Suns Take Game 1 of 2021 Finals

Despite the surprise return of Giannis Antetokounmpo just before tip-off, the Suns managed to hold off the Bucks 118-105 and take a 1-0 series lead. Despite shooting just 32.4% from three (11-34) compared to Milwaukee’s 44.4% (16-36), the Suns were able to make up the difference at the free throw line, going an impressive 25-26 compared to Milwaukee’s lackluster 9-16 from the line.

The Suns’ Big Three led the way, with Chris Paul dropping 32 and 9 assists on a highly-efficient 12-19 shooting (4-7 from deep). Devin Booker added 27 and 6 assists, but on 8-21 shooting and just 1-8 three point shooting. DeAndre Ayton, as he’s been all playoffs long, was extremely efficient from the field (8-10) and had 22 points, plus a game-high 19-rebounds. Phoenix is now 4-0 in game 1s this postseason.

Not only were the Suns’ Big Three great, most of their role players did well: Cam Johnson had 10 points on 50% field goal shooting, Cam Payne had 10 points on 50% field goal shooting, and Mikal Bridges had 14 points on 5-13 shooting. Jae Crowder was the only one on Phoenix who didn’t have a great game: just 1 point on 0-8 shooting from the floor.

Look, Phoenix just plays really well at home, and Milwaukee is a completely different team on the road. This was the expected outcome, even though Milwaukee got Giannis back earlier than expected.

If I’m Milwaukee, I actually feel pretty good despite the loss. For one thing, Giannis did not look hobbled at all out there. He had an incredible full-court chase-down block in the first half of the game reminiscent of LeBron in the 2016 Finals; he’s not capable of doing that if he’s not at least 85-90%. Milwaukee was actually +1 in the game when Giannis was on the floor, but the problem was he could only play 35 minutes. I expect he’ll get healthier as the series goes.

Honestly, it’s pretty incredible that Giannis was able to play last night considering less than a week ago, the Bucks feared he had a “severe ACL injury.” And we all saw how his leg bent backwards: it certainly looked like his knee got completely destroyed on that play. But this dude is made of titanium or something. Once I heard he was going to suit up for game 1, I figured he’d be on like James Harden-level effectiveness. But no, he was 6-11 from the field for 20 points and 17 rebounds.

Sure, Giannis wasn’t his normal 31-13 self, but he was pretty damn good for a guy whose knee bent BACKWARDS (video at the link if you can stomach it) seven days ago. I don’t even know how that’s possible. When your knee bends backwards, I assumed that literally every muscle, bone and tendon in there is shredded to pieces. If you sit in a chair and put your leg straight on the wall and try to push your kneecap inward (obviously not hard, just until it starts hurting–don’t go out there and injure yourself and them blame me), then you can feel the muscles on the back-side of your knee start hurting like hell. I feel like if my knee did what his knee did, everything in there would rupture. The guy is truly amazing. That’s why you stretch and condition.

Another reason I’m optimistic if I’m Milwaukee is that Jrue Holliday will play better as the series goes on. He was pretty bad last night: 10 points, 9 assists, 7 rebounds on 4-14 shooting and 0-4 from three. He got better in the Atlanta series as it went on, and I think he’ll be better as this one goes on as well. Middleton was pretty good: 29 points, 7 rebounds on 12-26 shooting and 5-12 from three. He was really the only one of Milwaukee’s Big Three that did what he was supposed to do. Giannis didn’t because he was playing limited minutes and coming off an injury, and Middleton just had a poor shooting night.

Meanwhile, on the Suns side, CP3 and Ayton played close to the best games of their entire careers, while Booker had a B-level game that could’ve been a C- game had he not gotten to shoot 10 free throws.

Chris Paul has been red-hot over his past two games including the closeout game of the Clippers series when he went for 41. It’s possible he’s just going to be playing out of his mind all series knowing that his first ring is within reach, I don’t know. He might have activated God Mode. But it’s also possible he cools down as the series goes on, reverting to a more “normal” level of output: in this postseason, he’s averaging 19ppg and in the regular season he averaged 16ppg. Nick Wright pointed out that over CP3’s last three regular seasons (2019 with Houston, 2020 with OKC and this year with Phoenix), he had a grand total of three games where he scored 32 points or more, yet he’s done it three times in his last six playoff games.

Either he’s unlocked a new level to his game, or it’s unsustainable.

What I’m saying is, it’s possible he keeps up this unconscious level of offensive efficiency and scoring, but it’s more likely he comes back down to earth. If the latter happens, Milwaukee is in great shape, because I also expect Giannis to keep getting better and healthier as the series goes on.

The long layoffs of the NBA Finals actually work to Milwaukee’s favor: game two is tomorrow night, but then game three in Milwaukee isn’t until Sunday, and then game four isn’t until Wednesday July 14. Game five, assuming the Bucks don’t get swept, is Saturday June 17, and then game six would be Tuesday July 20, with game seven scheduled for July 22nd. Those long breaks in between all the games following game two allow Giannis to get healthier and healthier.

Milwaukee is a much better team at home, too.

Still, all that said, Phoenix should feel good about game one as well. After all, they did win the game. And they did so on a night when Devin Booker shot 8-21. They should feel good that it looked like Milwaukee’s defense had no answer for them. Phoenix looked like they could do whatever the hell they wanted.

But Phoenix cannot count on Chris Paul scoring 32 points a game and having a free throw edge of 25 to 9 in terms of makes and 26-16 in terms of attempts. Especially not when the series goes back to Milwaukee.

I think this will be a long series. I hope it goes seven games.

***

I didn’t do a series prediction post for this Finals because I didn’t know if Giannis was going to play, and obviously in that situation I’m taking the Suns in either a sweep or five games. It wasn’t worth the time and effort to write a whole article about the series if the Suns were basically guaranteed to win it.

But now that Giannis looks like he’ll play in every game at a high level of effectiveness, it’s obviously a real series. People did not want to give the Bucks a chance in this series with or without Giannis, but the Bucks are more than capable of winning this Championship.

People say the Bucks had an easy path to the Finals because they played the injured Nets and Trae Young got hurt in the conference Finals. Well, the Suns also had an easier path due to injuries: the Lakers in round one, the Nuggets without Jamal Murray in round two, and the Kawhi-less Clippers in the Conference Finals.

I actually think it’s a very evenly-matched series. I’m going to take the Suns to win in seven games.

I think Giannis will eventually get a ring, but right now, it’s just Chris Paul’s time. He’s more desperate. He’s so close he can taste it. He’s not going to let it slip away.

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