It initially looked as if Bobby Portis would become the latest defender to fall victim to the Chris Paul dance, when the Hall of Fame point guard took him off the dribble for a finger roll late in the third quarter.
But then Paul got past Giannis Antetokounmpo and slammed on the brakes, sending the two-time MVP and 2020 Defensive Player of the Year tumbling to the floor as Paul finished the and-1 layup late in the fourth to all but clinch the Suns’ first win in the NBA Finals.
Paul orchestrated another second-half explosion in his long-awaited Finals debut, scoring 21 of his 32 points after intermission to help propel the Suns to a 118-105 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks in Tuesday’s Game 1 at Phoenix Suns Arena.
Sixteen of those points came during a pristine third quarter, when Paul went 6-of-7 from the floor. His pull-up in the frame’s opening minute gave the Suns their first double-digit lead of the game at 59-49, then followed with a 4-point play. Just after his slick dribble move on Portis later in the period, Paul then pulled up from 3 over him to stretch the Suns’ lead to 86-68.
Then, after the Bucks rapidly reduced the Suns’ lead to 101-94 about midway through the fourth quarter, Paul hit another jumper to help push that lead back up to double digits.
Paul also ignited the Suns’ high pace that resulted in 20 fastbreak points and 16 points scored off 14 Milwaukee turnovers.
Perhaps Paul’s only snafu on the night? Inadvertently snagging a rebound away from the grasp of Deandre Ayton in the game’s final seconds, which would have given the third-year center a 20-20 game in his Finals debut. He finished with 22 points on 8-of-10 shooting and 19 rebounds, becoming the only player in the past 15 years to record at least 20 points and at least 19 rebounds in an NBA Finals game.
Devin Booker added 27 points and six assists in his first-career Finals action, including a 10-for-10 mark from the free-throw line to spearhead his team’s near-perfect outing from the stripe (25-of-26).
The Suns have now won all four Game 1s throughout the 2021 playoffs. Game 2 is Thursday night at Phoenix Suns Arena.
WHAT THEY ARE SAYING:
Monty Williams on Chris Paul: "He just understands how to score the ball, but he also understands where everybody else is on the floor. I thought the pass that he had to DA for a finish at the basket was signature Chris. He had been scoring and managing the game, and then as soon as they blitzed, he hit DA and we got a layup...I would be here all day. He's just a really good basketball player. He's one of those rare guys that can see the floor and he knows where all five guys should be. He took advantage of his opportunities tonight versus their switching defense and thankfully he made shots.
Chris Paul on how proud he is of Deandre Ayton: "I sat in the background during DA's press conference right now, just seeing him talk, just seeing the maturity in him not only as basketball player but as a person. Everybody doesn't get a chance to know him off the court, but he has the biggest heart. One of the best guys you'll ever meet. So the success and the recognition that he's getting right now is well deserved, and I couldn't be happier for another guy on our team."
Deandre Ayton on how much fun he's having: "I'm just happy because I woke up saying this is just one game closer. I get goose bumps, sometimes I overwhelm myself on the way to the game. I'm having a lot of fun because my guys in there they keep me level and they keep me intent with it."
CLICK HERE for the Suns full media availability.
Devin Booker: 27 points, 6 assists, 2 rebounds, 3 steals
Chris Paul: 32 points, 9 assists, 4 rebounds, 1 steal
Deandre Ayton: 22 points, 19 rebounds, 1 steal
Mikal Bridges: 14 points, 1 rebound, 1 assist, 1 steal
Cam Johnson: 10 points, 3 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 steals
Cameron Payne: 10 points, 1 rebound, 1 steal
“Locked in” is a popular phrase used across sports at all levels to describe being singularly focused on the immediate task at hand. After a grueling 72-game regular season and three thrilling playoff series, it has never been more important for these Suns to exercise that mental approach. They will open the NBA Finals Tuesday against the Milwaukee Bucks, embarking on their last stretch toward the ultimate summit.
The Suns are locked in on a formidable opponent. They are locked in on maintaining their style of play and everyday habits that got them this far. They are locked in on seizing four more wins, and clinching the first NBA title in franchise history.
After the lengthy officials’ review, the crowd’s roar upon confirmation that his finish was legal and the endless hugs from teammates and coaches, Ayton emphatically agreed when asked if that was the best play of his life. The “Valley-oop” to beat the Los Angeles Clippers 104-103 to take a 2-0 lead in the Western Conference Finals is already an iconic moment in Phoenix Suns history.
It was also the latest reminder that Ayton’s consistent — and often dominant — play unfolding bit-by-bit during this electrifying postseason run has rapidly vaulted him into the conversation surrounding the NBA’s top-tier centers.
Johnson and Bridges are now known as “The Twins,” a nickname coined by Deandre Ayton because they are always around each other and play a similar position and style. After forming their initial bond heading into the 2019-20 season, Johnson’s and Bridges’ relationship flows from the locker room onto the court and epitomizes the Suns’ necessary trust, togetherness and overall synergy that has led them to the Western Conference Finals.
On June 20, 2019, Jones helped launch the construction of the Suns’ roster now up 2-0 in the Western Conference Finals. And on June 20, 2021, Jones was named NBA Executive of the Year. What a difference two years can make.
It takes talent, relentless drive and togetherness to become one of the NBA’s final four teams remaining in the postseason. But the Suns’ ability to reach this level of consistent, confident and clinical execution, particularly while winning a franchise-record seven consecutive playoff games, can be directly tied to their willingness to embrace the belief that everything counts. That attention to detail becomes even more critical with an NBA Finals berth on the line when Phoenix’s series against the Los Angeles Clippers begins Sunday afternoon, especially with Paul missing at least Game 1 while in health and safety protocols.
RIGHT PLACE, RIGHT TIME
Craig is a versatile defender and willing rebounder on both ends. He will dive for 50/50 balls and flash his athleticism via deflections and blocks. He has gotten more offensive opportunities with the Suns as an outside shooter and authoritative finisher off cuts and in transition. Now, Craig is showcasing all of those attributes during a playoff series against his former team while providing a jolt to the Suns’ championship aspirations.
‘THERE’S NOTHING LIKE IT’
That electric crowd is goosebumps-inducing in person and takes television viewers aback, prompting local pride and national attention. It has been praised by young Suns experiencing the postseason for the first time and veterans who have been through countless playoff games alike. That’s why it’s reasonable to wonder if — or conclude that — the Suns have quickly created the NBA’s best home-court advantage during these playoffs.
The formal definition of the word “relentless” is “oppressively constant; incessant.” That descriptor has followed the Suns throughout this season, applying to their on-court style of play and their everyday habits while navigating this unique season. Knocking off the defending-champion Los Angeles Lakers in the playoffs’ first round required a relentless approach, which now carries the Suns into the Western Conference Semifinals against the Denver Nuggets.
“It’s just how the guys are built, individually and as a collective group,” Booker said. “If you go down the list of all the players, there’s nobody that’s scared of the moment. There’s nobody that hasn’t prepared for this moment. This isn’t new. This is how we’ve been playing for most of the season. We’ve had ups and downs, but we’re a confident team and we play hard all the way through.”
Now in his third season as general manager of the Phoenix Suns, James Jones has taken his knowledge of what it takes to win a ring and is building a roster of like-minded players with high-IQs, unselfish personalities and relentless attitudes both on the court and behind the scenes. The result is Phoenix’s dramatic rise over the past two seasons. The Suns went 51-21 during the 2020-21 regular season, finished second in a loaded Western Conference and enters Tuesday with the opportunity to take a 3-2 lead in their first-round playoff series against the defending-champion Los Angeles Lakers.
Cameron Payne plays with a fiery passion that somehow looks both free and furious, prompting some to compare him to the “haboob” dust storms that disrupt the Valley air during the summer monsoon season. It’s a fitting style for Payne, a former lottery draft pick who had his NBA career stripped away in early 2019 and is now savoring his shot on a Suns team with championship aspirations.
“To be on the road and have your fans cheering for you, especially when you make a run, is pretty cool," head coach Monty Williams said. "We’re thankful, grateful and we’re fighting our tails off to make those fans that we have in this environment have something to cheer for.”
Whether traveling from Phoenix or different parts of California, Suns.com gathered personal stories from six Suns fans making the trip and cheer on their favorite team.
LIVING UP TO THE MOMENT
Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges and Cameron Johnson showed consistent effort all season, preparing them for the bright lights. They lived up to the moment in Game 1 and, in some cases, churned out historic stat lines — even during an intense game complete with the magnitude of the franchise’s first playoff game since 2010, a jarring injury to their Hall of Fame point guard and a scuffle that resulted in a teammate being ejected.
There are enough “Montyisms” for Monty Williams to write a compilation book — which Devin Booker has publicly and privately suggested to his coach. Even while repeating them to players, Cam Johnson said, Williams will preface by acknowledging some might call them “corny” or “goofy” or “coach speak.” Yet Johnson says those mantras are “big-time anchors” that have kept the Suns emotionally centered during the franchise’s emphatic rise to the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference. They create personal connections with players by instilling belief and relaying constructive advice. They provide reminders that resurface in the head and heart when one least expects it, and can apply to both basketball and life.
RALLY THE VALLEY
Suns.com gathered personal stories from 13 people connected to the organization. Some are longtime fans, and others are long-time employees in behind-the-scenes roles. Some are community partners who work with the Suns to make residents’ lives a little brighter. Some are natives, and some have returned home.
“You look around the league at some teams, and not everybody has a vibe like this or an energy like this throughout,” Booker said. “I always say it’s a great environment to get better in. When you have everybody supporting you, everybody being honest with you — those are the same people that can give me constructive criticism at any point in the game, and I’m listening to them — that’s the name of our group, man.”
Culture, chemistry and overall spirit are intangible qualities that cannot be measured by traditional stats or advanced analytics. But players and coaches know it — feel it — when those attributes have manifested within a team.