Instead, the Finals opened with a bang Tuesday night as Chris Paul led the Phoenix Suns past the Milwaukee Bucks, 118-105, at Phoenix Suns Arena in a crisp and intense Game 1 that lived up to Commissioner Adam Silver’s rosy pregame forecast.
Speaking at his annual Finals news conference, Silver acknowledged that the league’s revenue was down roughly one-third during the 2020-21 season, modestly beating preseason expectations of a 40 percent decline amid the coronavirus pandemic. Even so, Silver’s mood was buoyed by the return of more than 1 million fans to arenas during the playoffs and a championship matchup of franchises that haven’t reached the Finals in decades. The Suns are seeking their first title in franchise history and last reached the Finals in 1993; the Bucks won their only title in 1971 and haven’t reached the Finals since 1974. And this series marks the first Finals since 2010 that didn’t include either LeBron James or Stephen Curry.
“[This is] a real transition in terms of the up-and-coming new stars, up-and-coming franchises [and] more parity,” Silver said, adding that the opportunity to showcase younger stars such as Antetokounmpo and Phoenix’s Devin Booker was a “dream for the league” because they are “accomplished players” and “multidimensional people with great personalities and interests far beyond basketball.”
Game 1 had an electric atmosphere from start to finish, with thousands of Suns fans standing and cheering for much of the first and fourth quarters. The contest received an added jolt from the abrupt return of Antetokounmpo, who missed the final two games of the Eastern Conference finals after injuring his left knee while defending a lob play.
“When the play happened, I thought I would be out for the year,” Antetokounmpo said after Game 1, addressing the media for the first time since his injury. “I’m just happy [that] two games later I’m back.”
The two-time MVP wasted no time taking control of Milwaukee’s offense, driving hard to the basket from the outset in hopes of re-creating his regular season success against Phoenix’s defense while tallying eight points and five rebounds in the first quarter. Other than the protective sleeve he wore on his left leg, Antetokounmpo hardly seemed affected by his injury despite having just one week of recovery time, finishing with 20 points, 17 rebounds and four assists.
By halftime, he had accumulated an array of highlights, including a forceful dunk, well-timed passes to open shooters and a spectacular chase-down block of Suns forward Mikal Bridges, during which he covered roughly 80 feet in four seconds to spike an attempted layup off the backboard.
“He had a good workout before the game,” Bucks Coach Mike Budenholzer said. “I think you’ve got to listen to Giannis first. He felt good. The sports performance group felt good. He had been checking boxes the last couple days and making progress and so he was cleared. He wanted to go, and everybody was on the same page.”
Yet the Suns were unmoved by Antetokounmpo’s energetic opening salvo, taking the lead in the first quarter thanks to a hot start from Booker and never looking back. Phoenix pulled away with a third-quarter run, sparked in part by a flagrant foul by Brook Lopez. The Bucks center slid underneath Paul as he attempted a three-pointer, causing the Suns guard to roll his left ankle.
Paul, who during the playoffs has battled a shoulder injury and a bothersome wrist and missed two games because of coronavirus protocols, started slowly in the first quarter as he sought to unlock Milwaukee’s switching defense. The 36-year-old guard, making his Finals debut in his 16th season, heated up after the flagrant foul, scoring 16 points in the third quarter as Phoenix pushed its lead to 20. Paul finished with a game-high 32 points and added nine assists and four rebounds. Booker had 27 points and six assists; Deandre Ayton posted 22 points and 19 rebounds; and the Suns went 25 for 26 from the free throw line to seal the win.
“When it’s going like that, you just want to space the floor well and let [Paul] orchestrate,” Suns Coach Monty Williams said. “I thought he was making the right plays. They were switching a ton. He was making shots. When he’s in that mode, we feed off of that.”
The Suns’ backcourt took turns keeping the Bucks at bay down the stretch, running pick and rolls to set up open midrange shots in front of Milwaukee’s big men. On one late possession, Booker used a series of crossovers to set up a pretty midrange jumper. On the next, with less than four minutes to play, Paul wove through traffic in transition, stopped short in front of Antetokounmpo to draw a foul and finished a layup that proved to be the dagger.
“Chris Paul’s been a bucket,” Booker said. “He gets his team involved. He’s the greatest leader to play this game. There’s no scouting report that says Chris Paul can’t get a bucket.”
Budenholzer lamented the ease with which Paul settled into his sweet spots, and it was clear that Phoenix was prepared to exploit Milwaukee’s soft defensive approach in the second half.
“We play a lot of basketball,” Paul said. “We do this so often, and we’ve seen every [pick-and-roll] coverage you could possibly see. It’s second nature.”
For Phoenix, it was just the latest in a string of sharp Game 1 showings this postseason. In the first round, the Suns jumped on the Los Angeles Lakers, besting the defending champions despite Paul’s shoulder injury. In the conference semifinals, the Suns blew out the Denver Nuggets, with all five starters finishing in double figures. Then, in the Western Conference finals, the Suns beat the Los Angeles Clippers without Paul thanks to 40 points from Booker.
As Game 1 of the Finals unfolded, Phoenix appeared to make the most of its rest advantage. The Suns entered the series after five days off, three more than the Bucks had. Phoenix won the third quarter 35-27 as Antetokounmpo fell out of rhythm and scored just three points. Khris Middleton finished with a team-high 29 points and helped Milwaukee pull within seven in the final period.
There will be no respite for the weary Bucks, who must play their eighth contest in 16 days when they take the court for Game 2 on Thursday before the series shifts to Milwaukee. Antetokounmpo’s return provided hope, but hope alone won’t suffice against the poised and determined Suns.
“[Winning Game 1] is the formula for any team,” Williams said. “You want to win every game, but especially the first game.”
— Ben Golliver
Read highlights of Game 1 below.
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