PHOENIX — When we talk about star power, it’s easy to lose sight of the actual power those stars have in terms of shifting a basketball game.
The Phoenix Suns have two in Devin Booker and Chris Paul. And when those two synergize and explode at the same time, the force of that star power is an overwhelming tidal wave no other team in the NBA has a chance of surviving.
Against those two, the Milwaukee Bucks tried a few different things defensively in Game 1 of the NBA Finals Tuesday, and they might as well take that gameplan along with the whiteboard it was on and throw it in the trash after a 118-105 loss.
The Bucks started out the game switching every single action. For a team that already does that quite a bit, it was an unexpected extra gear up beyond switching 1-4. Their 5 is Brook Lopez, who Booker and Paul hunted time after time to great success. The Suns said after the game they saw the Bucks do that at the end of the Eastern Conference Finals, so while it was surprising to see from afar, it wasn’t unexpected for them up close.
Milwaukee went back to more of their standard defense after that, with Lopez in a drop on ball screens, and that’s a look the Suns’ All-Star duo has made light work of all season.
Paul had a game-high 32 points on 12-of-19 shooting with four rebounds and nine assists. Booker contributed 29 points, six assists, two rebounds and three steals. He was a perfect 10-for-10 at the foul line to bump up a 9-for-22 night from the field.
Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer will have more darts to throw at the board against those two, like blitzing and hedging, but the reality of the way the game unfolded is that there is no right way to play defense on Booker and Paul when they are scoring and seeing the floor as they did on Tuesday.
After the first quarter, it was hard to imagine any bigger story than the way two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo looked.
The forward originally listed as questionable and being called a game-time decision due to a hyperextended left knee appeared to be mostly himself with eight points. His movement in all aspects, especially his agility and burst, was there.
But also present was the Suns’ offensive gusto. There was pep in their step attacking the basket, specifically for Booker. Phoenix’s first 16 points came in the paint, quite the oddity. When asked of that and the Suns’ high free throw count, Booker said it’s about wanting to be “the initiator of the game.”
“(When) we put pressure on the rim like that, it opens up other opportunities for people,” he said. “Everybody on the floor can shoot and can space, so we know when we get downhill that we can make something happen for the team, whether it’s score the ball or swing it to the opposite side and get an open shot.”
Booker made an insightful observation on how that tempo and attitude to start a game can have the Suns avoid when they are at their worst.
“I think the games that we have struggled this year, we were fighting uphill the whole game and starting off down 15, 20 points,” he said. “But I think when we come out with that pace and that energy, how it should be for a Finals game, we’re going to leave ourselves in pretty good shape.”
As expected with how these two teams match up stylistically and the fact that it’s the Finals, it was very high-quality basketball through one half.
The Suns led by eight at halftime. Booker scored 11 points in the first quarter and it was 12 for Paul in the second quarter.
At the open of the second half, Paul went on a 7-3 run before Booker assisted a Mikal Bridges transition finish to extend the Suns’ lead to 13.
With the advantage at 12 midway through the third quarter, Paul set up Deandre Ayton for a lob before scoring nine of the Suns’ next 11 points over 3:47. The Bucks’ deficit was then quickly up to 18. Paul was 6-of-7 from the floor in that period.
The only reason the game didn’t turn into a blowout was Milwaukee’s Khris Middleton posting 11 of his 29 points in the quarter’s last 3:06. In those two middle quarters, Antetokounmpo disappeared, providing only five points.
The combination of Middleton getting hot and the Bucks’ great 16-of-36 (44.4%) three-point shooting kept Milwaukee within striking distance in the fourth quarter but the Suns produced the answer to every strike back.
It was a complete effort by the Suns. They defended to their usual high standard, which allowed them to get out and run to 20 fastbreak points.
Paul said that assistant coach Willie Green urged the guys to get the ball across halfcourt before the shot clock went below 20 seconds, a pace increase that has been desired out of Paul more than anyone else.
That aggressive mentality getting to the basket early got the Suns creating opportunities at the foul line, where they shot an excellent 25-of-26 (96.2%).
The individual creation was some of the best it’s been all season for Phoenix, made apparent by the Suns only generating 18 assists.
Leading up to the series, the Suns were consistently bringing up rebounding as a key area, and Ayton gobbled up just about everything. He grabbed 19 rebounds and recorded 22 points as well on 8-of-10 shooting.
Ayton said he started feeling like he was making his mark on the game when Booker and Paul got rolling on ball screens early in the game, a testament to how he has accepted a selfless role on the team.
“He’s just locked into the role,” Suns head coach Monty Williams said. “Sometimes when you tell a player he has a role, they tend to think that you’re limiting their ability. I don’t think DA thinks that. I think he understands his role and how he can affect winning on both sides of the ball. It certainly helps to have Chris and Book creating opportunities for him, but he’s done a really good job of understanding the angles and screens and where to be in the pocket to finish around the basket.
“He’s just a presence down there. Sometimes they have to run two guys at him to keep him off the glass, and that allows for our wings to pick up some offensive rebounds.”
Second-year wing Cam Johnson is playing the best basketball of his young career thus far, and it says all you need to know about his well-rounded and poised game that it’s happening right now. After a stellar Western Conference Finals, he had 10 points, three rebounds, two assists and two steals in 20 minutes.
“I thought he was great,” Williams said of Johnson. “His ability to space the floor and shoot the ball is what you tend to think about with Cam, but I thought his defense was really good tonight. He’s a big, strong defender, and he has the ability to move his feet and keep guys in front.”
Bridges added 14 points and Cam Payne had a low-key important seven of his 10 points in the first four minutes of the fourth quarter when the Bucks started to knock down some shots.
Everyone on the Suns pitching in shouldn’t be surprising when it’s a complete performance from both Booker and Paul.
Let Bridges explain what he described as “amazing” for the team’s confidence.
“It just opens up everything,” he said. “Just for other guys out there, we’re spacing and stuff. It opens it up for us to get opportunities. If they start helping toward Book and CP, and then we get shots. For us, just having that mindset to stay ready and be ready at all times because C and Book, they’ll find you.
“That’s a great thing about them is that they could go score whenever they want, but they know that they can read defenses and if they’re over-helping, they’re going to get us looks.”
Dario Saric exited the game in the late first quarter with a right knee injury and was ruled out shortly after going to the locker room. Saric’s shooting, passing and ability to punish mismatches in the post makes him an ideal backup 5 against a team that switches as much as the Bucks. His absence in the series would be felt.
Antetokounmpo ended the night with 20 points and 17 rebounds. He said multiple times postgame that his knee felt good, even though there was an evident wear-down effect.
The Bucks will hope that was the worst performance of the series for Holiday, who was brutal. A clear difference in the game was the point guard control of the game for the Suns as opposed to Milwaukee’s. Holiday shot 4-of-14 from the field for 10 points, seven rebounds and nine assists.