Tuesday night, the Phoenix Suns bested the Milwaukee Bucks in game 1 of the NBA Finals 118-105. In what was an electric start to the series, we witnessed moving parts on both teams critical to success or failure in each game and the entire series.
This post is a brief look at storylines, matchups, and potential adjustments that may carry over into game 2.
Solving The Pick-And-Roll
A potential Bucks defensive problem mentioned in the District of Buckets Finals Preview went from theory to fact early in game 1.
The Suns used Deandre Ayton as a screener early and often to create action on the pick and roll. Ayton (or whoever is being guarded by Brook Lopez) as the screener creates scoring opportunities for Phoenix and pressure for Milwaukee.
Ayton set solid screens that made it tough for Bucks defenders to chase Phoenix’s guards. Milwaukee also switched many of these screens set by Ayton and left Brook Lopez on an island against Chris Paul (32pts) and Devin Booker (27pts) all night.
The Suns’ first eight points of the game came from forcing Lopez switches. Lopez switches also open up a pass to Deandre Ayton in the paint after he rolls to the basket against a smaller defender.
Ayton’s finishing around the rim is stellar. He finished the game with 23 points and 19 rebounds on 8-of-10 shooting.
The Bucks played a small lineup to adjust to the play of the Suns’ guards. They sometimes ran Giannis at center. They also brought in Bobby Portis and Pat Connaughton to put more athleticism on the court and allow them to switch. However, this couldn’t last long since Brook Lopez was one of the few Bucks scoring the ball in the first half.
Lopez ended the game with 17 points. But the groove that Chris Paul found after the early Lopez switches led to his domination of the contest. Chris Paul finished the game with 32 points and nine assists.
Next game, I expect the Bucks to find more scoring outside of Lopez and work to keep more athleticism and quickness on the court if they plan to switch everything on the pick-and-roll.
Jrue Holiday, Khris Middleton and Giannis Antetokounmpo
Plenty needs to happen for the Bucks offensively to keep pace with the Suns. First, they need more out of Jrue Holiday. Holiday finished with 10 points, seven rebounds, and nine assists but the issue Tuesday night was his shooting. Holiday was 4-for-14 from the field and 0-of-4 from the three-point line.
Holiday is a better offensive player than he showed in game 1, and in game 2 he needs to use his size advantage over Chris Paul and attack the basket.
Giannis Antetokounmpo proved the hyperextended knee that kept him out of two Eastern Conference Finals games is healthy enough to make LeBron-Esque chase-down blocks and power through Deandre Ayton in the paint on offense.
However, by the end of the third quarter, he looked gassed. Coming back after an absence is hard to do in an NBA playoff series, so it may take a few games for the Greek Freak to play with his usual motor for four quarters.
Antetokounmpo finished with 20 points, 17 rebounds, four assists, two steals, and one block. A solid stat line for anyone who played 35 minutes. Despite shooting an efficient 6-of-11 from the field, there were times that the superstar looked passive on the offensive end.
A PASSIVE GIANNIS WILL NOT WIN GAMES IN THE VALLEY. I expect by game 3 of the series—assuming his knee holds up—Giannis will play with an offensive motor that matches what he has on the defensive end.
Lastly, for Milwaukee, All-Star Khris Middleton—who led the Bucks scoring with 29 points last night—needs to have the scoring outburst he displayed in the second half earlier in the game. Middleton’s scoring allows the Bucks to keep pace and even helped cut a 20 point Suns’ second-half lead to single digits.
Booker and Crowder 3pt Shooting
Almost everything went right for the Suns last night—except for Jae Crowder and Devin Booker knocking down their long-distance attempts.
Booker (1-for-8) and Crowder (0-for-5) shooting poorly is something I don’t expect to continue, but as the series progresses and changes location in game 3, establishing a rhythm beyond the arc to prepare for the road is crucial for Suns success.
A Shift In Foul Calls
One thing to look for in future finals games, especially game 2, is a potential shift in foul calls. At home in game 1, the Suns were 25-of-26 from the free-throw line. The Bucks were 9-of-16. The Suns receiving 10 more free-throw attempts is rooted in some questionable no-calls against the Bucks.
When this happens, a righting of the wrong by the officiating crew is due. The free-throw attempts for both teams should be closer to even in game 2.
Game 2 Predictions
I’m predicting a closer finish down the stretch—within five points *wink*—and still taking the Suns in game 2. I think Phoenix will ride the energy of the crowd in the Valley and will be difficult to stop offensively.
The silver lining for the Bucks is they can figure out exactly what works well for them and use it to capture some wins when the series switches location to Milwaukee.
We will find out if I’m right when game 2 tips-off Thursday night on ABC at 9:00p.m EST
Game 1 box score: LINK
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