Five things we learned from the Phoenix Suns' 118-105 victory against the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 1 of The 2021 NBA Finals in Phoenix:
1. Chris Paul isn't letting this one get away
And Devin Booker is ready for his close-up. The Suns' backcourt essentially brackets what a trip to the NBA Finals can mean to a player. With Paul, coming so deep into his career, it's the ultimate in deferred gratification - not his choice, of course - and would be something to savor. If, that is, he weren't so locked in, making sure he finishes off the task at hand.
Paul cracked open Game 1 in the third quarter, scoring 16 points on 6-of-7 shooting that included 3-of-3 on 3-pointers. He lured Bucks center Brook Lopez into a flagrant foul 1 by shooting over the big man and coming down on Lopez's foot. And he got backup Bobby Portis a couple times, too, shooting over him and then driving by him with Portis in no-man's land defensively.
About the only thing Paul didn't do was soak in the atmosphere, which was stoked with a sellout crowd of 16,557 for the Suns' first Finals game since 1993. "I ain't really paying attention too much. Just trying to stay in the moment," Paul said.
As for Booker, he's been a premier scorer for the past five seasons, but this is his first taste of the playoffs and he's wasting no time. In the Suns' 17 playoff games so far, he's averaging 27 points - more than in any of his regular seasons. He got Phoenix going from the start with 12 points in the first quarter, and got sent to the foul line - 6 of 6 - more in those 12 minutes than Milwaukee's roster combined (aside from Giannis Antetokounmpo's 12). That's solid respect from officials, to get 10 free throws at age 24 in your first Finals game.
2. The Finals hot seat can be just as hot
Milwaukee coach Mike Budenholzer was a virtual punching bag after Game 1, with commentators in the arena and across the country - from highly paid former players to average schmoes - criticizing the Bucks' defensive strategies. That's nothing new - except in scale - from their earlier rounds or from the overarching challenge of this season, with Budenholzer and his staff facing heightened scrutiny for how much they learned and adapted from the postseason disappointments of 2019 and 2020.
Milwaukee was a Top 10 defensive team this season, and even with Game 1's defeat ranks as the playoffs' No. 1 team in points allowed per 100 possessions (105.6). But their philosophy of "drop" coverage - having Lopez or Portis back off opponents' pick-and-rolls to defend the rim from ball handlers or cutters - got abused by Brooklyn and Atlanta in two previous rounds. Then Paul and Booker shredded any attempts to yield the mid-range to, duh, two of the best mid-range scorers in the league.
Switching everything, as an alternative tactic, fared no better as Paul simply picked which Bucks defender he wanted to attack. Eventually Budenholzer went to a small lineup, one predicated on using Giannis Antetokounmpo at center, but with the Greek Freak's injured left knee in doubt in his first game back.
"We have to punish teams for switching 1 through 5 like that," Booker explained afterward. "Where we have been most successful in that situation is space out."
Combined, Paul and Booker made 15 of their 23 shots inside the arc. The Bucks managed to thwart Bruce Brown's short-roll jumpers in the Nets series and Trae Young's floaters for the Hawks, but the Suns pose double-trouble on all those twos.
"Think about getting better from Game 1 to Game 2." pic.twitter.com/ziKKDVdY2R- Milwaukee Bucks (@Bucks) July 7, 2021
"That's what CP [Paul] does, those mid-range twos, those 15-footers, side-steps to the right, he makes those," Milwaukee guard Jrue Holiday said. "Maybe just do something else. Make him put it in his left hand. Make him drive to the basket. Give him maybe a different look and do something different next time."
You want to see something different from Milwaukee's defense next time? As so many of the critics said late Tuesday night (ET), Budenholzer should start by assigning Holiday - his All-Defense first team point guard counterpart to Paul - to cover the Suns veteran. Start to skip-the-switching finish.
3. Giannis looked mahvelous!
Admit it, if you saw it live or watched the replay of the play in Game 4 of the East finals in which Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo suffered his hyperextended left knee, you A) didn't want to see it again, it was so cringe-worthy, and B) you figured Antetokounmpo's playoff run was over. The Bucks continuing to list him as day-to-day and provide fairly opaque medical updates seemed more like gamesmanship to keep the Suns guessing and their own fans from cratering.
Yet there he was, announced as a starter in the hour before Game 1 and doing Giannis things from the start. Dunking, jumping, loping up and down the court without a noticeable limp. He had a signature moment in the second quarter, chasing down Phoenix's Mikal Bridges for a blocked shot in transition.
BLOCKED BY GIANNIS. pic.twitter.com/JPuX3ikONA- Milwaukee Bucks (@Bucks) July 7, 2021
The two-time former MVP's final stats line wasn't just good - 20 points, 17 rebounds, four assists - the Bucks were one point better than the Suns during Antetokounmpo's 35:21 on the floor. They were minus-14 in the 12:39 he sat.
The guy made it look simple, even as his week from Game 4 vs. Atlanta last week to Game 1 Tuesday was unlike any of the other players on either team, prepping for The Finals.
"Twenty-four [hours a day]," Antetokounmpo said. "From my treatment to lifting and getting on the court, pool sessions, keeping my foot elevated, like 24 hours a day. And obviously it wasn't easy but I was willing to do it, and the medical staff had a great program for me.
"I'm out there. I felt good. I don't feel pain. I can run. I can jump. I can set screens. I can rebound the ball. I can do stuff. … I haven't watched the clip, but when the play happened, I thought I'm going to be out for a year, you know. I'm just happy that two games later, I'm back."
Anyone suggesting that Milwaukee played better in the final two games against Atlanta and therefore might be better off now without Antetokounmpo would be suffering from a lot more than recency bias. He gave a boost to his teammates, provided a balm for Bucks fans and was going to get another 48 hours of rehab and recovery before Game 2.
4. It's 'Deandre,' not 'Luka' or 'Trae'
For the better part of three seasons, Phoenix center Deandre Ayton largely was defined by who he was not: namely Dallas star Luka Doncic or Atlanta scoring dervish Trae Young. Both were drafted after Ayton in 2018 and had made bigger splashes in their young careers, which Ayton seemed like a relic of NBA eras past - a big man with an old-school game.
But Ayton's game and contributions blossomed this season, and the guy who thrived in the first three postseason rounds was on full display in Game 1 of The Finals, scoring 22 points, grabbing 19 rebounds and making all but two of his 10 field goal attempts. That put him in some great company:
DEANDRE AYTON 🔥- Ballislife.com (@Ballislife) July 7, 2021
22 PTS, 19 REB, 80% FG
1st Finals GMS
Duncan: 33 PTS, 16 REB, 61% FG
Dream: 33 PTS, 12 REB, 60% FG
Kareem: 31 PTS, 17 REB, 81% FG
Shaq: 26 PTS, 16 REB, 9 AST, 62%
Moses: 13 PTS, 15 REB, 23% FG
Admiral: 13 PTS, 9 REB, 30% FG
Dwight: 12 PTS, 15 REB, 17% FG pic.twitter.com/t9iSGeq4Og
Much was made of the constructive criticism dished out by Paul and Booker to their larger teammate as 2020-21 played out, and Ayton deserves the most credit for taking it in, knowing what he didn't know and putting it all to use.
"It's just the respect level," Ayton said. "We all got on each other, had candid conversations where we had to adjust. But candid conversations leads to wins, and it started to be great communication and constructive criticism and we just all take it into a positive and play together."
How's this for results: Ayton, Paul and Booker became only the fourth trio of teammates to each score 20 points in their shared Finals debut. The last time it happened was back in 1995, when Orlando's Shaquille O'Neal, Penny Hardaway and Nick Anderson did it. Paul was 10 years old then … and Booker and Ayton weren't yet born.
5. Free throws still matter
They're not usually as entertaining as they were in Game 1, with the Phoenix fans amusing themselves like crowds in Miami, Brooklyn and Atlanta whenever Antetokounmpo stepped to the line. "The Greek Freak's" methodical, some would say labored routine at the foul triggered a pair of delay-of-game calls early in the postseason, leading to the loud group countdowns now each time he prepares to shoot unguarded from 15 feet with the clock stopped.
"Of course, 20,000 people yelling, 'one, two, three, four,' you notice that," Antetokounmpo said.
He didn't gripe that the road crowds count faster than the traditional "One-Mississippi, two-Mississippi…"
"I've learned to embrace it," he said. "Like I know it's not going to stop. … There's times that the first free throw I hear it but the fifth one, sixth one, I'm not hearing no more and I'm just focusing on what I've got to do and my routine."
Antetokounmpo made seven of his 12 free throws, a 58.3% rate that's a bit better than his 53.7% through the first three rounds. But the real newsmakers from the foul line in Game 1 were the Suns and Antetokounmpo's teammate Khris Middleton.
Phoenix nearly set a Finals record for most free throws without a miss until Jae Crowder missed one late. Their 25-of-26 performance left them at 5-1 in these playoffs when attempting more than their opponents, and Milwaukee's 9-of-16 meant the 13-point gap between the team was a result, plus, of the free throw disparity.
As for Middleton, he got up 26 field-goal attempts but no foul shots. That's only the second time in this postseason Middleton hasn't earned a free throw and fourth time in 2020 and 2021 combined. The Bucks are 1-3 when that's the case.
"Teams have been getting up in me lately," Middleton said. "Just got to try to play through it. Can't try to wait for the officials to bail me out. Just try to be strong with it. If they call a foul, they call a foul."
Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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