PHOENIX — Following the first practice this week with a slew of 2021 NBA Finals logos and posters draped around the arena, instead of the usual routine of receiving treatment and going home, nearly the entire Phoenix Suns squad hung around in the locker room for a few hours fellowshipping and taking in the moment.
“No one wanted to leave,” one team official told Yahoo Sports.
It was an impromptu meeting where players addressed the approach needed for Game 1, what to anticipate if Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo was a go and what it took for them to get to this point. They also discussed life in general.
The Suns are peaking at the right time on the court, but it’s their chemistry off the court and their genuine adoration for one another that empowers them to play with an ego-less, impassioned resolve.
It’s an essential ingredient as to why the Suns, with little to no postseason experience prior to this season, are taking down veteran teams with a postseason track record and Game 1 of the Finals on Tuesday was no different.
Chris Paul clenched early control of the Finals MVP award (he's the BetMGM favorite at -145) by scoring a game-high 32 points and distributing nine assists to escort the Suns to a 118-105 victory, moving three wins away from securing the franchise’s first NBA championship.
“I'm just so locked into the game I ain't really paying attention too much [to the environment],” Paul said. “Just trying to stay in the moment … But it's exciting. That's one win, and I think I'm just focused on the task at hand.”
Devin Booker chipped in with 27 points and six assists.
“You want to win every game, but especially the first game. It gives you a level of confidence,” Suns coach Monty Williams said. “Our starts over the course of the playoffs, when we start well, it tends to build confidence for our team.”
Khris Middleton led the offensive charge for the Bucks, scoring 29 points, pulling down seven boards and draining five triples.
Antetokounmpo made his return to the lineup after missing the last two games with a hyperextended left knee. He contributed 20 points and 17 rebounds, but it was noticeable that he still favored his knee at times and his conditioning wasn’t quite there yet.
“When the [injury] happened, I thought I'm going to be out for a year,” Antetokounmpo said. “I'm just happy that two games later, I'm back.”
Chris Paul, Deandre Ayton's exchange symbolizes team chemistry
To exhibit the closeness of this Suns team, a lighthearted exchange between Paul and Deandre Ayton toward the end of the game highlights it.
Seconds from going up 1-0, Paul and Ayton wrestled for a defensive rebound. Traditionally, guards relent to the bigs, but Paul snatched away what would have been Ayton’s 20th board and would have given him his first postseason 20-20 game (he finished with 22 points).
When the final buzzer sounded, Paul playfully turned to the coaching staff and then to Booker to call attention to how Ayton tried to confiscate his fourth rebound.
“Book got on [Chris]. I didn't really care,” Ayton said. “I was just happy how we all performed, to be honest.”
While Ayton was at the podium, Paul was sitting down in the back of the media room listening to his teammate.
“Just seeing him talk, just seeing the maturity in him not only as a basketball player but as a person,” Paul said of Ayton. “Everybody doesn't get a chance to know him off the court, but he has the biggest heart. One of the best guys you'll ever meet. So the success and the recognition that he's getting right now is well deserved, and I couldn't be happier for another guy on our team.”
“We have been on [Ayton’s] ass,” he said. “That's why Chris can say that's who he's most proud of, and I feel the same way because sometimes you walk around the court, Chris will be talking to him and I'll be waiting right there. ‘You done, Chris? All right, let me go tell him something.’ So we're all in his ear. We're all on him. And for him to retain all that information and come perform at the level that he's been performing, it's hard to put words to it because we have been tough on him. And he has gone through his phases in his NBA career, but since this playoffs has started you've seen his maturity and his growth grow to a whole 'nother level, and he's continuing to get better.”
How the Bucks must adjust for NBA Finals Game 2
Jrue Holiday struggled in his first Finals appearance, going 4-of-14 from the field for 10 points. But he tallied a team-high nine assists and grabbed seven rebounds.
The Suns targeted Bobby Portis in the second half in getting the pick to make him switch out defensively on Paul. Paul is one of the all-time greatest table-setters, and he feasted on Portis.
“Chris Paul, he's been a bucket, man,” Booker said. “… He’s the greatest leader to play this game. But he's been a bucket for a very long time. And my six years of playing against him, or five years of playing against him, you understand that. There's no scouting report that says Chris Paul can't get a bucket.”
Game 2 will be Thursday in Phoenix. If the Bucks wish to leave Arizona with a split, they know they’ll have to do a better job defending Paul.
“Their pick-and-roll game is tough to guard,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “I think we have to just keep getting better. We have to keep looking at the film and see how we can maybe take away some of the rhythm, or make it where [Paul’s] not getting into his spots as easily. That will be a big part of looking between Game 1 and Game 2.”
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