MILWAUKEE — The young guard spent most of his night hearing clanks. The young center spent most of his night hearing whistles.
Should it be surprising then that the Phoenix Suns labored through a 120-100 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 3 of the NBA Finals on Sunday at Fiserv Forum? The Bucks did not just reduce the Suns’ series lead to 2-1 because Giannis Antetokounmpo finished with 41 points while shooting 14-of-23 from the field and 13-of-17 from the free-throw line and grabbing 13 rebounds.
The Suns also lost because guard Devin Booker could not buy a bucket. He had 10 points while shooting 3-of-14 from the field and 1-of-7 from 3-point range merely three days after stringing together a 31-point performance in Game 2. The Suns also lost because center Deandre Ayton played only 24 minutes after collecting five fouls, which overshadowed his 18-point performance on 8-of-11 shooting with nine rebounds.
Afterwards, Booker stared straight into the cameras and critiqued his performance honestly.
“It wasn’t well, obviously,” Booker said. “But there’s nights like that. The most important part to me is winning the game, and we didn’t do that. I’m more frustrated about that.”
Ayton did not speak to reporters, leaving his coach and teammates to assess instead how his absence affected Game 3.
“He’s a big part of our team and he’s the anchor of our defense. So I feel like any team would love for him not to be on the court offensively and defensively,” Suns guard Chris Paul said. “We got to protect him better and make sure we’re showing that wall.”
Obviously, how Booker and Ayton play in Game 4 and beyond will dictate the Suns’ championship fortunes. But how quickly can they rectify their Game 3 showings? The Suns offered different messages on Booker and Ayton.
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Despite Booker’s shooting struggles, the Suns still relied on Paul finishing with 19 points on 8-of-14 shooting with nine assists.
Toward the end of the third quarter, Suns coach Monty Williams wrapped his arms around Booker and talked to him about what he called “normal stuff,” which Booker insisted on keeping private “between me and coach.” Booker also sat out the entire fourth quarter after struggling in the first half (2-of-11) and the third quarter (1-of-3).
But it seems more likely that Williams talked to Booker more about tactics than needing to console him. After all, the Suns have praised Booker all season for shaking off poor shooting nights because of his confidence and consistency in his approach.
“He missed some shots. So that’s going to happen,” Williams said. “When you get to the Finals, it means you’ve been in a number of situations. So this is nothing new to us anymore. He’ll bounce back.”
Can Ayton do the same thing?
The Suns have praised Ayton’s season-long maturity in establishing more consistency with his play, work habits and handling adversity. Yet, Ayton’s Game 3 struggles had nothing to do with those qualities. It had everything to do with just his availability.
Ayton missed the final 10:25 of the third quarter after collecting his fourth foul. He then missed the final 8:53 after committing his fifth. It is not a coincidence that Antetokounmpo had 23 points and five rebounds in the second half.
“We got to figure out or define what is a legal guarding position because there are times where he can move his hands out of the way, but it’s hard to tell a guy what to do when somebody is running into you,” Williams said. “I don’t know what a legal guarding position is at times. But they were aggressive and we have to give them credit. I’m not going to sit here and complain about a team that is aggressive. But we have to understand how the refs are calling the game and then adjust to that.”
Perhaps Ayton will adjust. This marked the lone time that he has collected five fouls in the playoffs. Still, Ayton has committed four fouls in six other playoff games. The Suns also have a diminished frontcourt with Dario Saric sidelined by an injured ACL in his right knee. So with Antetokounmpo shooting more free-throws (13-of-17) than the Suns combined (11-of-16), Williams admitted that “we got to learn from that.”
“Sometimes you’re going to get a good whistle. Sometimes you’re going to get a bad whistle,” Paul said. “He’s playing hard. That’s a talent in itself. It’s tough. Giannis coming at you full speed like a running back. He’s trying to put his hands up. But it’s tough.”
The Suns contended they still could have compensated had they taken care of the intangibles. They lost on second-chance points (20-2), fast-break points (16-6) and what they call the “50-50” balls. But the Suns often could lean on Booker and Ayton both for superstar play and blue-collar work ethic. Instead, Booker missed too many shots and Ayton committed too many fouls.
“I can get better ones. We’ll make that happen,” Booker said. “You can say it’s a make-miss game. But at the end of the day, you have to make the other team miss and get easy opportunities for your team. We didn’t do that.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NBA Finals: Suns lose Game 3, Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton struggle