Until Tuesday night, the Phoenix Suns hadn’t played in an NBA Finals game since 1993, when the Western Conference champions, led by Charles Barkley, were defeated by Micheal Jordan and the Chicago Bulls 4-2. But that’s not as long as the drought of their opponent in this year’s championship, the Milwaukee Bucks, who last appeared in the Finals in 1974, losing to the Boston Celtics 4-3.
A Bucks victory would be their second after a 4-0 series sweep against the Baltimore Bullets in 1971, as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the Finals MVP, and Oscar Robinson earned rings. The Suns are looking to win the franchise’s first title ever. These Finals are also the first for future Hall of Famer Chris Paul, who is a sentimental favorite to add the only major accomplishment not on his resume.
Paul, 36, the president of the National Basketball Players Association since 2013, is an 11-time NBA All-Star and 10-time All-NBA selection. He dropped 37 points in the close-out game against the Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference finals, 41 in Game 6 of the conference finals as the Suns ended the Los Angeles Clippers season, and continued his exceptional play in Game 1 of the Finals on Tuesday night, scoring 32 points with nine assists as the Suns struck first at home, beating the Bucks 118-105.
Game 2 is tonight in Phoenix and the best-of-seven series will move to Milwaukee for Games 3 (Sunday) and 4 (next Wednesday). Paul said the layoff—the Suns knocked out the Clippers on June 30—had him anxious to get back on the court after a long layoff and plotting how to attack the Bucks’ tough defense.
“I was watching them soccer games,” said Paul after the Suns’ win over the Bucks. “I watched a hockey game last night. I’m watching that like, ‘Damn, how do they know to pass it there?’ And they probably think the same thing with us. But we do this so often, and we have seen just about every coverage you could possibly see, so it’s second nature.”
The return of Giannis Antetokounmpo, who sat out Games 5 and 6 of the Eastern Conference finals versus the Atlanta Hawks after hyperextending his left knee in Game 4, didn’t present an obstacle for Paul and the Suns. Antetokounmpo, a two-time league MVP, looked healthy and explosive. He had 20 points, 17 rebounds and four assists, but the Suns, who also got strong contributions from guard Devin Booker (27 points) and center Deandre Ayton (22 points and 19 rebounds), had more balance, placing six players in double figures. Khris Middleton was the Bucks’ leading scorer with 27.
But it was Paul who controlled the tempo. “When it’s going like that, you just want to space the floor well and let him orchestrate,” said Suns head coach Monty Williams. “He was making shots, and when he’s in that mode, we just feed off of that.”
Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer said the Bucks will make defensive adjustments. “Their pick-and-roll game is tough to guard. I think we have to just keep getting better,” he pointed out. “We have to keep looking at the film and see how we can maybe take away some of the rhythm or make it where he’s not getting into his spots as easily. That will be a big part of looking between Game 1 and Game 2.”