Grading Every Player so Far in Milwaukee Bucks-Phoenix Suns 2021 NBA Finals

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    Mark J. Rebilas/Associated Press

    We have a series, folks.

    The Milwaukee Bucks dominated Game 3 of the 2021 NBA Finals against the Phoenix Suns by a final score of 120-100, cutting the deficit to 2-1 before heading to a crucial Game 4 on Wednesday.

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    While the Suns controlled Games 1 and 2 in Phoenix behind strong efforts from Chris Paul and Devin Booker, there was no stopping Giannis Antetokounmpo in the Bucks’ Game 3 victory.

    With 144 minutes of basketball already played, who’s played well for their respective teams and who needs to do more?

    Here’s how every player in the series grades out following the first three games.

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    Note: Players who have played less than 10 total minutes in the series (the Milwaukee Bucks’ Thanasis Antetokounmpo, Jordan Nwora, Sam Merrill and Elijah Bryant and the Phoenix Suns’ Abdel Nader, Dario Saric and Ty-Shon Alexander) all get a mark of incomplete to this point.

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    Matt York/Associated Press

    F Cameron Johnson: B+

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    Johnson had the dunk of the Finals, a thunderous jam over P.J. Tucker in Game 3 that even had Tucker in disbelief.

    He’s made positive contributions off the bench in a number of areas, showing off both his outside shooting and creative finishing around the rim.

          

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    PG Cameron Payne: C-

    While Payne’s made the occasional impressive play (often with his hesitation dribble), he hasn’t had the impact we saw in previous playoff series.

    Shooting 38.1 percent overall and 22.1 percent from three isn’t good enough for the most important guard off the Suns’ bench.

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    F Torrey Craig: C-

    Praised as a do-it-all defender off the bench, Craig is struggling to get stops, yielding a shooting mark of 60.0 percent (6-of-10) to Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, Jrue Holiday and P.J. Tucker through the first three games.

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    Add in a shaky shot (28.6 percent from three), and Craig hasn’t made a real positive impact for Phoenix yet.

          

    C Frank Kaminsky: D+

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    Kaminsky got some run in Game 3 with Dario Saric injured and Deandre Ayton in foul trouble. While he chipped in six points, four rebounds and two assists in 14 minutes, the less the Suns have to play him, the better.

    The 7-footer isn’t quick or strong enough to slow down Giannis Antetokunmpo at all. Monty Williams even went small during Game 3 with Cameron Johnson at center to keep Kaminsky on the bench as much as possible.

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    Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

    Crowder has a history of running red hot or ice cold from the three-point line. We’ve already seen a glimpse of this.

    After going 0-of-8 overall and 0-of-5 from three in Game 1, Crowder has gone 9-of-12 (75.0 percent) from three in Games 2 and 3.

    His Game 3 performance (6-of-7 from three) was one of the few highlights for the Suns, and his 18 points nearly tied Chris Paul (19) for the team high.

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    While he’s gotten some reps on Giannis Antetokounmpo throughout the series, it’s not fair to ask the 6’6″ Crowder to play him one-on-one with no help waiting at the rim. Antetokounmpo is shooting 75.0 percent with Crowder as the primary defender (9-of-12), using his size and strength to back him down before putting up a short hook or push shot.

    Crowder’s awful Game 1 keeps him out of A territory here, but his recent hot hand and good all-around effort should be commended.

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    Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

    Phoenix could use more consistency out of its starting small forward as the series progresses.

    A 27-point performance in a Game 2 win was a pleasant surprise for the 24-year-old, who’s main contributions typically reside on the defensive end. Bridges disappeared for most of Game 3, however, totalling just four points on 2-of-4 shooting from the field.

    Averaging 15.0 points, 3.3 rebounds, 1.3 assists and 0.7 steals in over 31 minutes, it’s fair to ask Bridges to contribute more offensively. On the other side, he’s done a good job making life tough on Khris Middleton, cutting off his driving lanes and making him settle for outside shots.

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    Bridges doesn’t need to be the star of the show in Phoenix, but he must become a consistent part of the Suns’ offensive attack.

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    Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

    Foul trouble has prevented Ayton from completely dominating this series, as he’s shown the ability to score on Giannis Antetokounmpo or whoever else the Milwaukee Bucks want to try on him.

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    Ayton is mastering the 10-15-foot jumper, putting enough of a fadeaway on his shots to even evade the outstretched go-go gadget arms of Antetokounmpo. He’s a strong finisher around the rim, blending size, speed and athleticism.

    In Game 3, Ayton became the first center since Shaquille O’Neal with the Los Angeles Lakers in 2004 to score 12 or more points in a quarter, according to Basketball Reference. He posted 18 points on 8-of-11 shooting and nine rebounds in 24 minutes while battling foul trouble all night.

    He’s shooting 64.5 percent overall for the series to lead all players, and Ayton’s 13.0 rebounds per game trail only Antetokounmpo. He often has to defend the two-time MVP, as Jae Crowder doesn’t have the size or strength to keep Giannis out of the paint.

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    If Ayton can avoid foul trouble, he should continue to thrive.

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    The MVP of the Finals thus far given the Suns’ 2-1 lead, Paul is first on Phoenix in scoring (24.7 points) and is the series leader in assists (8.7).

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    The 36-year-old has been remarkably efficient, with marks of 56.6 percent the field and 50.0 percent from three. Some of these shots have been incredibly difficult, such as Paul’s high-arching fadeaway jumper over Giannis Antetokounmpo in Game 3.

    Unlike teammates Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges and Jae Crowder, Paul has remained consistent throughout the series. He’s shot 50 percent or better in all three games, registered at least eight assists and scored 19 points or more.

    In his first NBA Finals, Paul has been locked in.

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    Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

    Phoenix has gotten off to a 2-1 series lead despite two rough shooting games from Booker, the team’s leading scorer in the regular season.

    Game 3 was a disaster, as Booker went 3-of-14 (21.4 percent) from the field and 1-of-7 (14.3 percent) from three for 10 points in a 20-point loss. He spent most of the second half on the bench even when Chris Paul and the other starters were trying to mount a comeback, with head coach Monty Williams locked in to conversation with Booker at times.

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    The Suns need Game 2 Booker back, when the 24-year-old dropped 31 points on 12-of-25 shooting in a 118-108 win.

    Given that he only played 29 minutes in Game 3 and most of the defensive attention should shift back to Chris Paul, Booker is set up for a huge Game 4. Averages of 22.7 points, 4.3 rebounds, 4.7 assists and 1.0 steals on 38.3 percent shooting aren’t good enough for a star like Booker.

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    Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

    PF Bobby Portis: C+

    After going quiet in Games 1 and 2, Portis had a big Game 3 (11 points, eight rebounds, plus-19 in 18 minutes) while helping the Bucks to their first win in the series.

    He gives Milwaukee their best offensive frontcourt when coming in at power forward and moving Giannis Antetokounmpo to center, and he has the passion and enthusiasm to swing momentum for stretches. The Bucks need this kind of performance every game, however, not just when they play at home.

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    SG Pat Connaughton: B+

    Connaughton has done everything the Bucks have asked of him off the bench. He’s made at least two three-pointers in every game on 44.4 percent efficiency or better and gives good effort on defense.

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    Averaging over 30 minutes per game, Connaughton has received more court time than teammate Brook Lopez and helps the Bucks play small lineups as needed.

         

    PG Jeff Teague: D

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    Teague isn’t hitting shots, can’t stop anyone on defense and has as many assists (2) as turnovers (2) in his 36 minutes.

    It’s understandable that Milwaukee needs to give starting point guard Jrue Holiday a break for stretches, but Teague and his 22.2 percent shooting mark probably shouldn’t be on the court.

         

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    SG Bryn Forbes: D+

    Forbes has logged 22 total minutes in three games and hasn’t played more than six minutes since Game 1. While he made a positive impact in the playoffs earlier this year, Forbes’ job has been limited because of the tightening of the rotation and strong play of Connaughton.

    He’s shot 3-of-9 (33.3 percent) from three, a mark not good enough to earn Forbes more playing time when he offers little else.

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    Matt York/Associated Press

    Consistency has been key for Tucker, who’s scored exactly seven points on three made shots in all three games.

    His averages of 7.0 points, 3.7 rebounds, 1.3 assists and 1.0 steals are all a team can realistically expect from the 36-year-old Tucker at this stage in his career. Shot efficiency is more important than volume, and Tucker’s made 56.3 percent of his attempts while hitting three of his five three-pointers (60.0 percent).

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    Milwaukee relies on his defense and leadership. He’s started all three games while offering the occasional trash-talking towards the Suns bench after made shots.

    While Tucker did an admirable job on Kevin Durant in Round 2, he’s slipped a bit in the Finals. Devin Booker, Chris Paul and Deandre Ayton have combined to shoot 10-of-19 (52.6 percent) with Tucker as the primary defender, a number that needs to come down for the Bucks to win the series.

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    Gary Dineen/Getty Images

    Because of the Suns’ collection of athletic frontcourt players (Deandre Ayton, Jae Crowder, Cameron Johnson), Lopez’ minutes have been cut while the Bucks go small with Giannis Antetokounmpo at center for stretches.

    The 33-year-old is seeing the floor for just 24.0 minutes per game but has still had a positive impact offensively. Lopez is giving the Bucks 12.0 points and 5.7 rebounds on 45.5 percent shooting and 36.4 percent from three.

    He’s strong enough to match up with Ayton, giving Antetokounmpo the ability to defend Jae Crowder for stretches instead. Lopez hasn’t shut down the 2018 No. 1 overall pick by any means, however, as Ayton is 7-of-11 (63.6 percent) from the field with Lopez as the primary defender.

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    Lopez may start games for Milwaukee, but the Bucks have preferred to go small a lot. This isn’t an ideal series matchup, but it’s one he can still be effective in for a limited time.

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    Matt York/Associated Press

    Holiday has one of the toughest defensive assignments in the Finals no matter which member of the Suns’ backcourt he’s tasked to guard, having spent time on both Chris Paul and Devin Booker.

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    This defensive responsibility seemingly took its toll on Holiday’s shot during the first two games, as he combined to go 11-of-35 (31.4 percent) from the field and 1-of-7 (14.3 percent) from three in Milwaukee’s losses.

    His turning point in the series came during the third quarter of Game 3, hitting three triples to help the Bucks break the game open. He finished with 21 points on 5-of-10 (50 percent) from deep to provide a huge boost to Milwaukee’s offense. Despite a couple of rough shooting nights, Holiday still has the second-highest net rating in the series (plus-2.6) of any of the Bucks’ starters.

    While he has room for improvement, Holiday’s defense, rebounding (5.7 per game), facilitating (8.3 assists per game) and steady leadership from the point guard position has brought a calming influence on the most pressure-packed stage.

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    Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

    No one has spent more time on the court than Middleton during the Finals, averaging 42.2 minutes during the first three games.

    While his raw numbers have been solid (19.3 points, 6.7 rebounds, 6.0 assists, 1.0 steals), Middleton has struggled with his shot since Game 1 and not had the offensive production he’s capable of.

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    Most of his shots have come from three or deep mid-range, as he’s struggled to get into the paint and finish around Deandre Ayton and company. Middleton didn’t even get to the free throw-line until Game 3 and is shooting 41.1 percent overall for the series, including 36.7 percent over the past two games.

    A win and dominant performance by teammate Giannis Antetokounmpo helped ease any finger-pointing after Game 3, but it’s clear Middleton needs to shoot the ball better while continuing to be an effective playmaker and defender.

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    Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

    A week ago we weren’t sure if Antetokounmpo would even be able to play in the series following a hyperextended left knee suffered against the Atlanta Hawks, an injury that caused the joint to swell to twice its normal size.

    Three games into the Finals, no player has been as dominant as the two-time MVP.

    Antetokounmpo has played in every game, logging 37.7 minutes per night following an injury that typically keeps players out for weeks.

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    After a respectable 20 points on 6-of-11 shooting in Game 1, Antetokounmpo has destroyed the Suns’ interior with back-to-back 40-plus point and 10-plus rebound games. Per StatMuse, he joined Shaquille O’Neal as the only players to record such a feat in the Finals in NBA history, with O’Neal’s performance coming 21 years earlier.

    In his first Finals, Antetokounmpo is showing off his playmaking ability as well, doing a good job of drawing double and triple teams when he gets into the paint before dropping off a pass to a cutting teammate.

    The Bucks need their superstar to keep this up to have a chance to win the series, and Antetokounmpo has easily been the best player on the court.

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