The Data Day at the NBA Finals: No. 1
Welcome to The Data Day, our daily NBA Finals blog where we try to make sense of what just happened, examine the key players and matchups, and identify any potential adjustments as the series progresses.
After 16 years in the league, 1,090 regular-season games, 123 playoff contests and more than his share of postseason disappointment, Chris Paul had no interest in just being happy to be in his first NBA Finals.
Paul authored one of the best games of his life to get the Suns to the big stage, pouring in a playoff career-high-tying 41 in Game 6 against the Clippers, and he was just as in control in Phoenix’s 118-105 Game 1 win over the Bucks. He went scoreless in the first quarter and then took over the next two periods, scoring 27 of his game-high 32 and keeping Milwaukee’s defense painfully off balance. In doing so, he joined some rare company: Paul (32 points, nine assists) and Michael Jordan (36/12) are the only two players with 30+ points and 8+ assists in their NBA Finals debuts since the NBA/ABA merger (1976-77).
Giannis Antetokounmpo’s surprise return gave the Bucks a boost early, and the two-time MVP was aggressive in the first quarter, putting up eight points, five rebounds and two assists in the opening 12 minutes. He got Jae Crowder drifting toward the foul line and drove baseline late in the first for an easy basket, then backed up Deandre Ayton, drove and dunked over the Suns’ big man on Milwaukee’s next possession. Facing up Crowder the next time down, he darted toward the middle and found Pat Connaughton for an easy lay-in.
Antetokounmpo didn’t look like someone who was a week removed from a hyperextended left knee injury, but as the game wore on – LeBron-like chase-down block aside – he didn’t really assert himself at either end. There were moments he had a head of steam and defenders like Ayton or Crowder on their heels in transition, but any attempts to drive typically resulted in passes to hardly open shooters like Connaughton or Khris Middleton on the perimeter. Look, Giannis simply being available is a massive victory for Milwaukee – the Bucks were plus-1 in his 35 minutes and minus-14 in the other 13 – but he needs to be more consistently aggressive for this series to be competitive.
While Milwaukee didn’t look like they knew what they wanted to do offensively – Middleton spent much of the third quarter ISOing before heaving up contested 3s – the Suns knew exactly who they were going to attack.
Brook Lopez is an excellent basketball player – our Jackson Frank even wrote recently about how his effectiveness at both ends of the floor has helped the Bucks get to the Finals! But Monty Williams, Paul and Devin Booker had their eyes on getting switched onto the 7-footer and punishing him, and boy did it work. Paul went after him first in the second quarter, hitting an 8-foot fadeaway and a 15-foot step-back over Lopez on consecutive possessions. Then it was Booker’s turn the next time down, as he nailed a floater off glass to put the Suns up 45-38.
It didn’t get any better. Just three minutes into the third quarter, Phoenix had scored 20 points on 11 possessions that it was able to get Lopez isolated against a guard. The Bucks tried going to their often-successful drop coverage briefly, then returned to switching when Bobby Portis came in late in the third. The Suns didn’t blink, relentlessly attacking Portis for the rest of the quarter. Paul drove for a layup, then nailed a step-back 3. Booker made a mid-range fadeaway and then got to the line for two of his 10 free-throw attempts. Lopez didn’t return after the 4:42 mark of the third and finished as a minus-17 in his 23 minutes. Portis was minus-10 in his 14 minutes. Sounds like Lopez and Budenholzer might want to bond over some tape that isn’t old Frasier DVDs prior to Thursday’s Game 2.
Whether the Bucks choose to use drop coverage or switch everything in the pick-and-roll, the Suns seem to have answers. Employing two mid-range maestros like Booker and Paul certainly helps. Even if Antetokounmpo plays the five, Bryn Forbes or Connaughton are out there and Phoenix will look to exploit them time and time again.
But the Suns also came out playing with a pace that’s unusual for them. Phoenix was 24th in pace during the regular season (98 possessions per game), averaged 95 possessions in the first round against the Lakers, 98.9 in the sweep of the Nuggets and just 94 in the conference finals against the Clippers. Game 1 of the Finals saw the Suns finish with 102 possessions and, according to Paul, that tempo was no accident.
“Cam Payne and all the coaches have been talking about us playing with pace,” Paul told ESPN’s Malika Andrews on the floor after the game. “I’m an old head and I like to slow it down sometimes, but in this series we’ve got to play with pace.”
Budenholzer and the Bucks need Holiday to show up for Game 2. They’ll need Middleton to make some better decisions and figure out how to more consistently move the ball in an offense that grew far too stagnant. They’ll need to get Antetokounmpo the ball in better position to attack. Might wanna do something about the utter lack of free-throw attempts from anyone not named Giannis, too.
Right now, though, it’s Paul’s world, and the Bucks are just the latest team CP3 has picked apart one elbow jumper at a time.