PHOENIX — Deandre Ayton soared for a defensive rebound and located Phoenix Suns starting point guard Chris Paul. From there, the Suns went back to work.
Paul dribbled to the right elbow extended, awaiting a screen from Ayton. Phoenix’s starting center set the pick, rolled to the rim and finished with a two-handed lob dunk, sending the Suns’ crowd into a continued frenzy.
Like a surgeon operating on their patient, the Suns were meticulous in how they broke down the Milwaukee Bucks’ defense. At times, Paul sliced through the pick-and-roll and hit his patented mid-range jumper. Suns starting shooting guard Devin Booker initiated contact and got to the free-throw line. And Ayton — arguably the key to the Suns’ operation this postseason — continued to own the paint.
Such was the procedure that led to Phoenix’s 118-105 win over the Bucks in Game 1 of the NBA Finals at Phoenix Suns Arena on Tuesday night. Booker, Paul and Ayton combined for 81 points — their second-highest total this postseason — and showed their dominance as a trio on the biggest stage.
But the buildup to their success was not easy.
“It’s been a lot, it’s been a lot,” Paul said. “It was some tough ones (conversations).”
Constructing the Suns’ three-headed snake was never going to be straightforward. Paul, a 15-year veteran who made the playoffs in all but three seasons, joined a Phoenix team this offseason that had not made the postseason in over a decade. Booker, despite being an up-and-coming star, was doubted for his ability to lead a winning franchise, and Ayton was heavily questioned as the No. 1 pick in the 2018 draft.
There was a lot of work to do and not a lot of time to do it. Courtesy of the NBA’s compressed schedule due to the 2020 Orlando Bubble and COVID-19 restrictions, the Suns had less practice time, a short break between games and not a lot of moments for bonding. They made it work anyway.
Paul and Booker set the tone as leaders, inviting the team to their houses for get-togethers whenever they could. Ayton, who admittedly skipped non-mandatory days in the past, committed himself to extra work.
As elder statesmen as the most important players on their respective teams, Booker and Paul got on Ayton “a lot,” pushing him to meet the criteria of his draft status. But there wasn’t any pushback — only receptiveness.
“It’s just the respect level,” Ayton said. “Like you say, we all got on each other, had candid conversations where we had to adjust. But candid conversations leads to wins, and it started to be great communication and constructive criticism and we just all take it into a positive and play together.”
There was no interruption to how Booker, Paul and Ayton played off each other on Tuesday night. Booker, who ranked among the top players in the league in first-quarter scoring in the regular season, had 12 points in the opening period, enabled by a 6-of-6 clip at the free-throw line.
Booker finished with 16 of his 27 points by halftime, allowing Paul to get into a rhythm. He had 11 of his 32 points in the second quarter and 16 in the third, including 10 of Phoenix’s 12 points from 5:18 to 2:43 left in the period, when it built an 18-point lead.
With the Bucks playing in drop pick-and-roll coverage — encouraging Phoenix to shoot from mid-range in an effort to protect the paint — the Suns took full advantage. They had 29 points over only 19 isolation possessions, according to Synergy Sports, and also busted Milwaukee with switches in which starting center Brook Lopez and backup forward Bobby Portis guarded Paul and Booker.
In his NBA Finals debut, Paul finished with 32 points on 12-of-19 shooting with nine assists. It was the first time a player had at least 30 points and eight assists in their Finals debut since Michael Jordan in 1991.
“When it’s going like that, you just want to space the floor well and let him orchestrate,” Suns coach Monty Williams said. “I thought he was making the right plays, they were switching a ton and we have to offer that space and play faster if he gets off of the ball. But he was making shots, and when he’s in that mode, we just feed off of that.”
Once the Bucks were spread out, their bigs higher on the perimeter, Ayton made his mark. He had 12 of his 22 points in the second half, diving to the bucket once Paul and Booker methodically strung Milwaukee out of the paint.
For the fourth time this postseason, Ayton had at least 20 points on 80 percent shooting, the most by a player during a playoff run in the shot-clock era. He is only the second player after Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to post at least 20 points and 15 rebounds on 70 percent shooting in a Finals debut.
Players with 20+ PTS, 15+ REB, 80+ FG% in a Finals game in the shot clock era (since 1955):— StatMuse (@statmuse) July 7, 2021
Deandre Ayton pic.twitter.com/r6ARRXeanx
His efficiency has made Paul very proud. But Ayton’s maturity pleased him even more.
“I sat in the background during DA’s press conference right now, just seeing him talk, just seeing the maturity in him not only as a basketball player but as a person,” Paul said. “Everybody doesn’t get a chance to know him off the court, but he has the biggest heart. One of the best guys you’ll ever meet. So the success and the recognition that he’s getting right now is well deserved, and I couldn’t be happier for another guy on our team.”
After that comment, Paul turned to his left and said, “Not even you, Book,” as Booker began his press conference. There were no worries on his end.
Booker, who led the Suns through NBA poverty in his first five seasons, knew it would take a collective effort for his team to reach this point. It was exciting for him to see his teammates ball out.
“Just like Chris whispered to me as he was walking out, he was like, ‘We have been on his ass,’” Booker said. “And we have. That’s why Chris can say that’s who he’s most proud of, and I feel the same way, because sometimes you walk around the court — Chris will be talking to him, and I’ll be waiting right there, ‘You done, Chris? All right, let me go tell him something.’
“So we’re all in his ear. We’re all on him. And for him to retain all that information and come perform at the level that he’s been performing, it’s hard to put words to it because we have been tough on him.”
Booker had 27 points on 8-of-21 shooting, including a 10-of-10 clip from the free-throw line. Phoenix made 25 of its 26 free-throw attempts as a team.
The Suns are shooting 87.0% on free throws, the highest mark by a team in NBA playoff history (min 10 games).— StatMuse (@statmuse) July 7, 2021
They shot 25/26 in Game 1. pic.twitter.com/nQA3ppe5Rl
The Suns are three wins away from an NBA championship, enabled by a standout game from their star trio. The job is not finished, but they are well on their way toward it.
For Williams, he hopes to see more complete efforts from his top players.
“I just think it’s a lot of intentional conversations between those three and all of our guys,” Williams said. “And so we’re just grateful that they’re playing well together, and we hope it continues.”