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Returning to work, school or any other obligations after partying for the entire three-day weekend is not nearly as bad when the NBA Finals are your treat for the evening. It’s one of the most bittersweet times of the year, as the two best teams in the league take to the biggest stage of all, but nightly basketball has officially come to an end. The Phoenix Suns and the Milwaukee Bucks have both defeated worthy opponents to get to where they are today, including the defending champions in the Los Angeles Lakers and the borderline All-Star team in the Brooklyn Nets, respectively. Now, it all comes down to whoever wins four games first, and then the trophy is theirs for good.
Suns 118, Bucks 105 (PHO leads series 1-0)
The Phoenix Suns had a dominant showing in Game 1 of the NBA Finals on Tuesday evening, clinching a 13-point victory highlighted by an incredibly solid team effort. Everyone has been talking about the Big Three that the Bucks have, but if tonight was any indication, the Suns have a trio to be reckoned with as well in Chris Paul, Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton. This was Paul’s first Finals game of his career, and he was clearly ready for the moment, notching a game-high 32 points on 12-of-19 shooting with four rebounds, nine assists, a steal, four triples and just two turnovers in 37 minutes. Make that 36.5 points per game for the Point God in his last two games of these playoffs, and for everyone constantly criticizing Paul for not taking more shots, his efforts in these last two games in particular should quiet them for the time being. CP3 was also scoreless in the first quarter, but woke up in the second with 11 and the third with 16, and the Bucks do not want to see him rolling like he was tonight. He’s dealing with torn ligaments in his hand due to a Terance Mann swipe-down in the last series, and he looked to tweak his ankle after Brook Lopez intruded on his landing space in what turned out to be a four-point-play, but Paul is as tough as they come and did not look affected by either injury. Just another reminder that he’s 36 years old, and he’s just the third player in NBA Finals history to score 30+ points on the big stage at his age or older, joining Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Tim Duncan. To keep going, this is the first time since 2008 that he has scored 30+ points in back-to-back playoff games, and is the first player with at least 30 points and eight dimes in a Finals debut since Michael Jordan in 1991. It will be extremely difficult to find a single person that will be upset if Chris Paul wins a championship this season, and rooting against him probably won’t go well for you.
Devin Booker was not half-bad either, as his first Finals game saw a stat line inclusive of 27 points, two boards, six assists, three steals, one 3-pointer and three turnovers in 42 minutes. He only shot 8-of-21 from the floor, his inefficiency mostly due to his 1-of-8 mark from downtown, but he and Chris Paul’s mid-range game was unstoppable tonight. This dynamic duo continues to prove that the mid-range game is not dead, and as long as Brook Lopez continues to switch onto them, they should get easy jumpers all series long. Deandre Ayton was fantastic too, hitting 8-of-10 shots for 22 points, 19 rebounds, a steal and zero turnovers, and if there were any complaints at all, it’s that he somehow didn’t block a single shot in his 39 minutes. He had plenty of easy looks that were a result of the Bucks being lost on defense, but he made some nice moves in the paint as well to round out his ever-growing offensive display. He joins LeBron James and Pau Gasol as the only guys in the last 15 years to have at least 18 points and 18 boards in the Finals, and he did so in his Finals debut to make it all the more impressive. Ayton is also the first player to get a 15/15 line in a Finals debut since Tim Duncan in 1999, and the company that he joined tonight could definitely be far worse to say the least.
The Suns supporting cast was stellar too, as Mikal Bridges finally came alive with 14 points and two triples, and this is a wonderful sight to see from someone who scored in single digits in four of the six games in the Western Conference Finals. Cam Johnson and Cameron Payne matched their points just like they match their names, scoring 10 points each off the bench, and continue to just be so consistent and reliable in reserve roles. Jae Crowder missed all eight of his field goals, scoring just a single point with nine rebounds and a block, but his defense on Giannis Antetokounmpo and anyone he happened to switch onto was phenomenal all night.
If you had told someone that the Bucks lost Game 1 after making 16 of their 36 three-pointers (44.4%) with their best player (rather surprisingly, at that) suiting up and looking like himself, they wouldn’t believe you. However, both of these things happened, and they still lost by double-digits, so we have to continue to give the Suns a ton of credit. Also, Milwaukee has simply not been good in Game 1s, losing five of their last six Game 1s dating back to last season. Giannis Antetokounmpo completed the full injury-report cycle, going from doubtful to questionable to active, but he really did not look to be in any sort of pain out there, with the opening possession being a lob attempt to Giannis being a huge sign of encouragement from the opening seconds. The Greek Freak was rather quiet for his standards, shooting just 11 times and scoring 20 points to go along with 17 rebounds, four assists, two steals, a block, one 3-pointer and three turnovers in 35 minutes. It is remarkable that Giannis went from fearing an ACL tear to playing in a Finals game in a week-long span, but he looked great out there for the most part. He’ll need to make more than six field goals in Game 2 if the Bucks want a chance at this, but the fact that he’s playing fairly heavy minutes off the bat is enough for now. He still can’t make his free throws, going 7-of-12 from that distance, and you have to wonder if Monty Williams and the Suns will utilize a hack-a-Giannis method at any point in this series.
Khris Middleton led the team with 29 points (12-of-26 FG, 5-of-12 FT), seven rebounds, four assists, no defensive stats and five turnovers in 45 minutes, and it looks like he’ll have to be this good or even better to keep up with Phoenix. Jrue Holiday was quiet again, averaging one field goal per 10 minutes of action (4-of-14 FG in 40 minutes) to notch a 10/7/9 line with no three-pointers and three turnovers. He has to be much, much better on the offensive end, and it has been proven a handful of times that when he, Middleton and Giannis have it going, they’re basically impossible to beat. Brook Lopez had 17 points despite Giannis returning, also tallying six boards, a dime, a block and three 3-pointers, but played just 23 minutes due to his incapability to guard on switches (he was also a team-worst -17 net rating). It’s hard to tell if Coach Bud will make adjustments and play more Bobby Portis (five points and three boards in 14 minutes) due to Lopez being such a liability on defense, but no one knows what in the world he’ll have as a plan going into Game 2. Portis was awesome in the last two games against the Hawks (especially Game 5), so it’s a bit perplexing why he only played 14 minutes after helping them escape the Eastern Conference Finals. As we’ve said, though, Coach Bud will be Coach Bud, and no one can possibly predict what kind of schemes and rotations he’ll come up with for Game 2.
Adam Silver’s Notes
Adam Silver spoke with the media ahead of Game 1 of the NBA Finals, addressing various topics along the way. For starters, he said that it still isn’t clear if the Raptors will be able to return to playing in Toronto when next season comes around, but both the Raptors franchise and the league in general are hopeful that they can do so. The Raptors weren’t their best in the 2020-2021 season, going full tank mode seemingly as soon as the season started. Sure, they faced their fair share of injuries, but it just doesn’t look like they wanted it at any point. A lot of factors, one being where they play their home games, will determine what kind of team they will be come October.
Another thing Silver noted was this season’s revenue situation. He had initially anticipated that NBA revenue would be down about 40%, but the statistics show that, since getting fans back, he sees being down about one-third as a more realistic dip. This is great news for the state of the league, and assuming all goes well, all stadiums should be back to full capacity next season, ditching the ideas of both the NBA Bubble and limited capacities once and for all.
The play-in tournament that the seventh through tenth seeds in each conference played this season looks like it’s here to stay. Adam Silver said that, while he does need player and team approval, his expectation is that the play-in will be a part of next season and emphasized that it was an overall positive aspect of this silly season. Everyone has their issues with it, but any unique implementation into the NBA that avoids half of the league tanking for the last quarter of the season is probably why Silver is a fan of it.
The media additionally inquired about potential expansion of the league, but Silver confirmed that it is not a priority at this moment. There’s no saying what a couple more teams would do for the league (besides bring in more cash, of course), but the sad, patient, and diehard Seattle natives will have to wait even longer until they get a taste of what the Supersonics did for 41 seasons. Looks like it will just be coffee at the Space Needle for a while longer – sorry, Seattle.
It’s not a secret that Kawhi Leonard himself basically created the concept of load management, and since the trend has become more popular, the stats are very interesting. So far, the data says that load management does not actually keep players more healthy – this season, load management was up about 100%, and injuries were too. Of course, this is not the only variable to consider, as many of the Bubble teams had just a couple of months off in between seasons to rest, train, and get ready to give it another go. This is a complex issue that will require plenty of research, and we may not have a concise answer for another few years, but we should be able when the sample size is a bit larger. For what it’s worth, neither the Suns or the Bucks relied on load management at all this season, so that’s a tiny aspect to consider as well.
USA Select Team
The USA Select team is comprised of 13 young guns and four veterans that get the honor of training with the USA National team for a few days. The team this year is highlighted by guys like Tyrese Haliburton, Anthony Edwards, Tyler Herro and many other young stars in the making.
USA Select Team coach Erik Spoelstra had high praise for a handful of guys when speaking on Tuesday, starting with Pistons members Saddiq Bey and Isaiah Stewart. Coach Spo said that “They’re in a great program for development under coach Casey. We saw it firsthand where they were at the beginning of the year to who they were at the end.” Bey and Stewart were arguably the two best Pistons post All-Star break, and for those of you looking for way-too-early fantasy sleepers, these two should be on your radar. Bey has already proven his ability to hit a ton of threes, rebound and steal the ball, while Stewart can board and block with a ceiling that is unknown so far. If the Pistons take another year or two to rebuild, take a long look at these guys in fantasy drafts for next season.
Spoelstra also had high praise for Bulls rookie Patrick Williams, calling him a “physical specimen” with great versatility. He said that his offensive game has already grown, and he looks to make a stride in his second year. Zach LaVine gave Williams some advice as well, telling the 19-year-old to embrace every opportunity and to be a sponge throughout the whole process. Tyler Herro was another name that came up this afternoon, personally stating that his goal was to get stronger and “into an NBA body.” Per social media, he’s already working on this and will look to be more like Bubble-Herro than second-year Herro, and he also said that he loves having coach Spoelstra as a coach and “plan[s] on playing for him for a while.” Heat fans should be very pleased with this statement from Herro, as he’s one of those guys that could need just one big season to be on the cusp of stardom in this league.
Looking ahead: We only get one NBA game every other night at best from this point on, and if you’re like me, this is both the best and worst part of the season. Game 2 will take place on Thursday evening in Phoenix, and for the time being, it truly looks like Giannis and the Bucks will have their hands full.