There is an axiom that a playoff series does not truly begin until one team wins on the road. E quello, per la maggior parte, è vero. Eppure potresti essere perdonato per aver guardato Phoenix's 118-105 home victory over Milwaukee on Tuesday night and wondering if the Suns’ coronation is already a done deal.
As always with these things, it was the manner of the result rather than the result itself.
Any notions that the Suns would be inhibited early in the series by the naivety of their young core and the nerves of their leader Chris Paul – playing in his first NBA finals series in his 16-year career – were blown away early in the first quarter.
From the off, the Suns were smart, in control, and relentless on both ends of the floor. They harried on defense. The Bucks had no response for the dribble-and-drive of Phoenix’s star-studded backcourt. Deandre Ayton’s rim-running and rebounding wreaked havoc on Milwaukee’s defensive set-up, a hodgepodge of ideas that never coalesced into a real, coherent plan. But then again is there any sort of plan that can slow down the Suns’ combination of shooting and size?
The night belonged to Paul. Thirty-two points, nine assists and four rebounds, all delivered with his trademark bark, scowl, and swagger. Even at 36, even when hobbling on one leg and dealing with an aching arm, his genius remains in full bloom.
All it took was a look, a wink, a smile, a pat on the shoulders, to see that Paul had esso. He was calm among the frenzy. He drove and dished, then he drove and dished some more. When the Suns needed him to drift into scorer mode, he responded by torching each of Milwaukee’s bigs, until Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer had no choice but to remove his giants from the game.
How do you deal with a perfectionist like Paul? Force the ball out of his hands and into those of the ever-ready Devin Booker? That won’t work. How about squeezing up beyond the three point-line and forcing Paul to play through the team’s big man? Paul has an answer for that, pure: Deandre Ayton.
Ayton, the former No 1 overall pick, capped his transformative postseason with a finals debut to remember: 22 points on eight-of-10 shooting, 19 rebounds (with Paul robbing him of a 20-20 night late in the game), and a perfect six-for-six from the foul line. To think, not six months ago, Paul regularly berated Ayton mid-game, frustrated by the center’s lack of basketball intuition. Paul’s passing intellect is supposed to make the game easy for his centers. Why was Ayton so insistent on making everything so hard?
But now he’s the team’s defensive stopper and the kind of marauding screen-setter and lob-finisher who tips the offensive scales decisively in the Suns’ favour. When you find yourself in exclusive company with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, you’ve had a good night. “I couldn’t be happier for another guy on our team,” Paul said after the game.
The Bucks will rally. Despite hyperextending his knee six days ago, Giannis Antetokounmpo was able to get onto the floor for Game 1. He wasn’t at his bulldozing best – he, understandably, flagged as the game moved into the third and fourth quarters – but he showed just enough of his jump-on-my-cape brilliance to give Phoenix cause to pause.
The Bucks could not have asked for much more from their star man: 35 minuti, 20 points, 17 rebounds, four assists, and one what-in-the-world-just-happened chase-down block.
Playoff series are all about adjustments. Moves and counter moves. You try one thing, then another. You grow and learn and build throughout a series. There were seeds of something in Milwaukee’s late-game plan. They closed the game by playing Antetokounmpo at the five rather than out on the wing, perhaps the team’s only chance to reduce the number of favourable matchups for Phoenix whenever Paul and Co have the ball.
When Giannis sits deep as the team’s primary rim protector, the Bucks are able to get a little more frisky defensively; they can more effortlessly jump between the drop-and-hope style they’ve been playing throughout the playoffs and the all-attack style that they’ve shown in spurts.
The blitzing, switching, Giannis-roaming scheme that forces quicker decisions is the Bucks’ only shot at making the Suns’ primary playmakers uncomfortable. It forces the team’s shooters to hit shots over the top of the defense rather than driving into the paint and then pulling up for easier baskets. But it’s a style that saps the Bucks’ star player. Is it worth squeezing extra juice out of Giannis on the defensive end if it restricts him as the fulcrum of Milwaukee’s offense?
Budenholzer threw a little of everything at the Suns on Tuesday, probing for a path forward: Milwaukee switched up their defensive coverages; they shifted Antetokounmpo’s positioning; they went over screens; they went under screens; they blitzed early in the shot clock; they blitzed late in the shot clock.
Whatever adjustment you can think of, they tried it, hoping that one would present a road map for Game 2 and beyond – they might have lost the game, but finding any sort of tactical advantage moving forward, particularly with a less than 100% Antetokounmpo, would have been an almighty win.
But all were duds. Save for Antetokounmpo at the five, nothing could slow the Suns. Paul is too quick, too smart, for any such adjustments. He’s seen it all before. Give him enough looks at a defense, and he’ll figure it out.
It was a game that presented a worrying formula to all those with a Milwaukee rooting interest: The Bucks shot well from three – 16-for-36 (44.4%), made savvy adjustments, and got more than anticipated from their star man. None of it was enough. With three minutes remaining in the third quarter, the Suns were up by 20 and cruising.
If Antetokounmpo is able to play without any restrictions by the time the series moves to Milwaukee – a big ‘if’ – then we will have a true finals matchup. If he remains compromised, there is little evidence the Bucks can solve the Paul-Booker-Ayton-Bridges puzzle.