MILWAUKEE — After he glanced at the box score and replayed the sloppy plays in his mind, Phoenix Suns guard Chris Paul stared straight into the camera. He then took the blame both for the Suns’ 109-103 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 4 of the NBA Finals and for the team’s 17 turnovers, including one in the final 30 seconds.
"It was me; I had five of them," said Paul, who also had only 10 points on 5-of-13 shooting. "It was bad decision-making."
After completing a bounce-back game that entailed shooting over multiple defenders, navigating foul trouble, and even receiving some superstar treatment from the officials, Suns guard Devin Booker offered another example of how the 24-year-old exudes an old-school mentality. Despite scoring 42 points on 17-of-28 shooting, Booker hardly looked in the mood to gush about his dominance. Instead, he lamented that the Bucks tied the series at 2-2.
It surely matters, however, that the Suns could not take advantage of Booker nearly mimicking his playoff-career high 47-point performance in a decisive Game 6 first-round win over the Los Angeles Lakers. It surely matters, however, that Paul could not maintain poise in crunch time and give Booker enough reinforcements.
The highlight shows will endlessly replay Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo stuffing DeAndre Ayton’s lob attempt while the Bucks held a 101-99 lead with 1:14 left. And why not? Suns coach Monty Williams conceded "it was a good play." That sequence might partly explain why Ayton declined to speak to reporters afterwards.
But the bigger takeaway points to the Suns’ backcourt, and how they offered plenty of good, bad and ugly.
Booker rectified his Game 3 performance that entailed 10 points on 3-of-14 shooting quickly. Williams sensed it after observing that Booker "looked really good" both during a workout on Tuesday and during morning shootaround and pre-game warmups on Wednesday.
"It doesn't matter at all," Booker said. "The main objective is to win the game. So anything that goes on throughout the game, it doesn't matter."
After Williams saw Booker show "a pop" in his legs, Booker showed what an extra day of rest can do. Booker drained baseline fadeaways as if he were Kobe Bryant. Booker made crafty bank shots as if he were Steve Nash. Booker drew fouls as if he were James Harden.
"That’s just his mindset," Williams said. "We knew he was going to bounce back the other night."
The Suns did not know that Booker’s bounce-back game would also coincide with him getting into serious foul trouble. He collected his fourth foul while the Suns held a 65-61 lead with 5:53 left in the third quarter. That put Williams in what he called "not an ideal situation." If Booker continued to play, he could leave the game early when the Suns need him most. If Booker sat, the Suns could lose the game even before crunch time hit.
Booker still sat then before quickly returning at the 3:25 mark while the Suns held a 71-70 lead. He then closed out the quarter with eight points for a 82-76 cushion. But then Booker collected his fifth foul with 10:50 left in the fourth quarter, prompting Williams to sit Booker until the 5:55 mark. Fortunately, the Suns still held a five-point lead (95-90).
"It's tough," Booker said. "But I think we, the group that was out there was holding it down, defending at a high level."
The Suns did not perform at a high level when they needed to the most. Booker deserves praise for still playing aggressively through foul trouble and remaining "in rhythm" after the long layoff. But he deserves criticism for playing carelessly. He went 2-of-6 from the field during the last 5:55. Booker also got away with a foul when Bucks guard Jrue Holiday went up for a layup with 3:41 left, which would have been his sixth and sidelined him for the rest of the game.
"During live play, I saw a clean sweep of the ball and thought it was a no call," crew chief James Capers told a pool reporter. "However, after seeing the replay, I now realize that I missed Booker’s right arm around the waist of Holiday, and it should have been a defensive foul on the play."
The Suns' recklessness eventually caught up to them. Trailing 101-99 with 34.8 seconds left, Paul crossed over Holiday before trying to do the same thing against Antetokounmpo. Paul then fell and lost control of the ball. Bucks guard Khris Middleton finished with a fastbreak layup.
"I got to take care of the ball," Paul said.
So where does this leave the Suns? Obviously, they squandered a chance to widen the series lead to 3-1 and potentially close the series out in Game 5 in Phoenix. Paul’s miscues also brought flashbacks to his costly turnovers with the Los Angeles Clippers against the Oklahoma City Thunder in the 2014 Western Conference semifinals.
Yet, the Suns have good reason to feel optimistic even if they have no answer for Antetokounmpo, who had 26 points, 14 rebounds and eight assists.
One, the Suns rarely played this summer. They ranked fourth best in the league for fewest turnovers per game (12.3). Paul rarely has that many miscues as well (2.3 turnovers per game).
"He’s fine. Great players have games like that. We expect him to bounce back," Williams said. "But it wasn’t just Chris. As a team tonight, we have to take better care of the ball."
Two, Booker’s sluggish performances don’t last long, either. He averaged 24 points on 50% shooting this season following the five games he averaged a collective 26.7% from the field.
"If we take care of the ball and cut out five of those turnovers, he probably ends up with 50 tonight," Williams said. "I foresee him playing like that the rest of the series."
But by failing to capitalize on Booker’s brilliant play in Game 4, the Suns gave the Bucks more confidence, hope and momentum to tilt the series in their favor.
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