Paul, Relentless Suns Run Away In Game 1

(AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

The present day Phoenix Suns have already done one thing the 1993 Western Conference Champions team never did: win an NBA Finals home game.

The Valley Boys used a devastating third quarter, a near perfect night at the free throw line, and a 32-point, nine assist effort in Chris Paul’s Finals debut to pull away from the Milwaukee Bucks 118-105 Tuesday night in downtown Phoenix.

“I’m just so locked into the game,” Paul said when asked about if he heard the soldout crowd at all. “I’m really not paying attention to much…I’m just focusing on the task at hand.”

If the teams had Finals nerves when the ball was tipped, neither showed it.

The first quarter was played at breakneck pace with both starting fives willing to go up-tempo.  

Phoenix seemed to find their offensive rhythm midway through the quarter. A transition three-pointer by Cameron Payne forced a quick Milwaukee timeout as the Suns held a 24-20 lead.

The return of Giannis Antetokounmpo was evident from the start. He looked healthy, and a handful for Phoenix, with eight first quarter points.

Devin Booker was aggressive early, scoring 12 points as Phoenix held a 30-26 advantage after the first 12 minutes of play.

The frenetic pace continued in the second quarter, even as both coaches went to their bench.

Khris Middleton nearly single-handed erased a Bucks’ seven-point deficit with a driving layup and a step-in three and Brook Lopez was efficient both inside, and out, registering double-digit points (11) in the first half. 

However, Phoenix finished the half a perfect 12-12 from the line (Milwaukee was just 2-4) and took a 57-49 lead at intermission. Cam Johnson played well off the bench again, scoring six points with two rebounds and a pair of assists in nine minutes of action. Milwaukee’s big off-season acquisition Jrue Holiday struggled from the field in the first half (2-8) but dished out six assists.

The third quarter opened with an 8-3 Phoenix run and a quick Mike Budenholzer timeout after Mikal Bridges transition layup made it 65-52. 

The Suns’ offense continued to roll behind Paul as the lead ballooned to 78-62 with 4:42 left in the third quarter.

Phoenix finished the stanza strong, despite more offensive fireworks from Middleton (23 points through three quarters) and held a 92-76 lead going to the fourth behind Paul and Booker’s combined 49 points and 12 assists.

The Bucks chipped away and closed to within nine as Monty Williams called timeout midway through the quarter. 

Milwaukee would close to within seven before Phoenix clamped down defensively and Paul went coast-to-coast for an and-one with under four minutes to play as a boisterous Phoenix Suns Arena erupted. 

“When it’s going like that, you just want to space the floor well and let him orchestrate,” Williams said after the game. “He was making shots. When he’s in that mode. We just feed off of that.”

The Bucks scrambled for open shooters in the final three minutes but, by that point, the game was essentially over.

Booker didn’t shoot particularly well from the field (8-21) but was 10-10 from the line and finished with 27 points and six assists in a team-high 42 minutes.

Ayton’s stellar play continued with 22 points (8-10 shooting) and a game-high 19 rebounds.

“He’s just locked into the role,” Williams said of his fast-rising star. “He understands his role and how it can effect winning. He’s just a presence down there. He is a talented player.”

Bridges had 14, Johnson and Payne each finished with 10.

“We feed off each other,” Paul noted. “We just try to find a way to win.”

Phoenix made 25 of their 26 free throw attempts (96.2%) – which helped off-set a tough night shooting three’s (11-34).

Middleton paced the Bucks with 29 points but it took him 26 shots to get them (12-26). Antetokounmpo had 20 and 17 rebounds but struggled from the line (7-12). Lopez had 17 points and six rebounds.

Game 2 is Thursday night. Tip-time is set for 6:10.