The NBA Finals, so far, have gone roughly as expected. The healthier home team won the first two games in Phoenix. The battle-hardened Milwaukee Bucks fought back to take Game 3 when the series shifted back to Milwaukee. A playoff series doesn’t truly begin until a road team wins. We haven’t seen that thus far. Game 4 is probably our best chance to date.
So many things went wrong for the Phoenix Suns in Game 3. Foul trouble for Deandre Ayton robbed them of their only rim protector. The Suns missed 12 of their first 14 3-pointers, and Jrue Holiday magically remembered how to shoot on the other end. Torrey Craig clearly wasn’t himself after a Game 2 injury. Yes, Milwaukee has certainly taken important strategic steps over the last two games in its emphasis on attacking the basket and its greater balance between helping and staying home on shooters, but it’s unlikely that everything that went the Bucks’ way in Game 3 is going to sustain into Game 4.
That doesn’t mean that the Bucks are going to lose. It means that we’re probably inching toward the closest game we’ve seen in this series. We haven’t seen a matchup between these two teams yet in which the shooting variance, foul situation and overall strategic seesaw have appeared anywhere close to balanced. Eventually, we’re going to see such a game, one in which both teams are something close to their best, and that is when we’re going to figure out just how close this series really is. Here are Wednesday’s best bets for the NBA Finals’ swing game.
The Bucks did the overwhelming majority of their damage when Ayton sat, but getting him into foul trouble isn’t exactly a replicable strategy. Game 3 was the first time this entire postseason that he reached even five fouls. He fouled out only twice in the regular season. Ayton should play far more than 24 minutes in Game 4, and if he does, this becomes a much closer game, one that hinges on much more reliable forms of variance. Devin Booker isn’t going to shoot 3 of 14 again. That doesn’t necessarily guarantee a Phoenix win, but with a four-point buffer on the team with the best road record in the NBA in the regular season, the Suns are a safer pick. The pick: Suns +4
The Suns got outscored by 13 points in five minutes with Frank Kaminsky on the floor. That’s nearly impossible and a testament to just how damaging he is in this matchup. Unless Craig’s knee makes substantial progress, the Suns don’t really have a reliable backup center option. A guess at what they’ll do? Try to align Ayton’s bench minutes with Giannis Antetokounmpo’s as much as possible, and then go back to their small-ball lineup that could at least score against the Bucks. That would mean more minutes and 3-pointers for Cameron Johnson. Brook Lopez would have his way in the post against this smaller group, but that’s a small price to pay for such potent offense. Johnson scored 14 points in Game 3 and did so on less than 50 percent shooting. He’ll have the volume to hit this over fairly comfortably. The pick: Johnson over 8.5 points
Sticking with this small-ball bench theme, Bobby Portis had four offensive rebounds in Game 3. His rebounding line as a whole is only 3.5 rebounds. His energy, especially on Milwaukee’s home court, is why he’s in the rotation at all. Asking him to get to four rebounds only three days after he got to eight seems entirely attainable, especially if he gets another crack at the smaller Suns lineups. The pick: Portis over 3.5 rebounds