There’s always a first for everything and the Suns impressed in their first NBA Finals game in nearly 30 years Tuesday. Phoenix turned on the flames in the second half of Game 1 against the Milwaukee Bucks to win 118-105 at Phoenix Suns Arena.
Even more poignant is that the Suns are leading in an NBA Finals for the first time, just as they have to begin every playoff series this postseason. The Suns looked seasoned in a confident display of basketball, an impressive turnaround from the dismal times of two seasons ago.
Chris Paul made the most of his first Finals game with 32 points, nine rebounds and two blocks. Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton followed suit, Booker scoring 27 with six rebounds and three assists. Ayton’s 22 points and 18 boards made him the first player since Tim Duncan in 1999 to have a 15+ point and rebound Finals debut.
This Suns squad had never sniffed the Finals until now, but they played with the hunger required for championships. No one more hungry than Chris Paul as the point guard surged in a stellar third quarter. Paul scored 16 points in that timeframe alone as the Phoenix players and crowd flowed with him.
“When [Paul]’s in that mode, we just feed off of that,” Suns coach Monty Williams said in the postgame press conference. “But I don’t have a marker or a segment in the game where I’m like, ‘Here he goes,” it just happens. Our guys feed off of those moments in the game.”
That was clear by Paul’s shake and bake against Milwaukee’s Bobby Portis late in the third quarter. The point guard maneuvering past Portis with moves only a veteran could hone after 16 years in the league.
Bucks Can’t Keep Up
The Bucks were continuously befuddled by Phoenix’s patented pick-and-roll as Milwaukee coach Mike Budenholzer acknowledged postgame.
“Their pick-and-roll game is tough to guard,” Budenholzer told reporters. “We have to keep looking at the film and see how we can maybe take away some of the rhythm, or make it where [Paul]’s not getting into his spots as easily.”
Overall, the spots did come to the Suns easily as noted by Phoenix’s ability to transition during the game. Something Williams credited to Ayton’s rebounding as 17 of his 19 boards was on defense.
” I thought our guys were intentional about making plays for someone else,” Williams said. “Even if you didn’t get the ball by running the floor, the floor was spaced, and so we were able to attack paint or play hit-ahead.”
The Bucks kept things close early in the first quarter as Giannis Antetokounmpo started after coming off a hyperextended left knee injury in the Eastern Conference Finals.
The Greek Freak’s quick start cooled over time but he still managed to finish with 20 points. It was his 17 rebounds that helped the Bucks stay not too far behind as Khris Middleton led with a team-high 29 points.
Nevertheless, the Bucks’ ability to endure inside a very loud arena began cracking once Chris Paul went off in the third. Milwaukee’s Jrue Holiday knew that task became more difficult to do over time.
“It was just on being aggressive, so at that point, I felt like I wanted to just annoy him, you know,” Holiday said postgame. “Kind of get him off rhythm. Be able to make him pass the ball or take tough shots, tough twos. Yeah, that’s something we’re going to have to make an adjustment in Game 2.”
Suns Squad Surges
The rest of the Phoenix crew proved their worth whether it was a timely shot from Mikal Bridges or Deandre Ayton asserting himself under the basket.
“Talking to DA about the angles of the screens, and you see as the season goes on how much that stuff is important,” Chris Paul said in the postgame conference. “Hitting the bottom, getting out, making yourself open. I could show you play after play where it helped tonight.”
Cameron Payne and Cameron Johnson both combined for 20 points while Bridges supplied 14. It’s also not the first time Bridges has been on such a grand stage in Arizona. Bridges won his first of two NCAA Championships with Villanova at State Farm Arena in nearby Glendale back in 2016.
“I think being in a Final Four, that media thing is crazy,” Bridges noted when asked about the difference between college and the NBA Finals. “Coach (Jay) Wright got us trained, especially going there a couple times helps.”
Starting the Finals with a win meant a lot for Devin Booker as well. Both he and Chris Paul playing the switch off of Milwaukee to success against the Bucks’ defensive measures. But Booker allowed his respect for Paul to overshadow his own 27 point performance.
“He’s the greatest leader to play this game,” Booker highlighted to reporters. “And my six years of playing against him, or five years of playing against him, you understand that. There’s no scouting report that says Chris Paul can’t get a bucket.”
The journey is still far from over, but the Suns excelled in their return to the Finals with more yet to come. Time will tell if Milwaukee can adjust by Thursday’s Game 2. But as evident by Tuesday evening, the Bucks will need to earn it against Phoenix.
Featured Image courtesy of Getty Images
“From Our Haus to Yours“