The only thing that could stop Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker was foul trouble.
Well, that and Milwaukee Bucks wing Khris Middleton.
Milwaukee's unheralded All-Star scored 14 of his 40 points in the fourth quarter of Game 4 in the NBA Finals, including 10 straight in the final 2:07, to overcome Booker's remarkable performance in a wild 109-103 Bucks win that tied the series, 2-2. Game 5 is scheduled for Saturday in Phoenix at 9 p.m. ET on ABC.
"That's the dude I want to build a legacy with," Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo said of Middleton.
Booker scored 38 of his 42 points through three quarters and committed his fifth foul 1:10 into the fourth quarter. He was ablaze, and the Suns were in the driver's seat to seize control of the series. Cameron Johnson's 3-pointer less than minute earlier had given Phoenix an 85-76 edge that put a lid on Fiserv Forum, but coach Monty Williams opted to sideline his rising star for risk of losing him for the home stretch.
"He could have gone for 50-plus tonight," Williams said of Booker. "I wanted to get him in maybe a minute earlier than I did. You're just holding on trying to get as many stops and solid possessions as you can."
By the time Booker checked back into the game with 5:55 remaining, a Middleton layup had cut the deficit to 93-90, and his home arena was rocking. Two minutes into his return, Booker should have fouled out on Bucks guard Jrue Holiday's wayward breakaway layup attempt, but the officials swallowed their whistles, and Antetokounmpo's put-back drew Milwaukee within a single point, setting the stage for a thrilling finish.
Wednesday's game was filled with crushing mistakes from its most notable players, including Chris Paul, who finished with an equal number of turnovers and made field goals on a brutal night, but for every head-scratching play there was a head-turning highlight. None were more impressive than Antetokounmpo's block of Booker's alley-oop attempt to Deandre Ayton that preserved a 101-99 Bucks lead with 1:14 left.
"Giannis just made a spectacular block, spectacular play," Milwaukee coach Mike Budenholzer said. "His ability to cover ground and get to that point, that's an NBA Finals special moment right there, and we're going to need more of them. His impact on the game on both ends of the court — it's a big-time block."
"I kind of said, in my opinion, it's the best block of all time," added Bucks guard Pat Connaughton (11 points, nine rebounds). "Obviously, we're a little biased and you can talk about the LeBron [James] block as well. But as far as a block where he was covering the pick-and-roll, he had to judge where the pass was, where Ayton was catching it and trying to dunk it, above the box, it's about as impressive as you can get."
In between Booker's should-be sixth foul and Ayton's would-be oop were three lead changes and two ties.
Connaughton, an unlikely hero, stepped into the last of his three 3-pointers to give the Bucks a 97-95 lead — their first since a short-lived one-point advantage in the third quarter. Booker answered with a bunny, and Jae Crowder, who put on a flopping clinic in the second half, added a pair of free throws to return the lead to Phoenix. Back-to-back Middleton jumpers swung the score again in Milwaukee's favor, 101-99.
The last two of Paul's five turnovers broke the Suns. In possession of the ball and a 95-92 advantage as the fourth quarter approached the four-minute mark, Paul's careless pass started an Antetokounmpo break — easy money for the two-time MVP. Worse was Paul's fifth and final turnover. With a chance to tie in the final minute, he just fell down and coughed up the ball to Holiday, who found Middleton in transition for a 103-99 advantage with 27.2 seconds on the clock. Phoenix never again drew within one possession. Game over.
"It was bad decision-making," said Paul.
Paul entered Game 4 the leading candidate for Finals MVP and left with another scarring playoff memory reminiscent of his late-game meltdown in Game 5 of the Western Conference semifinals. The stakes are greater now. He has at least two more chances to erase the sting of this outing (10 points on 13 shots, 0 for 2 from distance and a team-worst -10 rating) or add one more ghost to the closet full that has haunted him.
Misery loves company, and the Suns would not let Paul wallow alone. Ayton dominated defensively, grabbing 17 rebounds, blocking three shots and altering countless more, but he scored only six points on nine shots, the last of which was a failed five-foot hook shot that would have given Phoenix a late five-point lead. He punched the stanchion in expletive-laden frustration. It was that kind of night for a Suns team that committed 17 turnovers and allowed 17 offensive rebounds, translating to a total of 43 Milwaukee points.
Somehow, the Suns still had a chance, courtesy of Booker's big outing. His 42 points on 17-for-28 shooting gave him 542 for the playoffs — the record for most ever in a player's postseason debut — and they came without a single 3-pointer on Wednesday. Phoenix's other starters scored 38 points on 14-of-36 shooting.
"It doesn't matter at all," said Booker. "I said that after last game, too, when I struggled shooting it. The main objective is to win the game, so anything that goes on throughout the game, it doesn't matter."
Holiday (4-20 FG, 0-5 3P) was again the Bucks' weak offensive link, but 66 points from Middleton and Antetokounmpo masked Milwaukee's halfcourt scoring woes. Collectively, their defense made Game 4 difficult for everyone but Booker, whose 42 points were for naught. The Suns cannot ask more from him in Game 5, and they must hope Phoenix on Saturday provides some respite from this series slipping away.
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