It's easy to make Khris Middleton the story. Offensively, he was the hero of the Milwaukee Bucks' 109-103 victory on Wednesday, scoring 40 points in Game 4 of the NBA Finals. Middleton scored 14 points in the fourth quarter, including a pair of midrange jumpers on consecutive possessions to put the Bucks up by two points against the Phoenix Suns with less than 90 seconds left. They were the kind of shots you need to make in the clutch against elite competition.
From another angle, Milwaukee's defense could be the story. Phoenix scored only 21 points in the fourth quarter, and, right after Middleton's jumpers, Giannis Antetokounmpo made perhaps the most preposterous play of his extraordinary career, swatting a Deandre Ayton alley-oop dunk that would have tied the game.
Indeed, Middleton made some crucial, high-pressure shots, and Antetokounmpo's inconceivable block symbolized all of the defensive effort and grit that got the Bucks to this point. In a way, though, these plays are misleading.
Milwaukee needed Middleton to take 33 shots because its halfcourt offense lost the mojo it had found in the previous game. The Suns showed more help against Antetokounmpo, sent some double-teams his way and did their best to recover out to shooters. This strategy largely worked: The Bucks shot 40.2 percent from the field and 7 for 29 (24.1 percent) from 3-point range, Jrue Holiday missed 16 of his 20 shots and Middleton was forced to bail them out time and time again. In the halfcourt, Milwaukee scored 90.7 points per 100 possessions, according to Cleaning The Glass, which would have ranked 27th in the regular season. Despite Middleton's shotmaking, it shot 18 for 65 away from the rim, per CTG.
The Bucks were not particularly good at making Phoenix miss, either. The Suns shot 51.3 percent, and despite Milwaukee pestering them on the perimeter, refining its defensive game plan and shortening its rotation, scored 103.2 points per 100 possessions in the halfcourt, per CTG, which is slightly better than their elite regular-season mark. Just like in Game 3, Phoenix couldn't generate corner 3s, but unlike Game 3, Devin Booker had an answer for everything the Bucks threw at him. In four and a half fewer minutes than Middleton, Booker scored 42 points on 17 for 28 shooting.
Once again, Milwaukee won the game on the margins. It scored 19 second-chance points to the Suns' seven and 15 fast break points to Phoenix's zero. The Bucks finished with 19 more attempted field goals, 10 more attempted free throws and 19 more points off turnovers than the Suns did.
With about eight minutes left, Antetokounmpo stole an inbounds pass and went coast to coast for an uncontested dunk
Turnovers like that are the stuff of a coach's nightmares and the reason Monty Williams told his players that they were "making it hard on ourselves" postgame. "What happened tonight is correctable," he said in the locker room at Fiserv Forum. "Seventeen offensive rebounds they got. Seventeen turnovers we had. Think about that, guys."
The steal and dunk were more representative of what the Bucks did well than either of Middleton's crunch-time midrangers or Antetokounmpo's block. The same is true of Pat Connaughton's tip-in a few minutes later:
With less than four minutes left, an uncalled foul against Booker became a central storyline. It would never have happened, however, if not for Chris Paul's missed connection with Ayton on the other end, leading to a 3-on-1 fast break:
Phoenix called timeout after that, and, on the next possession, Paul hit the floor as he missed a layup. The Bucks sprinted the other way, the Suns walled off the paint and Connaughton converted a corner 3 in transition:
The Suns trailed by two after Middleton's jumpers, at which point Paul lost his footing and turned the ball over running a pick-and-roll, leaving Booker in the exact same uncomfortable position he was in a few minutes earlier:
Milwaukee coach Mike Budenholzer called it a "mental-toughness win." Williams, on the other hand, was left to lament that "a lot of self-inflicted stuff" had left Phoenix with "a bit of a hill for us to climb." Both of them are correct. The Bucks have shown themselves to be resilient throughout these playoffs, experts at doing just enough to come out on top. The kind of numbers they're putting up in the halfcourt, however, will usually doom anybody against these Suns, who typically take care of the ball and don't allow many transition opportunities or offensive rebounds.
Williams said that "our guys did an unreal job in the halfcourt" defensively and will be better in Game 5 when it comes to turnovers and hitting the glass. Phoenix's track record suggests that this will be the case, but Milwaukee is beginning to compile a track record of its own: Making great offensive players uncomfortable, owning the paint, winning the possession game and cobbling together just enough points to survive. Paul has turned the ball over 15 times in the last three games, and the Bucks have had an edge in these swing categories all series. Regardless of whether or not their formula proves sustainable against the Suns, it's become clear that this is what they do.