PHOENIX — Everything had been set up for a storybook Suns win.
After blowing its own 16-point lead in the first half, Phoenix stormed back from a 14-point deficit in the fourth to cut Milwaukee’s lead to one with 56.6 seconds remaining. Pop star Adele, making a rare public appearance, was excitedly waving her orange towel during the rally. The tequila bottle under LeBron James’s courtside seat was shaking from the thunderous crush of Suns fans. Chris Paul, who struggled through three lethargic quarters, was rewriting his narrative in real time, scoring 10 points on 4-for-4 shooting in the final 12 minutes.
After a rare Jrue Holiday miss, Devin Booker—in the midst of his second straight 40-point effort—corralled the rebound with a hair under 30 seconds to go and took the ball up the floor himself. One of the game’s premier shotmakers, Booker surgically worked his way into the paint against P.J. Tucker, quickly reaching the midrange area where he’d largely dominated the Bucks in the Finals.
Except there would be no sports-movie ending this time. Real life is often cruel, shocking, and unexpected. And in this case, reality was served by one of the greatest steals in Finals history. As Booker stopped and pivoted in the paint, he turned his back to the hoop and was immediately met by Holiday, who ripped the ball out of his hands so forcefully that Booker hit the floor.
“Big time. Big-time steal,” Giannis Antetokounmpo said.
“It was just an instinctive play.” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “He’s an incredible defender, strong hands and got in there and took it.”
“First I thought he was going to shoot it and I was going to be behind him and try to contest or maybe try to bother him,” Holiday explained. “Once he pump-faked, I felt like I should stay down and he literally turned into me.”
After the steal, Holiday quickly pushed the ball ahead in transition. With less than 20 seconds to go, all he had to do was dribble down the clock until the Suns took an intentional foul to send him or a teammate to the free-throw line. Except Holiday saw Giannis streaking down the right lane, pleading for him to throw an alley oop. Holiday obliged, and Antetokounmpo soared up for a massive dunk that awed everyone in the building—from the celebrities courtside to the fans holding $100 bills.
“He didn’t want to throw me the ball at first, but I was like, ‘Throw it, throw it, throw it,’” Giannis said. “And then he threw it. He trusted me. After the game I was like, ‘Thank you for trusting me.’”
“So at that point, I just threw it as high as I could and only where Giannis could go get it, and he went up there got it,” Holiday said, adding: “I mean, they don’t call him the Freak for nothing.”
The steal and oop—The Sequence—was a microcosm of what’s propelled the Bucks during the playoffs. Timely defensive plays combined with an opportunistic transition offense make up the backbone of Milwaukee’s success. And now the Bucks are only one win away from an NBA Championship despite staring down a 2–0 Suns lead earlier in the series.
While the late rip-and-score was the flashpoint moment of the game, Milwaukee arguably won Game 5 in the second quarter. That’s when, with Giannis on the bench, the Bucks embarked on a massive run before eventually taking the lead by halftime.
In nearly six minutes without Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee cut the lead from 16 to two with a combination of stout defense and incredible shotmaking. Unable to slow down the Suns in the first quarter, the Bucks finally strung together some stops, in large part thanks to a rest for Devin Booker. And for the first time all series, Milwaukee’s offense came alive without the help of its MVP.
From the start of the second to the 6:14 mark, the Bucks went on a 26–12 run. Holiday, coming off a 4-for-20 shooting performance in Game 4, shot 6-for-7 from the field in the second quarter alone. He hit four shots during the tide-turning six-minute run, including two layups, a three, and a long stepback two. Also joining in on the fun were Brook Lopez, Pat Connaughton, and Bobby Portis, the latter of whom punctuated the run by rebounding his own miss for an and-one putback score.
After the first two games of the series, Antetokounmpo was in danger of becoming the latest superstar to put up eye-popping numbers in a Finals loss. His teammates have answered the call since that point. Giannis’s numbers are still reminiscent of early 2000s Shaq, except now his co-stars are holding up their end of the bargain. After Khris Middleton scored 40 points in Game 4, Holiday stepped up with 27 in Game 5, sprinkling in 13 assists for good measure. (Not to mention his aggressive defense on Phoenix’s guards, particularly Paul.)
Meanwhile, the Suns’ once supremely balanced offense is turning more and more into a one-man show. Booker is the first player in Finals history to score at least 40 points in back-to-back games in the championship round and lose both. As his scoring output has increased, Phoenix is generating less open threes for its snipers on the perimeter. Not helping matters is the Suns offense is as dry as the desert heat whenever Booker rests, and Paul hasn’t looked the same since his scoring binge in Game 1.
“We knew this wasn’t going to be easy,” Paul said after the loss. “We didn’t expect it to be. It’s hard. Coach [Monty Williams] said it all year long, everything we want is on the other side of hard and it don’t get no harder than this. So, we got to regroup, learn from this game, but it’s over, we got to get ready for Game 6.”
The demeanor from Booker and Paul after the game stood in stark contrast from where they were the last time they spoke in Phoenix, when their team held a 2–0 lead and appeared to be in full control of the Finals. Instead, with the series headed back to Milwaukee where the home team has a chance to close out at Fiserv Forum for its first title in 50 years, it’s now the Bucks who have a chance to write their own storybook ending.
“As I said in the last press conference, we didn’t know we were going to win this game,” Antetokounmpo said when asked about his team’s resilience. “We could still compete, compete, compete until the last minute and still lose the game. But we don’t stop. We keep coming. And this team does that so well. Even if we’re down 0–2, we’re down 0–1, we’re down 16 points, we keep coming, we keep competing, because we know the game is long; it’s 48 minutes, and we always try to put ourselves in a position to win the game. That’s all you can ask for.”
With back-and-forth play, comebacks, impressive shotmaking, and legendary performances from all-time greats, this Finals has been all anybody could ask for. Whatever happens in Game 6, either the Suns or Bucks will write their own chapter in a series that’s now been cemented as a thriller.
More NBA Finals Coverage:
• Milwaukee’s Defense Was Built for This Moment
• Can Chris Paul Turn Around His Turnover Problem?
• Giannis Antetokounmpo Is Seizing His NBA Finals Moment
• 2021 NBA Playoff Awards: Is Giannis Antetokounmpo the MVP?