Analysis: Suns now know that NBA titles don’t come easily

It’s not easy. It’s never been easy. It’s not supposed to be easy.

This is the latest lesson for the Phoenix Suns.

Retire the “Suns in four” chants, Phoenix. Those sweep dreams are gone, after a Game 3 in Milwaukee in which Devin Booker missed just about all his shots and wound up on the bench, Deandre Ayton got in foul trouble, nobody could guard Giannis Antetokounmpo for the second consecutive game and what was a close matchup in the third quarter became a rout in a flash.

The NBA Finals are a series again, the Bucks winning 120-100 on Sunday to get within 2-1 and with Game 4 on their home floor on Wednesday. And that means Phoenix, which was flying after Games 1 and 2, will spend the next two days in Milwaukee trying to figure out how to get its mojo back after the Bucks simply played with more desperation in Game 3.

“We knew it was coming,” Suns coach Monty Williams said. “We did not respond to it well.”

NBA Finals sweeps are rare. They’ve happened only six times in the last 46 years. All that’s happened so far in this series is home-court advantage has been protected; Phoenix won Games 1 and 2 in the Valley, Milwaukee went up to Deer District and took Game 3. Form has held.

This is no time to panic. That said, Antetokounmpo’s knee is clearly not holding him back. Jrue Holiday was better. Khris Middleton played well. Bobby Portis gave Milwaukee some key minutes. The Bucks found their groove.

“We’ll be fine,” Suns forward Jae Crowder said. “We’re going to watch film, we’re going to talk this out, we’re going to man up to it … and just respond.”

Booker was replaced with 48 seconds left in the third quarter and never returned, after shooting 3 for 14 from the floor and 1 for 7 from 3-point range. The last time he shot that poorly from the floor was Feb. 10, 2020, against the Lakers — almost a year and a half ago. The 10 points he scored represented his second-lowest total in 86 games this season.

“There’s nights like that,” Booker said. “The most important part, to me, is winning the game and we didn’t do that. I’m more frustrated about that. But we have a few days off here and we’re going to get back right.”

Game 3 wasn’t solely his fault, not even close. Ayton’s foul trouble was another big issue. The biggest issue of all was how, for the second consecutive game, the two-time MVP at the other end couldn’t be stopped. Antetokounmpo is just the fourth player in NBA Finals history to have multiple 40-point, 10-rebound games in the same title series; the others are Shaquille O’Neal, LeBron James and Elgin Baylor. And of those, only O’Neal and Antetokounmpo have done it in consecutive games.

The Suns grumbled a bit about the free-throw discrepancy; they shot 16 as a team, Antetokounmpo shot 17 on his own. (“I’m not going to get into complaining publicly about fouls,” said Williams, who then immediately pointed out the free-throw numbers.) Scott Foster was one of the referees assigned to the game; the last 11 times that Suns guard Chris Paul has played in a postseason contest that Foster was officiating, Paul’s team lost. That doesn’t include two games — one Game 7 loss to Golden State, one win earlier in this playoffs — that Paul missed for injury or virus-related reasons.

This wasn’t on Foster or calls or free throws.

The Bucks simply lined up, accepted the challenge and rode Antetokounmpo back into the series.

“We’ve got to try to build a wall, somehow, someway and try to limit the guy from scoring,” Paul said.

Milwaukee left Phoenix in big trouble, down 0-2 and needing to win Game 3 to salvage any realistic hopes of winning the NBA title.

The Suns’ situation isn’t anywhere near that dire.

That said, Sunday was Milwaukee’s time to step up and have a response. On Wednesday, it’ll be Phoenix’s turn. And if the Suns don’t have answers by then, the NBA Finals will be a best-of-three when the final buzzer sounds to close Game 4.

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Tim Reynolds is a national basketball writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at treynolds(at)ap.org

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