It’s not the finals, but it’s the biggest game of the season to date for Suns.
And not just because it was their next game.
This was an opportunity to exercise some final demons from losing four straight to the Bucks after taking Game 1 and 2.
This is where they lost Game 5, but expected to return for a decisive Game 7.
This won’t erase losing the finals, but Phoenix used a strong third quarter and big night from Deandre Ayton to top Milwaukee, 131-107, Thursday night before a sellout crowd of 17,071 to mark the 13th consecutive sellout at Footprint Center.
Ayton scored a game-high 27 that included a two-handed lob finish in the third quarter over Giannis Antetokounmpo, who blocked his lob dunk attempt in Game 6 of the finals in Milwaukee.
The Suns outscored the Bucks, 33-21, in the third to take a 20-point lead.
The Suns (45-10) had seven players reach double figures with Mikal Bridges scoring 18 and Chris Paul and Devin Booker each adding 17. Paul tied a season-high in assists with 19 as Phoenix finished with 35 assists to only eight turnovers.
Paul had more assists than Milwaukee had as a team (18).
Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday led the Bucks (35-22) with 21 points each.
Antetokounmpo added 18 points, eight assists and seven rebounds after going for 44 and 14 boards in his last game against the Lakers.
Here are five takeaways from their first matchup since the finals as Phoenix is now 34-0 this season when leading after three quarters.
1. Ayton was winded in the third quarter.
No question, but Monty Williams didn’t take him out right away.
Ayton not only had it going, but he needs to be in these moments more where fatigue is setting in, but he has to keep going and making a difference in the game.
Find that second or third wind.
I found it for a minute or and scored on a jump hook.
This was one of his most complete games in the sense that he scored the majority of the time when having an advantage of a smaller defender.
I have shot a very high percentage (12-of-14) from the field. He did not pick up a fourth foul, played with composure and had a strong defensive effort on the two-time NBA MVP.
2. Antetokounmpo shot just 5-of-14 from the field. He probably passed up some opportunities to score, but Ayton got over getting called for a foul guarding him.
As the game progressed, I played better defense on Antetokounmpo. Ayton forced him into a tough shot that led to a Cam Johnson dunk with authority on the other end.
Timeout Bucks. Suns up 20 to end the third.
Beyond that, Ayton had a moment in which he found himself face to face with a heated Bobby Portis, who plays with passion and can have a short fuse.
Ayton isn’t one to exchange in back-and-forth chatter often, but he engaged a little bit with Portis. Then scored over him.
Embracing the challenge is as big for Ayton as being aggressive, but the Suns big man didn’t win this alone.
Paul controlled the tempo and hit big shots. Bridges was running the floor, cutting and scoring. Johnson hit 3-of-4 from 3 in scoring 15 while Booker had seven assists on a 5-of-19 shooting night.
This is all after a four-game road trip that ended with a back-to-back against Chicago and Philadelphia. Williams said the Suns were tired during Thursday’s shootaround, but they rose to the moment top the Bucks.
3. The Bucks were on the final leg of a four-game road trip.
They took the first three over the Blazers, Clippers and Lakers, but faced a different animal Thursday night.
The Suns have been waiting on this one.
So the outcome isn’t surprising. The margin of victory is, but Phoenix winning isn’t.
The Bucks let the game get away from them in that third quarter. Didn’t take bad shots, but turnovers doomed them. They had 14 for the game that led to 22 Phoenix points.
One of the things Monty Williams stressed before the game was keeping the Bucks, particularly Antetokounmpo, off the line.
I have made a point to say the finals MVP attempted 85 free throws in the six finals games.
Antetokounmpo went 8-of-14 Thursday night. Multiply that by six, that’s 84.
4. Keeping with the thread, what should be sticking even more in Williams’ craw is Antetokounmpo went 17-of-19 from the line in that 50-piece performance in Game 6.
The guy was a 68.5% free throw shooter last regular season and even worse in the postseason at 58.7%.
Then goes 17-of-19 in the biggest game of his life?
The other point in all that is Antetokounmpo got the Suns in foul trouble, particularly Ayton, and Phoenix, with Dario Saric out had no real backup to him.
This year, they have JaVale McGee and Bismack Biyombo.
Those two weren’t with the Suns last season. They both played Thursday night and impacted the outcome. Biyombo saw action in the meat of the game as he scored nine points and played solid defense on Antetokounmpo.
Then McGee closed it out in finishing with 12 points as the Suns scored 68 points in the paint to Milwaukee’s 50.
5. The Suns just ran through the East’s best in Chicago, Philadelphia and Milwaukee.
They’ll see the Bucks once again to start a three-game road trip March 6. They follow that with Orlando, which is their next opponent Saturday.
Phoenix ends the road trip in Miami.
The Heat took it to the Suns in Phoenix, 123-100, last month without Bam Adebayo or Jimmy Butler. Tyler Herro went for 33 and Duncan Robinson dropped 27.
Miami (36-20) stands atop the East right now.
Brooklyn got Ben Simmons in a trade with Philadelphia that landed James Harden in Philadelphia.
They were already title contenders. Curious to see how quickly Simmons can return to form after having not played a single second of action this season and what Joel Embiid looks like with Harden, especially if Harden can get back to playing at a high level.
Chicago is very good and will be even better once everyone is back healthy.
Then there’s Miami. This team is for real.
Like Phoenix, the Heat have the pieces to win a championship, too.
So when the Suns see the Bucks in Milwaukee where last season ended in the finals, that’ll be another big game, but so will that Miami won days later in South Beach on the second of a back-to-back.
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George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism