Bucks need Giannis at his best after Suns race into series lead in NBA Finals
Giannis Antetokounmpo is back but not at full strength, with the Phoenix Suns leading the Milwaukee Bucks heading into Game 2.
An uncharacteristically speedy Phoenix Suns performance left a half-fit Giannis Antetokounmpo and his Milwaukee Bucks chasing shadows in Game 1 of the NBA Finals.
The Suns, who had 98 possessions per game in the regular season (ranking 24th), had 102 possessions on Tuesday as the usually more methodical Chris Paul picked up the pace.
Point guard Paul, 36, was the standout star as he belatedly made his Finals debut, finishing with 32 points and nine rebounds in a 118-105 Phoenix win.
Only Michael Jordan in 1991 had previously tallied 30 or more points and eight or more assists in a first career Finals game.
Even as the Suns attacked apace, Paul's steady hand limited the Western Conference outfit to nine turnovers – of which just two were his – to Milwaukee's 13.
The series is far from over ahead of Thursday's Game 2, but the Bucks need a response and will hope Antetokounmpo, their own elite performer, can provide it.
The 'Greek Freak' recovered from a hyperextended left knee sustained in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals to start the opener in Phoenix and initially impressed.
Antetokounmpo had eight points, five rebounds and two assists in a first quarter in which he played just over eight minutes, but he had only improved to 13 points by the end of the third.
Antetokounmpo hopes to improve for Game 2
"I wasn't nervous about my knee, I wasn't thinking about my knee," Antetokounmpo said on Wednesday.
"But hopefully, going into Game 2, I can feel more comfortable, more confident of going downhill, making more plays. We'll see. We'll see how it's going to be. Hopefully I can be in a position where I can make more plays."
Although the two-time MVP just about finished with a positive plus/minus, Milwaukee require more from their talisman – especially if the supporting cast continue to fluff their lines.
Khris Middleton had 29 points but five turnovers and just four assists; Jrue Holiday (10 points, eight rebounds, nine assists) was close to one of the most underwhelming triple-doubles in Finals history; Brook Lopez was a defensive liability, his -17 plus/minus a miserable game low.
Antetokounmpo, Middleton and Holiday are on course to become the first trio of team-mates to each average at least 15.0 points, 5.0 rebounds and 5.0 assists in the same postseason, but none of them reached that mark in Game 1.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Milwaukee Bucks – Jrue Holiday
The Bucks gave up two first-round draft picks and two potential pick swaps to get Holiday. With limited assets left, they need this to work. In Game 1, it did not. The All-Defensive First Team selection has been frustratingly inconsistent and his four steals in Game 6 against the Atlanta Hawks were followed by none against the Suns.
As Milwaukee switched on defense, Paul – Holiday's direct opponent at point guard – found joy with 27 points across the second and third quarters combined before the former New Orleans Pelican took matters into his own hands. "I really just saw him being aggressive, so at that point I felt like I wanted to just annoy him, get him off rhythm, make him pass the ball and take tough shots," Holiday said. "That's something we're going to have to make an adjustment to in Game 2."
Phoenix Suns – Deandre Ayton
The Suns have a significant drop-off at center, with Dario Saric tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee in Game 1, meaning Frank Kaminsky may now have to be trusted with playoff minutes. Fortunately, starter Deandre Ayton has shown himself capable of more than making up the deficit during his time on the floor.
A breakout postseason continued against the Bucks as Ayton finished with 22 points and 19 rebounds for a fourth consecutive double-double. It is tough to see how Milwaukee can live with the Phoenix big man, who shot eight-for-10 from the field and made all of his free throws – indeed, the Suns only missed once from the foul line.
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