Chris Paul propels Suns to victory in NBA Finals opener

In the first game of the NBA Finals of his 16-year NBA career, Chris Paul was ready and willing to take on any challenge.

The star point guard scored 32 points while handing out nine assists on Tuesday in the Phoenix Suns’ 118-105 victory over the visiting Milwaukee Bucks in Game 1.

Devin Booker contributed 27 points as the Suns relied on their confidence guard play, but Paul’s ability to control offense made the difference. The veteran shot 12 of 19 from the floor as the Bucks unsuccessfully tried to keep him with everyone.

“One thing we’re going to be ready for is every game,” Paul said. “We’re always talking about when preparation meets opportunity. During the shootout, coach (Monty Williams) said: “Go hoop. You know what to do.”

Deandre Ayton added 22 points and 19 rebounds for the Suns, who are playing their first NBA Finals since 1993. Phoenix has never won an NBA title.

Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo finished with 20 points and 17 rebounds in 35 minutes as he came back from a hypertensive left knee that caused him to miss the last two games of the Eastern Conference Finals. Khris Middleton scored 29 points for Milwaukee and Brook Lopez scored 17.

“I’m doing my best here not to put my knee down, but I’m going to say once again that my knee felt great,” Antetokounmpo said. “… At the end of the day, I’m over there. I feel good. I don’t feel any pain. I can run, I can jump, I can set up screens, I can bounce the ball.

“I’m happy.… I thought I was going to be out for a year, so I’m just happy, two games later I’m back.

The Bucks were quick to switch to a bigger player to keep Paul on the pick-and-roll, but they were exposed to doing so. Milwaukee coach Mike Budenholzer was already considering changes for Game 2.

“(Paul) is a good player, and their pick-and-roll game is difficult to protect,” Budenholzer said. “I think we have to keep improving. We’re going to watch the movie, see how we can maybe take some of the rhythm off or get to where it doesn’t quite fit so easily.

Paul scored 10 of Phoenix’s 12 points in 2:35 late in the third quarter to turn a Suns 74-62 lead into an 86-68 advantage. He scored 16 points in the third as the Suns outscored the Bucks 35-26 to take a 92-76 lead in the final period.

The Bucks reduced the deficit to 101-94 on an Antetokounmpo basket with 7:16 left before Booker and Paul made back-to-back baskets for the Suns. Milwaukee never got close to nine the rest of the way.

“When it goes like this (for Paul), you just want to space the floor well and let it work,” Williams said. “I thought he was playing the right games. They were trading a ton and… when he’s in that mode, you just feed off of it. “

Seemingly inspired by Antetokounmpo’s return, the Bucks took a 20-18 lead with 3:37 left in the first quarter. A Cameron Johnson 3-point seven seconds later gave the Suns a 21-20 advantage, and they were never led again, leading 30-26 at the end of the quarter and 57-49 at halftime.

Mikal Bridges finished the night with 14 points while Johnson and Cameron Payne had 10 each for the Suns. Phoenix starting forward Jae Crowder, the only player on either team with NBA Finals experience, scored a point and was 0-for-8 on the field.

Paul and Booker, who led the Suns in scoring during the regular season, were 20 of 40 on the field and 5 of 15 on 3 points. The Suns shot 32.4% (11 of 34) from range overall while the Bucks were at 44.4% (16 of 36).

“We play basketball a lot, watch a lot and our coaches have told us what to prepare for,” said Paul. “We played against these guys twice. We prepared for Giannis or not Giannis. We’re sure they’ll make adjustments before Game 2, and we’ll likely do the same.

Jrue Holiday compiled 10 points, nine assists and seven rebounds for the Bucks, who were just 9 of 16 on free kicks. Antetokounmpo was 7 of 12 in the line.

The Suns have made 25 of 26 free throws.

“They were on the free throw line a lot, and we have to do better with that,” Holiday said. “It’s a great free throw team. And I just think Chris Paul got a little too comfortable.

The Suns won despite losing great substitute Dario Saric to a knee injury in the first quarter. Saric entered the night averaging 4.8 points and 2.6 rebounds in 13 playoff games this year.

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