The Phoenix Suns are three wins away from a championship after a strong Game 1 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks in the NBA Finals. The two sides were close for most of the first half before Phoenix pushed the lead as high as 20 in the third quarter. A furious Bucks comeback cut it back down to seven in the fourth quarter, but the Suns just would not be denied. They took Milwaukee's punch and countered with several of their own, ultimately winning Game 1, 118-105.
Chris Paul led the way with yet another stellar postseason outing. He scored 32 points to lead the Suns, but Devin Booker wasn't far behind with 27 of his own. Throw in Deandre Ayton's 22-point, 19-rebound Finals debut and 20 combined bench points for Cameron Payne and Cameron Johnson and it was a complete team win for the Suns. Khris Middleton stood up to Phoenix's star guards with 29 points of his own, but a still-recovering Giannis Antetokounmpo didn't quite match his typical MVP production. He scored 20 to go along with 17 rebounds in the loss, but played only 35 minutes and couldn't be as aggressive in the paint as he usually is with 11 field goal attempts in the game.
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Game 2 of the NBA Finals will be played on Thursday. A win in that game would take the Suns within two wins of the title, while a Milwaukee win would even up the series and give the Bucks home-court advantage. After the Game 1 we just watched, though, Milwaukee is going to need to make some serious adjustments to make that happen. For now, here are the biggest takeaways from Game 1.
Giannis looked decent, but not 100 percent
Physically, Giannis looked mostly like Giannis in Game 1 of the Finals. He caught a lob on the game's opening play (though it was called off due to a foul). He overpowered Deandre Ayton in the post. If you squinted, you'd see the outline of the two-time MVP. Even in defeat, he had the biggest highlight of the night with an incredible second-quarter chase-down block:
But he wasn't all the way back. How could he be? He hyperextended his knee seven days ago, and as a result, he had to play a bit more cautiously than he normally would. His 11 field goal attempts were the fewest of the postseason for him aside from Game 4 against the Atlanta Hawks, when he got hurt in the first place. On Tuesday, he played 35 minutes and 21 seconds in total, the fewest he's played in a non-blowout this postseason aside from Game 1 of the Brooklyn Nets series. The Bucks were justifiably cautious with their best player. The Finals are a marathon, not a sprint.
It says quite a bit about Giannis that even compromised physically and even when he can't take as many shots as he'd like, he was still the most important Buck on the floor in Game 1. Milwaukee won his minutes by one point. Its four other starters were all double-digit negatives in terms of plus-minus. The Bucks were decimated when Giannis went to the bench, and that only emphasizes the importance of his health in this series. The Bucks can't beat the Suns with 80 percent of Giannis. They need him at his MVP best to take on an opponent this good.
Suns eviscerated Brook Lopez
Even at full strength, this series was a mismatch for the Bucks. They allowed the second-most mid-range jumpers in the NBA this season. The Suns attempted the fourth most and made them at the highest percentage in basketball. Milwaukee's defense is built around protecting the paint, and the Bucks mostly did that in Game 1. They just got killed in the mid-range, and the primary victim was Brook Lopez.
The Bucks lost Game 1 against Atlanta because they stuck to their guns and played drop coverage against Trae Young, who scored 48 points thanks largely to his incredible floater. They didn't wait until Game 2 to adjust against the Suns. They switched against Phoenix's pick-and-roll early on, and that put Lopez, hardly known for his mobility, in a precarious position. Chris Paul routinely found him through aggressive switch-hunting and isolated him into oblivion. Lopez isn't exactly Enes Kanter on the perimeter, but he's not Anthony Davis either. A guard as skilled as Paul can get whatever he wants against Lopez when he's left on an island.
When that failed, the Bucks reverted to their drop scheme. That didn't work either as Paul continued to rain mid-range jumpers over Lopez and hit Ayton with lob passes for dunks. Lopez did enough on offense to justify his playing time, scoring 17 critical points for a team that struggled to get much going on that end of the floor, but the Bucks played their best two-way quarter in the fourth, when they moved Antetokounmpo to center and took away Paul's target.
That's not a cure-all for the Bucks. It makes life substantially easier for Ayton, for example, and it makes it harder for Antetokounmpo to play his preferred role as a weak-side help defender. More pressingly, the lineups that Milwaukee used when it went small didn't do it any favors either. The Bucks played Bryn Forbes alongside their four non-Lopez starters, but the Suns had just as easy a time hunting him as they did Lopez. Pat Connaughton is better defensively, but he's going to be a target for the Suns as well.
This is where Milwaukee really feels Donte DiVincenzo's absence. When he was healthy, the Bucks could run small-ball lineups with five starting-caliber players. That isn't the case anymore. They lose a lot of talent when they take Lopez out of the game. They face a stylistic mismatch when they play him. There's no obvious fix for Mike Budenholzer here.
The Suns' depth shines through
Speaking of areas in which the Bucks miss DiVincenzo, those Forbes minutes did a great job of illustrating how much deeper the Suns are than the Bucks. Cameron Payne's speed is a genuine change of pace for the Suns off the bench, and Cameron Johnson remains the postseason's hottest shooter. When the Bucks go to the bench, they do so merely to rest their best players. When Phoenix goes to the bench, it can bring genuinely valuable players into the game that would be starting on other teams.
That's the primary difference between these teams right now. The Suns have so much playoff-caliber talent that Jae Crowder can shoot 0 for 8 from the field and the Suns can still win by double digits. The Bucks get almost all of their scoring from four players, and when even one of them doesn't show up (as Jrue Holiday didn't in a 4-of-14 night), their offense grinds to a halt.
If the Bucks are going to win this series, their best players have to outplay Phoenix's best players. Jeff Teague and Bobby Portis just aren't as reliable two-way contributors as Payne and Johnson. The Suns have more ways of generating offense, so the Bucks need to take advantage of the ways available to them if they hope to keep up here.