A Game 1 loss for the Milwaukee Bucks would have been major trouble in any other situation. However, given that franchise cornerstone Giannis Antetokounmpo isn’t 100% yet and just returned from a two-game absence (much to the apprehensions of medical practitioners everywhere), this loss looks like something to build on rather than be demoralized on.
Sure, the Phoenix Suns took Game 1 with a 118-105 win, but all things considered, this should have been a bigger blowout. Devin Booker did most of his damage from the free throw line and apart from him, Chris Paul, and Deandre Ayton, the two other starters in Mikal Bridges and Jae Crowder were a combined 5-for-21.
It was a close game for much of the first half, with the Bucks and the Suns trading blows until the latter slowly distanced themselves from the former with an 11-4 run that gave them a 57-49 lead entering halftime. Phoenix extended their lead to as many as 20 points in the second half and adjusted their defensive game plan on Antetokounmpo as they let him become more of a facilitator than scorer. Another part of their success in Game 1 was their accuracy at the free throw line.
For the game, the Suns missed only one of their 26 free throw attempts, with Booker responsible for 10 of those made free throws. If not for Jae Crowder’s miss at the end of the game, they would have completed a perfect outing. Meanwhile, Antetokounmpo had 12 of Milwaukee’s 16 attempts at the free throw line, making seven of them despite the jeers and counts from the crowd in Phoenix.
Free throws aside, the Greek Freak was active early in Game 1, drawing a foul on the alley-oop to begin the game. He also scored on a turnaround jumper where he landed on the injured left knee and looked fine putting weight on it. The two-time MVP, who also played 35 minutes in Game 1, also had no problems bullying his way to the basket for easy dunks and layups.
Beyond the scoring, Antetokounmpo made his impact through aggressive rebounds (he finished with a team-high 17 boards) and taking turns with Jrue Holiday in bringing down the ball and running the offense. It’s also safe to say the 2019-2020 Defensive Player of the Year wasn’t really bothered by his left knee issue as he also had the defensive highlight of the game.
Thanks to Antetokounmpo, things opened up for his teammates and he has always been an able and willing passer in these situations. Converting on these opportunities, however, is another matter altogether.
The Bucks missed a lot of open shots especially inside the paint. Easy misses have a way of rattling one’s confidence, even if players wouldn’t care to admit it. Holiday had a quiet 10 points, nine rebounds, and seven assists, but he had as many missed shots as points and looked far from the one that helped take down the Atlanta Hawks in Game 6. They’ll need more from him, especially in terms of taking advantage of mismatches.
Bucks fans, however, have to love the aggression Antetokounmpo played with even with the concerns about his knee. He took most of his shots inside and had his midrange game going. He will just have to continue getting into game shape as 35 minutes from the jump can take its toll on the body, especially when recovering from a serious injury.
Defensive adjustments on Paul and even Booker are obvious but what Milwaukee must focus on moving forward should be containing Ayton. His 22 points stick out like a sore thumb for them especially given that they were outscored 44-42 in the paint, but it’s the Bahamian center’s 19 rebounds that proved to be painful.
Prior to these finals, the Bucks were the best offensive rebounding team in the playoffs at 12.7 per game. Although they had nine in Game 1 of the finals, Ayton was largely responsible for containing that and limiting the extra possessions Milwaukee thrives with. Moving forward, keeping him on the perimeter could be a better option to open things up on both ends of the floor.
All things considered, the Suns were supposed to win Game 1 with their home court advantage. Game 2 has the Suns favored again but with the Bucks slowly rounding into form (barring any unfortunate setbacks), they could potentially steal a game (and momentum) before heading back to their own fortress in Milwaukee.