PHOENIX — The return of Giannis Antetokounmpo following a gimpy postseason absence had the desired effect on the floor, where his presence generated hope, a swell of confidence and a sustained display of team dominance.
Yes … the Suns checked all of those boxes when they opened The Finals by giving the appearance that they, more than the Bucks, needed Giannis healthy and fit for duty.
Let’s explain: After shoving aside the Los Angeles Lakers once Anthony Davis grabbed a body part early in the first round of the playoffs, and then dismissing the Denver Nuggets despite no Jamal Murray, and finally clinching the Western Conference title over a LA Clippers’ team minus Kawhi Leonard, the Suns’ road to The Finals was laced with a bit of luck.
You couldn’t pretend none of this ever happened or wasn’t a factor. Not that the Suns weren’t qualified to be here; they proved as much all season. And not that their advantageous journey was causing them any deep stress. With a championship on the line, there’s a sense of who-cares permeating the club.
As Suns guard Devin Booker mentioned on the eve of the series: “We’re not here to justify what we’re doing to anyone.”
That is true … yet any real competitor wants to beat someone at their best and win a prize that’s earned, not given or delivered, especially if, as with the Suns, good fortune blessed them not one but every step of the way. And any audience wants to see a fair competition, particularly at the highest level with the grand prize on the line. Yes, the guzzled champagne will taste the same for the Suns if the goal is accomplished, but will it be as fulfilling?
Antetokounmpo, the Bucks’ two-time Kia MVP winner, shook off the ache of a hyperextended knee that kept everyone guessing about his status until about an hour before tipoff. And that’s where all the suspense of Game 1 came to a screeching halt.
Because, right from the jump, the Suns did whatever they wanted. They punished Milwaukee for much of 48 minutes en route to a 118-105 win. They had bounce, grit, savvy and all the smoke. They did to a whole Bucks’ team exactly what they did to the handicapped teams that came before.
Chris Paul? He dropped mid-range daggers and produced an epic performance for the second straight game, with 32 points and nine assists in his first taste of the championship round. He made Jrue Holiday, a member of the All-Defensive Team, look helpless and struggling for answers. Paul seemed desperate and hungry and determined for that ring, a trifecta that’ll be tough for Milwaukee to overcome if he keeps this up this pace.
“When he’s in that mood, we just feed off that,” said Suns coach Monty Williams. “I thought he was making the right plays.”
Booker? His performance was nearly polished, bedeviled only by faulty 3-point shooting. Otherwise his 27 points complimented Paul and gave the backcourt-heavy Suns a clear advantage throughout the game.
Deandre Ayton? The young and frisky center made the Bucks pay for putting PJ Tucker on him. Ayton has a seven-inch height advantage, and while Tucker managed to hold his own in the past against taller players, Ayton was masterful. He spent Game 1 catching lob passes while coming off screens and dropping them with ease. Ayton missed only twice in 10 attempts and his 22 points and 19 rebounds showed how much he ruled inside.
The Suns never lost control of the game, never allowed the Bucks to find an opening, never took their foot off the gas pedal and windpipe. They ran the right plays at the right time, found the Bucks napping in crucial stretches and repeatedly caught Milwaukee on switches that sprung Paul, Booker and Ayton free for buckets or plays.
Even better for the Suns: Giannis was of little to no help for Milwaukee.
The Bucks ran their very first play of the game for Giannis, if only to send a message to the other bench. And Giannis never showed any significant signs of limited mobility or bashfulness about an injury that sidelined him for the last two games in the East Conference finals. On two occasions, actually, he flew off the court while chasing a loose ball and trying to block a shot, and never winced once. All good for the Bucks.
Still, Antetokounmpo failed to put the Suns on red alert. His impact was mild, his production caused no wreckage, his efforts couldn’t prevent the Bucks from absorbing the pummeling the Suns gave them.
Antetokounmpo played 35 minutes, a positive sign for the Bucks. But he took only 11 shots and also tried to force his way through a Suns’ defense that packed the paint in anticipation. That caused him to often force bad shots or get whistled for offensive fouls or make poor decisions with the ball.
“We planned on him to play,” Williams said. “We figured a guy who works that hard would find a way back on the floor for The Finals.”
Maybe, in hindsight, the Suns would’ve done the same against Davis or Leonard. But that’s all moot now. Unless he has a relapse, Antetokounmpo is the lone and last superstar who stands in the Suns’ way, and they just dropped a hint that they’re prepared for him.
Meanwhile, the Bucks will now scramble to make changes or tweaks on the fly. Holiday (4-of-14 shooting and 10 points in 40 minutes) sprung holes on both ends of the floor. What’s interesting is he was scorched for 48 points by Trae Young in the opener of the East finals, but the proud Bucks guard quickly reset and settled into what became a nice series for him.
Brook Lopez was repeatedly singled out and burned by switches with Paul and Booker. When Lopez left the game, the Suns sent a limo for him to return. Once those two Suns guards were lined up across from Lopez, they seized advantage of the slow-footed Bucks’ center and either blew by him for layups or crossed him up for deep shots. Milwaukee must find a way to minimize that matchup.
“Their pick and roll game is tough to guard,” said Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer, stating the obvious.
Because of the height disadvantage against Ayton, Tucker must use his strength to keep Ayton from getting prime real estate in the paint, because in those situations, Tucker is like a kid reaching for candy on the top shelf.
“We do this so often,” Paul said, about connecting with Ayton. “It’s second nature.”
Finally, Giannis: Can he be the most impactful player on the floor in any game of this series? He’ll need to be, and maybe in more than one game, for the Bucks to have a chance.
Strange how it looks now, right? The Suns took a stroll down Easy Street through much of the postseason, aided by big names on the Missing Players list from other teams … only to whip a two-time MVP on the opening night on the biggest stage and under the brightest lights.
“We’ve been building all season long for these moments,” Paul said.
It’s only a glimpse, only a start, only a small sample size. And keep in mind the Bucks have now lost Game 1 in five of their last six playoff series. But the Suns seem hell bent on winning a championship by any means necessary.
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