Welcome to the Morning Shootaround, where every weekday you’ll get a fresh, topical column from one of SI.com’s NBA writers: Howard Beck on Mondays, Chris Mannix on Tuesdays, Michael Pina on Wednesdays, Chris Herring on Thursdays and Rohan Nadkarni on Fridays.
I had a piece in mind for today, but then Wednesday’s bizarre, incredible Game 4 changed those plans.
The contest was the type that makes you ball your idea up in a wad and throw it away. It was a classic game with an iconic moment, interspersed with a handful of teeth-grinding sequences that tugged at you—even if you didn’t have a rooting interest in whether the Suns went up 3–1 or the Bucks knotted the NBA Finals at two games apiece.
It’s impossible to start anywhere but the play that felt seismic; one that, for now, might be the defining play of two-time MVP and one-time Defensive Player of the Year Giannis Antetokounmpo’s career.
Milwaukee was up, 101–99, with just 80 seconds left when world-destroyer Devin Booker and his 42 points were coming around a Deandre Ayton screen at the top of the three-point arc. The guard had a half step and an advantageous angle to maneuver toward the rim against the Bucks’ P.J. Tucker, forcing Antetokounmpo to slide up to the free-throw line and help, leaving Ayton open for a dive to the rim.
Ayton even raised his left hand to alert Booker that he’d flashed open within that sliver of space.
Booker, who’d done scoring damage all game long with his off hand, reacted by lofting a pass to Ayton with his left. The big man was hovering at the restricted circle, behind the defense, with what looked like a completely open alley-oop. Booker’s pass wasn’t exactly a perfect one. Somewhat similar to one earlier in the season—which also got blocked—Booker threw it more toward the baseline than the rim itself.
Still, Ayton has a huge catch radius. Plus in this instance you could make the argument that it was wise to place the pass slightly away from the hoop, just to ensure Antetokounmpo didn’t get his paws on it.
Using a stopwatch, from the moment the ball leaves Booker’s fingertips to the millisecond it’s caught high and away by Ayton, the sequence takes nine-tenths of a second. The Suns had tied the game on a beautiful, unselfish play by their unstoppable scorer sneaking a creative pass to his big man underneath.
Only the tie never happened. Instead, Giannis happened.
In those nine tenths of a second, the 6-foot-11 forward somehow tracked the ball, flipped his hips the way a defensive back would in coverage, then bounded into a leap that somehow sent him about 11.5 feet in the air, near the top of the square above the rim. By that point, he’d met Ayton at the summit, denying him. To make the play, he jumped off the same knee he hyperextended in cover-your-eyes fashion two weeks ago.
“I saw it coming,” Antetokounmpo said of the play after the game. “Once I saw [Booker] put it in his one hand, he was too far for a layup. So I knew he was trying to lob, and I committed so much. You risk it. You kind of feel it. I felt [Ayton] rolling to the rim behind me, so I knew the only chance to get a stop is just jump toward the rim and try to cover that angle for him to score.”
The game-changing play was a solid reminder of how and why it’s beneficial for coach Mike Budenholzer to utilize Antetokounmpo as more of a help defender as opposed to just plugging him onto a hot wing scorer like Booker, Kevin Durant or Jimmy Butler every single possession.
Keep in mind: This was the second incredible display of defensive athleticism in this series for Antetokounmpo. His unbelievable, LeBron-like length-of-the-court chasedown block in Game 1 was the first.
Two other aspects of the contest stood out. As Booker was setting fire to the nets in Milwaukee—even outpacing Khris Middleton, who finished with 40 points of his own—his star backcourt mate was under intense defensive pressure, doing the opposite.
Chris Paul shot just 5-for-13 with 10 points, and had a game-high five turnovers on the night; another uncharacteristic showing for the usually sure-handed floor general. If you’re keeping score at home, he’s now up to 17 turnovers through the first four games of this series—a preposterously high number, considering he’d committed just 22 turnovers through his first 14 playoff games prior to this series.
The giveaways were an enormous factor in Game 4, with Milwaukee winning the turnover battle, 17–5. The Bucks also won the offensive-rebound battle by a count of 17–5. It resulted in Phoenix’s getting just 78 shot attempts compared to the Bucks’ 97 tries, giving the home team more opportunity for redemption.
Twenty of those Milwaukee shots—more than Antetokounmpo’s 19 tries—came from Jrue Holiday. He missed a whopping 16 of them. He clanked all five of his threes. He had 10 layup attempts, and somehow failed on seven of them. On one particularly ugly possession, he bricked a short-range jumper from the paint, watched Antetokounmpo grab the offensive board, then, after getting a pass from Giannis, took a straight-on triple that rimmed out again. Two missed jumpers in 11 seconds of game time, in a close game where almost nothing but his free throws (5-for-5) are falling.
“Even if my shot’s not falling, I always try to be aggressive offensively,” Holiday said after the game.
On the subject of redemption, though: It’d be difficult for Bucks fans to really hold Holiday’s performance against him. Yes, he shot like Josh Smith with his eyes closed for the entire night. But he made things uncomfortable for Paul—which after Game 1 was perhaps the clearest thing that had to change, given how Milwaukee was switching too easily—and kept pushing the ball in transition.
He was the man hounding Paul in each of the guard’s first three giveaways. On the fourth, which was a steal by Antetokounmpo, Holiday raced up the floor for a layup and what was an obvious foul by Devin Booker, but went uncalled. (Antetokounmpo corralled possession of the ball and got a layup out of it, to cut Milwaukee’s deficit to one, 95–94. More on this in a moment.) And on Paul’s fifth and final turnover—a brutal one, where he slipped and lost possession of the rock with just over 30 seconds left with the Bucks up 101–99—Holiday was right there to pick it up and take off for another fast break. Six seconds later, after giving up the ball for Middleton, Milwaukee had two more points, the Fiserv Forum crowd had exploded, and the Bucks had all but sealed Game 4.
That’s what was impressive about Holiday’s showing. Even in a game where he essentially couldn’t hit anything (something the Bucks have seen quite often from their playoff point guards in recent years) he found ways to contribute. He had seven assists and just one turnover. More importantly, he kept his foot on the pedal defensively against Paul, picking him up 94 feet most possessions—utterly exhausting work that he hopes is having a cumulative effect on the future Hall of Famer over the course of games.
“That’s kind of the point of us doing it—to be able to not give Chris easy baskets and an easy view of the game. Because we know he can control the game and just put it in the palm of his hand,” Holiday said.
That brings us to the last facet of the contest, which didn’t go unnoticed, and shouldn’t go un-talked about: the officiating.
Game 4 was intensely physical, and seemingly both clubs had their issues with the way it was being called. The usual complainers, Tucker and Jae Crowder, certainly voiced their displeasure with the whistles, as did Booker, who picked up his fifth foul with just under 11 minutes left in the game.
With the Suns up 85–79, Phoenix coach Monty Williams wisely subbed out Booker, though it surely wasn’t the decision Williams wanted to make. Booker had shot 7-for-7 and gone off for 18 points in the third period alone. And with Paul struggling, Booker was the team’s sole source of offense at the time. (He had 38 by that point in the contest, while none of his other teammates were in double figures yet.)
It would stand to reason that Booker would be careful once he reentered the game with 5:55 left. But then something bizarre happened. Just over two minutes later, Booker committed an obvious—perhaps even intentional—foul to stop Holiday from converting a layup following Paul’s fourth turnover.
Booker literally wrapped Holiday up in the air, as if he were trying to break up a pass on third and long. The crowd at Fiserv groaned loudly, seemingly in a mix of anger and confusion, at the lack of a whistle. For some, the reaction shifted to excitement once Antetokounmpo grabbed the loose ball and turned it into a basket immediately after. But even after Milwaukee got the points, ESPN play-by-play man Mike Breen correctly pointed out why it was such a massive decision not to blow the whistle.
“Holiday fouled by Booker! They didn’t call it! Antetokounmpo banks it home, but that would’ve been [Booker’s] sixth foul!” Breen exclaimed.
“How do you not call that foul?” said Mark Jackson, one of the color analysts on the call.
“And if you’re Devin Booker, how are you about to take that foul?” Jeff Van Gundy asked.
As the game went to a break, the arena confusion turned into widespread boos in response to the no-call.
After the contest, James Capers, the game’s crew chief, acknowledged the missed call, saying he’d hadn’t seen Booker’s right arm around Holiday’s waist in real time to blow the whistle. Even after Capers’s explanation, it was one of the more inexplicable no calls in recent memory. The lack of the whistle spared the Suns their most explosive scorer in the game’s final four minutes—Booker scored two more baskets after that—and could have swung a pivotal Finals game in favor of the team that already held a 2–1 lead.
Fortunately, though, the Bucks dug deep enough to earn the victory and tie the series and shift what would have been an ugly story line heading into Game 5 had Phoenix won. One that would have marred an otherwise incredible game that instead will be remembered for Antetokounmpo’s signature rejection.
More NBA Coverage:
• Inside the Block That Helped the Bucks Win Game 4
• Bobby Portis is the Bucks’ Unsung Hero
• Milwaukee’s Defense Was Built for This Moment