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Wednesday, July 07, 2021

Paul, Booker, and Ayton Shine as Suns Beat Bucks 118-105

Chris Paul (32 points, nine assists, four rebounds, 12-19 FG), Devin Booker (27 points, six assists, 10-10 FT), and Deandre Ayton (22 points, 19 rebounds, 8-10 FG) dominated as the Phoenix Suns led most of the way en route to a 118-105 win over the Milwaukee Bucks in game one of the NBA Finals. After not scoring during the first quarter, Paul picked apart Milwaukee's defense in the final three quarters, as the Suns ran screen/roll actions until they got the matchup they wanted, and then they attacked that matchup relentlessly. Booker did not shoot well from the field (8-21 FG) but he used his quickness and ballhandling to draw fouls, and he was perfect from the free throw line. Meanwhile, Ayton provided inside punch at both ends of the court, dominating the glass, providing timely paint points, and making all six of his free throws as the Suns shot 25-26 from the free throw line; only a late Jae Crowder miss stopped the Suns from setting the Finals single game record for most free throws made without a miss. 

As ABC's Jeff Van Gundy wryly noted, there is nothing that the Bucks can do about their "free throw defense." It is not likely that the Suns will shoot that kind of free throw percentage again during this series, and if the Suns had shot a "normal" free throw percentage then this game would have been much closer down the stretch. However, the Bucks have to be concerned about (1) how many fouls the Suns drew, and (2) how easily the Suns created and exploited the matchups that the Suns wanted. The Bucks must either fight over screens (as opposed to switching so often), or they must initiate hard traps to force Paul (or Booker when he is involved in the screen/roll action) to give up the ball. 

The biggest story at the start of the game was the return of two-time regular season MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, who missed the last two games of the Eastern Conference Finals after suffering a knee injury in game four. The injury looked horrific, but imaging detected no structural damage, and it is remarkable--and wonderful--that Antetokounmpo returned to action. Antetokounmpo looked confident throughout the game, and physically he looked healthy as he scored 20 points on 6-11 field goal shooting while grabbing 17 rebounds, passing for four assists, and contributing a chase down blocked shot versus Mikal Bridges that removed any doubt about Antetokounmpo's post-injury speed, mobility, and agility. Antetokounmpo had a +1 plus/minus number, while the other four Bucks starters had plus/minus numbers ranging from -11 to -17. The Bucks had few problems during the 35 minutes that he played, but they had plenty of problems during the 13 minutes that he did not play. He has been out of action for a week, and he typically plays around 35 minutes because he plays so hard, but in this series the Bucks may need 40 productive minutes from Antetokounmpo so that they only have to figure out how to survive eight minutes per game without him.

Khris Middleton led the Bucks with 29 points on 12-26 field goal shooting, and Brook Lopez had a solid game (17 points, six rebounds). The Bucks need more from Jrue Holiday, who scored just 10 points on 4-14 field goal shooting. Holiday had nine assists and seven rebounds, but the Bucks need for him to score 18-20 points on efficient shooting while also being the primary defender on Paul; the Bucks cannot permit Paul to seek out the matchup that he wants.

The Bucks took an early three point lead, but trailed 30-26 by the end of the first quarter as Booker scored 12 points, including 6-6 free throw shooting. The Suns pushed that margin to 57-49 at halftime, and then they broke the game open as Paul scored 16 third quarter points on 6-7 field goal shooting. Paul was masterful as he authored one of the best Finals debuts ever, and one of the best Finals performances by a 36 year old.

The Suns outscored the Bucks 44-42 in the paint, 20-17 on the fast break, and 25-9 from the free throw line. The Bucks need to do a better job of exploiting their size advantage inside. One of the biggest mistakes that fans and even commentators make is assuming that whatever happened in one playoff game will carry over to the next game and the rest of the series. The Suns played about as well as they can play, but the Bucks are capable of making adjustments and playing better than they played. It would not at all be surprising if the Bucks play better defense, increase their paint scoring, and win game two.

The game one winner typically wins an NBA playoff series, but in the past couple years we have seen teams--including the Bucks--bounce back from a game one loss.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:50 AM



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