Chris Paul has suffered a lot of playoff injuries in his career, and this year has been no different – from his shoulder problem in the first round, to his Covid-19 diagnosis, and then a right hand injury against the Clippers.
That had no effect on his will to win, though, and didn’t stop him from putting on a dominant display in the first NBA Finals game of his 16-year career. Paul isn’t the oldest player in the series, as he was born one day after Milwaukee’s PJ Tucker, but the impact he had on the game was absolute.
He started off slowly, going scoreless in the first quarter, but he started to get things going in the second. He had 11 points and 4 assists at halftime, and then put on a dominant second half to break the game open. Milwaukee simply had no answer for Paul, who poured on 16 points in the third quarter.
Some scary moments happened for Paul in the third quarter, too. Paul hit a three and was fouled by Brook Lopez, who closed in and didn’t give his opponent enough space to land. Paul tweaked his left ankle after landing on Lopez’s foot. He also seemed to get his left hand hurt on another possession in the quarter.
The Bucks, as they’ve shown in the playoffs, aren’t a team that goes away easily. They cut the lead back to single digits at 101-92 after a Pat Connaughton three with 7:46 left on the clock. Antetokounmpo then cut it to 101-94 before Devin Booker hit a huge three to bring to back to a 10-point lead.
Paul, just as he did in Game 6 against the Clippers, got involved when things started to look rough. In a sequence that started with 7:02 on the clock and ended with 5:14 left in the game, he assisted on Booker’s three, then stole the ball and forced a foul, hit a 22-foot stepback, and then had another assist for a Cameron Johnson jumper to make it 108-96 . He then scored his final points with 3:36 left in the game thanks to a crafty three-point play that gave him 32 points, 4 rebounds, 9 assists and a steal along with only two turnovers. He shot 12 of 19 from the field, 4 of 7 from three, and made all 4 free throws.
The Bucks never managed to rally, and the 118-105 final scoreline was indicative of how well the Suns played together as a unit. Chris Paul was their best player on the floor, and deserves all the plaudits heading his way, but his teammates answered the call, too.
Booker wasn’t afraid to take it to the hole, and he overcame a 1 of 8 performance from beyond the arc by making 7 of 13 of his two-pointers and all 10 of his free throws. He finished the game with 27 points, 2 rebounds, 6 assists and 3 steals.
DeAndre Ayton was dominant on the boards in the first half and almost finished with a double-double at halftime with 10 points and 8 rebounds. His soft touch around the rim allowed the Suns to hit him with a lot of floating passes that he finished with poise throughout the entire game. It’s almost comical, because within the flow of the game it’s often hard to notice that Ayton when having a big night, but by the time the dust settled he had 22 points and 19 rebounds.
Jae Crowder had 0 points at the half, but his defensive value can’t be overlooked. He helped the Suns blitz the Bucks and force shot changes, or passes thanks to smart coverage and rotations throughout the entire game. Just like Tucker on the Bucks, he’s got a knack for annoying much bigger players. He finished with 1 point, and that only happened because he got fouled in the game’s closing moments and split a pair of free throws. His final stat line of 1 point, 9 rebounds and 1 block is not indicative of the major impact he had on the floor.
The Suns’ two ‘Cams’ in Cameron Johnson and Cameron Payne chipped in 10 points apiece, providing good bench scoring during the moments where it looked like the Bucks might get themselves back in the game.
The Suns shot brilliantly from the free throw line. They made 25-straight free throws before Crowder missed the last one of the game to make it 25 of 26. They also reminded the Bucks that they’re not as easily bullied as the Hawks, as they outscored the away team 44-42 in the paint.
The Bucks got a big boost thanks to an early return for Giannis Antetokounmpo, who just last week hyperextended his knee.
Giannis Antetokounmpo looked labored at times, especially when there was a slowdown in play, but he was able to turn on the jets when it mattered. He seemed pretty healthy on the floor as he finished 20 points, 17 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 steals and an epic chasedown block.
Khris Middleton led the Bucks in scoring with 29 points, 7 rebounds and 4 assists. Jrue Holiday ended the game with 10 points, 7 rebounds, and 9 assists but went 4 of 14 from the field and missed all four of his three-pointers.
The Suns will be happy with their performance on both ends of the floor, and will be confident after a double digit win after only shooting 32.4% from three.
Paul, now slightly closer to his ultimate goal, is undoubtedly going to keep giving his all until the series is decided.