MILWAUKEE — In the immediate aftermath of his team’s 120-100 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 3 of the NBA Finals, Phoenix Suns coach Monty Williams said he wasn’t going to use his postgame news conference to gripe about the officiating. And then he did just that.
“I’m not going to get into the complaining publicly about fouls,” Williams said. “Just not going to do that. But you can look — we had 16 free throws tonight. One person had 17.”
That one person was Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo, who logged his second straight 40-point game of the series thanks in large part to his 13-for-17 night from the foul line at Fiserv Forum.
The Bucks went 20-for-26 as a team, compared to the Suns’ 11-for-16 output from the line.
Officiating was already a topic of conversation coming into Sunday, considering the history between the crew chief assigned to the game, Scott Foster, and Suns point guard Chris Paul.
Counting Game 3, Paul has now lost 12 consecutive playoff games he has played in with Foster refereeing.
There’s nothing new about an NBA coach trying to plant a seed for a favorable whistle as a series goes on. It’s as much a part of the league as signature sneakers and backdoor alley-oops.
But beyond the fouls allowing Antetokounmpo to get into a rhythm, the disparity hurt the Suns the most because Deandre Ayton was called for so many of them.
Ayton, who scored 16 points on 7-for-9 shooting in 20 minutes in the first half, finished with just 18 points in 24 minutes after getting saddled with five fouls and going to bench.
“We got to learn from that,” Williams said of Ayton’s night. “We got to beat guys to the spot. He’ll grow from this, I promise you he will.”
Paul empathized with the situation the 22-year-old center is in.
“Sometimes you’re going to get a good whistle, sometimes you’re going to get a bad whistle,” Paul said. “It’s tough, man, Giannis coming at you full speed like a running back, you know what I mean?”
While Williams pointed out the officiating, several of his players focused on the self-inflicted wounds that did Phoenix in.
“It goes back to the 50/50 balls that we lost,” said Jae Crowder, who had his best game of the series with 18 points on 6-for-7 shooting. “I feel like on the road, we got to win that battle. It’s not about shot-making. It’s just about mano-a-mano, making sure your guy doesn’t get it and coming up with the ball. Someway, somehow, you have to find a way. And I felt like once it got that close, those guys scrapped a little harder tonight than we did.”
Indeed, the Bucks had 13 offensive rebounds to the Suns’ six and outscored them 20-2 in second-chance points.
Then there was Devin Booker, who scored just 10 points on 3-for-14 shooting — his lowest scoring total of the playoffs — after scoring 58 points combined between Games 1 and 2.
“I think I can get better [shot attempts],” he said. “We’ll make that happen. The point of the game is to win it, and I think there were other things that went on throughout the game. 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 tonight.”
And Paul, who had 19 points and nine assists, went back to something he has been hammering home all postseason long: the importance of closing out quarters strong.
Phoenix was outscored 40-9 over the last five minutes of the second quarter and third quarter combined in Game 3.
“That was big for us,” Paul said of Milwaukee finishing off the third on a 24-6 spurt after the Suns had cut the Bucks’ lead down to four. “Even the second quarter, the second quarter we didn’t close that quarter out well. That’s something we have been talking about all playoffs. So especially on the road, you got to manage the game. You got to manage those end of quarters.”
As different as the series might seem at 2-1 versus 2-0, with Antetokounmpo dominating and the Bucks awaiting home court again in Wednesday’s Game 4, the Suns remained confident in their ability to limit the two-time MVP and maintain control of the Finals.
“We have enough bodies to get that job done,” Crowder said of the challenge of guarding Antetokounmpo. “We just got to do it collectively and just be better individually. But we got enough bodies to get it done. We just didn’t get it done tonight.”
Added Paul: “We got to try to build a wall somehow, some way.”