2021 NBA Finals

Finals MVP Ladder: Chris Paul maintains top spot after impressive Game 1

Breaking down the field for NBA Finals MVP with a ranking of the Top 5 candidates with Game 1 in the books.

Chris Paul ignited the Suns in the 3rd quarter of Game 1, scoring 16 of his 32 to power Phoenix to a victory over the Bucks.

PHOENIX — Call it small-man complex if you want, but the diminutive floor general leading the Phoenix Suns generated a gargantuan performance Tuesday night on the game’s grandest stage.

Chris Paul controlled most of the action in Game 1 and snatched up whatever he wanted — from the midrange, out to 3-point-land — in scoring a game-high 32 points with nine rebounds in his NBA Finals debut to lead Phoenix to a 1-0 lead in this best-of-seven series.

Asked whether he still carried a supposed small-man complex, Paul certainly didn’t deny its existence.

“I think I just feel like I’ve got to be me,” Paul said. “I am who I am. I did grow up as a little brother, where all our friends were my [older] brother’s friends, and them telling me I couldn’t do this, you can’t do that. Draft night, they said I was going to be too small, and all this stuff. You just grind. It ain’t about my complex or whatever that is. That’s always who I’ve been whether [it was] when I played football, whatever it was. It was, if you want something, you’ve got to work for it.”

Chris Paul does it all in the Suns' Game 1 victory over the Bucks.

Paul punched the clock and the visiting Milwaukee Bucks in Game 1 with a masterful pick-and-roll clinic over 37 strong minutes that yielded just two turnovers. That’s why Paul maintains his perch atop this installment of the Race to the NBA Finals MVP Ladder, while teammates Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton hold the second and third spots, respectively.

The Suns trio stands out as a shining example of how exemplary teamwork easily spawns individual success.

“C always gets everybody involved and gets us going in a rhythm,” Ayton said. “He starts to see how teams try to adjust and counter what we throw at them when it comes to our pick-and-roll. He tries to at least let me know what the dud is doing on-ball or what my man is calling, either a switch or they’re down in the pick-and-roll, and I try to adjust my angles on him to free him up, and it opens up the floor.”

On a night in which Paul became just the third player age 36 or older to score 30-plus points in an NBA Finals game (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Tim Duncan are the other two) in addition to becoming the first player since Michael Jordan (1991) to rack up 30 points and eight assists in a Finals, Ayton also etched his name into the record books.

Ayton produced his fourth playoff outing with 20 points or more on 80% shooting, which ranks as the most in a single postseason in the shot-clock-era, while tying former Suns greats Shawn Marion and Steve Nash for the second-most double-doubles (12) in a single postseason in franchise history.

Booker, meanwhile, dropped a cool 27 points to boost a Phoenix trio that combined for 81 points; just two shy of the scoring output of Milwaukee’s entire starting five.

“There’s guys sacrificing,” Booker said. “That’s all of us. Everybody can play. Everybody’s hoopers. Even the guys that aren’t playing can play on any other team and are still a big part of how we continue to grow, how we continue to get better. Those guys understanding the game and us all respecting each other to where people can come to you with open dialogue and let you know when you’re not doing what you’re supposed to do.”

Chris Paul: 'We've been building (trust) all season long'

Certainly, there’s plenty of conversation circulating among the Bucks as the team heads into Game 2 looking to find a way to slow down Phoenix’s scorching pick-and-roll.

“We looked at film. You feel like there’s things you can get better,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “We threw a few different looks during the game. What we do between now and Game 2 we’ll figure out, we’ll talk about. He’s a player that probably you’ve got to change up the looks. If he gets a rhythm on something, it’s not good for us. So, you’ve got to have multiple kinds of looks and adjustments and be able to execute at a high level whatever you’re doing.”

Paul expects as much, but over a 16-year career, he’s seen everything an opponent can throw his way.

“I didn’t know what they were going to do last night,” Paul said. “I think I said it last night after the game that there’s only so many things that you can do out here on this court, you know? And so, we just adjust. If they’re going to trap, they trap. [If] they switch, they switch. But whatever it may be, all season long we have adjusted and prepared for whatever a team has thrown us.”

Three or more teammates, each making his Finals debut, with 20+ points each:

Date Finals matchup Players Finals result
3/30/1957 Celtics vs. Hawks Boston’s Bill Sharman (36), Bob Cousy (26), Tom Heinsohn (26) Celtics won series, 4-3
4/14/1967 76ers vs. Warriors Philadelphia’s Hal Greer (32), Wali Jones (30), Billy Cunningham (26), Chet Walker (23) Sixers won series, 4-2
6/07/1995 Magic vs. Rockets Orlando’s Penny Hardaway (26), Shaquille O’Neal (26), Nick Anderson (22) Rockets won series, 4-0
7/06/2021 Suns vs. Bucks Phoenix’s Chris Paul (32), Devin Booker (27), Deandre Ayton (22) TBD

And now, the Top 5 in our 2021 Race to the NBA Finals MVP Ladder after Game 1:

1. Chris Paul, Phoenix Suns

Listen in as announcers from around the world call some of Chris Paul's best plays from Game 1 of the NBA Finals.

Playoff stats: 19.0 ppg, 8.7 apg, 1.3 spg

Colleague John Schumann explained it here before the series even started. Falling behind 10 points or more to the Suns is the kiss of death, and Paul showed why in Game 1. The Suns are now 12-0 this postseason when they go up by double digits. Paul hit a 21-footer to start the third quarter to put Phoenix up by 10 points, and 1:21 later converted a 4-point play that put Phoenix up 11 points. After that, it was pretty much a wrap. Milwaukee would cut the lead to single-digits on multiple occasions to close out the game, but Paul wouldn’t let the Bucks back in it. He just doesn’t turn over the ball.

2. Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns

Devin Booker scores 27 points to go with six assists in his first Finals game.

Playoff stats: 27.0 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 4.8 apg

Booker’s wiggle made Brook Lopez wobble plenty of times on switches late in Game 1 as Phoenix’s guards took over when it counted most. Booker racked up 16 of his 27 points in the first half while finishing a flawless 10-for-10 from the free-throw line. Twice this postseason, Booker finished games with 10-plus free-throw attempts without a miss, which ties Jeff Hornacek for No. 2 in franchise history for perfect nights from the line. Two more perfect nights from the free-throw line would tie Kevin Johnson, who has accomplished that feat in the playoffs on four occasions.

3. Deandre Ayton, Phoenix Suns

Deandre Ayton delivers a monster double-double in his Finals debut, finishing with 22 points and 19 rebounds.

Playoff stats: 16.5 ppg, 12.2 rpg, 0.9 bpg

According to Elias Sports, Ayton is now the sixth player in league annals to produce 15-plus points and 15-plus rebounds in a Finals game at age 22 or younger. Ayton is also the first player since Tim Duncan (June 16, 1999) to accomplish that feat in his NBA Finals debut. It’s part of why Paul can’t stop raving about the big man that hates being called big. Ayton’s 19 rebounds in Game 1 also tied Charles Barkley’s Phoenix franchise record for the most rebounds in an NBA Finals game. “I think Deandre Ayton, the way he’s worked all season long, he took it to a whole other level during the playoffs,” Paul said.

4. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

Giannis Antetokounmpo returns to the lineup and finishes with 20 points and 17 rebounds.

Playoff stats: 27.7 ppg, 12.9 rpg, 5.1 apg

Antetokounmpo admitted to struggling to identify when to help on Milwaukee’s switches, but he added “I’m getting more comfortable with it, and I will figure it out.” One positive sign is Antetokounmpo’s injured knee held up well in Game 1.

5. Khris Middleton, Milwaukee Bucks

Khris Middleton finishes Game 1 of the NBA Finals with a team-high 29 points.

Playoff stats: 23.7 ppg, 7.9 rpg, 1.4 spg

Carried a heavy load in Game 1 and led the Bucks in scoring (29 points) over a game-high 44 minutes. His 26 attempts from the field in Game 1 tied Abdul-Jabbar for the fourth-most field goal attempts in a finals game in franchise history.

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Michael C. Wright is a senior writer for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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