The Suns were without Dario Saric, the backup to starting center Ayton, in Game 3 because of a torn anterior cruciate ligament suffered in Game 2.

Coach Monty Williams initially went with Frank Kaminsky as Ayton's deputy, but also attempted to play small ball with Torrey Craig and Abdel Nader.

The plus-minus numbers for Kaminsky (-12), Craig (-12) and Nadel (-5) tell their own story. Milwaukee dominated when Ayton was not out there, outrebounding the Suns 47 to 36.

In this series, when Ayton has been on the court, the Bucks average 110.0 points per 100 possessions, compared to 125.3 with the former first overall pick off the floor.

Milwaukee's rebounds per 100 possessions with Ayton on the bench jump to 50.3 from 46.8 when he plays.

Similarly, the Bucks are substantially more effective from the three-point line without the presence of Ayton to deal with, converting 46.4 per cent of their shots from beyond the arc in the series compared to 34.7 when he is trying to stop them.

For all the attention lavished on Devin Booker and Chris Paul, Ayton arguably stands as the key player for the Suns if they are to claim a first NBA title.

Should there be a repeat performance in Game 4 on Wednesday when Ayton is forced to rest, then Antetokounmpo will have an excellent chance to improve his Finals average of 34.3 points per game and, more importantly, help the Bucks level the series.

 

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Milwaukee Bucks – Brook Lopez

Another player who can capitalise on the blow the Suns have suffered to their big man depth is Lopez, the Bucks center who is averaging 6.7 points in the paint per game in the series – behind only Antetokounmpo and Ayton.

Lopez has produced double-digit points in four of his past five outings in this postseason, including a 33-point effort against the Atlanta Hawks in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals as the Bucks prevailed without the injured Antetokounmpo. Third in effective field goal percentage (60.9) among centers with 30 attempts or more this postseason, Lopez could compound the impact of Saric's absence for the Suns.

Phoenix Suns – Deandre Ayton

That his Finals numbers are inferior to those of Antetokounmpo is largely reflective of the point-scoring and creative burden taken on by Booker and Paul respectively. However, Ayton is the Suns player most should have their eyes on in Game 4.

He has averaged 35 minutes in this series compared to 37.7 for Antetokounmpo; will Williams up Ayton's time on the court in response to the events of Game 3 when he rested? Or will the Suns coach find a way to minimise the damage during Ayton's time on the bench? The answers could eventually decide the destination of the Larry O'Brien Trophy.

Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker says "short memory" will help him move on from his disastrous Game 3 shooting performance ahead of Game 4 on Wednesday.

Booker shot three from 14 from the field, going at 21.4 per cent, and only made one from seven three-point attempts in Game 3, finishing on 10 points as the Milwaukee Bucks won 120-100.

The result pulled the NBA Finals series back to 2-1 in the Suns' favour ahead of Game 4 in Milwaukee.

"Short memory, just move on," Booker said when asked how when asked about his Game 3 shooting.

Booker had scored 31 and 27 points in the opening two Finals games, shooting at 48 per cent and 38.1 per cent respectively, as well as hitting seven three-pointers in Game 2.

The 22-year-old has already scored 500 points this postseason, steering the Suns to their first NBA Finals in 28 years.

Despite the momentum shift in the series and his own poor display, Booker remained unflapped.

"Just understanding the task at hand and simply you just have to be better if you want to win the game," Booker said.

"That's obviously something I want and something this whole team and coaching staff and training staff wants and this whole city wants.

"I would say it's a good pressure. These are the moments that you prepare for and that you train so hard for, what we're in right now. You have to be excited about it."

Milwaukee won praise for their defensive efforts on Booker in Game 3, but Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer said his side expected him to be much improved in Game 4.

"I wouldn't say there was one specific thing or anything we did different," Budenholzer said.

"He's a great player, but he's human also. I think we're expecting we're going to have to be even better on him.

"We just got to be prepared for a really good Devin Booker going into Game 4."

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