LOS ANGELES (REUTERS) – In the first NBA (National Basketball Association) Finals game of his 16-year career, Chris Paul was ready and willing to take on all challenges.
The star point guard scored 32 points while handing out nine assists on Tuesday (July 6) in the Phoenix Suns’ 118-105 victory over the visiting Milwaukee Bucks in Game 1.
Devin Booker contributed 27 points as the Suns leaned on their trusted guard play, but Paul’s ability to control the offence was the difference. The veteran shot 12 of 19 from the floor as the Bucks tried unsuccessfully to guard him with everybody.
“One thing we’re going to be is prepared for every game,” Paul said. “We always talk about when preparation meets opportunity. At shoot-around, coach (Monty Williams) said, ‘Go hoop. You know what to do’.”
Deandre Ayton added 22 points and 19 rebounds for the Suns, who are playing in their first NBA Finals since 1993. Phoenix have never won an NBA title.
Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo finished with 20 points and 17 rebounds in 35 minutes as he returned from a hyperextended left knee that caused him to miss the last two games of the Eastern Conference Finals. Khris Middleton had 29 points for Milwaukee, and Brook Lopez scored 17.
“I’m trying my best here to not make it about my knee, but I’m going to say one more time that my knee felt good,” Antetokounmpo said. “… At the end of the day, I’m out there. I feel good. I don’t feel pain. I can run, I can jump, I can set screens, I can rebound the ball.
“I am happy. I thought I was going to be out for a year, so I’m just happy, two games later, I’m back.”
The Bucks were quick to switch to a bigger player to guard Paul on the pick-and-roll, but they were exposed doing it. Milwaukee coach Mike Budenholzer already was considering changes for Game 2.
“(Paul) is a good player, and their pick-and-roll game is tough to guard,” Budenholzer said. “I think we have to keep getting better. We’ll look at the film, see how we can maybe take away some of the rhythm or make it to where he isn’t getting to his spots as easily.”
Paul scored 10 of Phoenix’s 12 points in a 2min 35sec stretch late in the third quarter to turn a 74-62 Suns lead into an 86-68 advantage. He scored 16 points in the third as the Suns outscored the Bucks 35-26 to take a 92-76 lead into the final period.
The Bucks cut the deficit to 101-94 on a basket by Antetokounmpo with 7:16 to go before Booker and Paul made back-to-back baskets for the Suns. Milwaukee never got closer than nine the rest of the way.
“When it’s going like that (for Paul), you just want to space the floor well and let him work,” Williams said. “I thought he was making the right plays.
“They were switching a ton and … when he’s in that mode, you just feed off that.”
Appearing inspired by Antetokounmpo’s return, the Bucks took a 20-18 lead with 3:37 remaining in the first quarter. A three-pointer by Cameron Johnson seven seconds later gave the Suns a 21-20 advantage, and they never trailed again, leading 30-26 at the end of one quarter and 57-49 at half-time.
Mikal Bridges ended the night with 14 points while Johnson and Cameron Payne had 10 each for the Suns. Phoenix starting forward Jae Crowder, the only player on either team with NBA Finals experience, scored one point and was 0-for-8 from the field.
Paul and Booker, who led the Suns in scoring during the regular season, were a combined 20 of 40 from the field and five of 15 from three-point range. The Suns shot 32.4 per cent (11 of 34) from distance overall while the Bucks were at 44.4 per cent (16 of 36).
“We play a lot of basketball, watch a lot, and our coaches told us what to be prepared for,” Paul said. “We played against these guys twice. We prepared for Giannis or not Giannis. We’re sure they are going to make adjustments going into Game 2, and we’ll probably do the same.”
Jrue Holiday compiled 10 points, nine assists and seven rebounds for the Bucks, who were just nine of 16 on foul shots. Antetokounmpo was seven of 12 from the line.
The Suns made 25 of 26 free throws.
“They were at the free-throw line a lot, and we have to do better with that,” Holiday said. “They’re a great free-throw-shooting team. And I just think Chris Paul got a bit too comfortable.”
The Suns won despite losing backup big man Dario Saric to a knee injury in the first quarter. Saric entered the night averaging 4.8 points and 2.6 rebounds in 13 play-off games this year.
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