Three years ago, Phoenix passed on both Luka Doncic and Trae Young to take Deandre Ayton with the top pick in the draft.
Doncic could be a Hall of Famer someday. Trae Young might be a perennial All-Star. But Ayton is the first of the trio to play in an NBA Finals. And if he can repeat Tuesday’s dominance in Thursday’s Game 2 against the Bucks, he’ll be halfway to upgrading to NBA champion.
“All respects to Luka and Trae, they’re great players. But personally, as a player, this means a lot,” Ayton said about being the first to this stage. “It shows what all the hard work and dedication leads up to and what it really means. It shows consistency is something you need to have in your personnel, and just knowing the type of willpower you need to be at this type of stage.
“It’s hard not to keep tabs when they show them everywhere around the world. But yeah, of course, everybody knows about Luka Magic and Ice Trae, period. [Those] dudes really took over their franchises and they’re doing what they do best.”
But it was Ayton who took over Game 1 of the NBA Finals, overcoming the return of Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo. Ayton had 22 points on 8 of 10 shooting and 19 rebounds — joining Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (in 1971) as the only players with at least 20 points on 75 percent shooting and 15 boards in their Finals debuts.
Most of the attention was on Antetokounmpo’s knee and Chris Paul’s fourth quarter. But Paul dubbed Ayton the Suns’ playoff MVP, and it’s easy to see why.
Ayton’s sixth playoff double-double with at least 15 rebounds is tied for the fourth-best in NBA history (behind Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Walton’s nine, and Bill Russell’s eight). And Tuesday was the fourth time he’d shot at least 80 percent this postseason, the most during the shot-clock era, to help give Phoenix an early series lead.
Now comes staving off the inevitable Bucks answer.
“To win the first game at home was great for us. But we also have the mentality that we’re not satisfied; we’ve been in this situation before,” Suns coach Monty Williams said. “We’ve already started to prepare for the best Milwaukee effort that we’re going to see in the series. We’re ready for that.”
They’d better be.
The Suns won their fourth straight series opener, but they haven’t always responded well to prosperity. Meanwhile, the Bucks have made a habit of digging themselves out of holes of their own making.
Milwaukee looked dead before coming back from 2-0 down to beat the Nets in the second round, then dropped Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals only to recover and beat Atlanta.
On Tuesday, the Bucks got Antetokounmpo back (along with his 20 points and 17 boards), but went back to aggressively switching 1 through 5 and couldn’t find a way to slow Paul or Devin Booker. Ayton’s night made it a Big 3.
“Something over the series you’ve got to figure out,” Bucks stalwart P.J. Tucker said. “Make adjustments and make more and just so on and so forth. That’s how series goes. We haven’t had a good record with first games of series, so obviously this doesn’t bother us at all. But we’re competitors. We want to win, and we’re going to do everything we’ve got to do win Game 2.
“We’ve been here. No, we didn’t want to lose. But we’re here now; what are we going to do about it? That’s what this team does. We have guys that react, we learn. We’ll figure it out.”
The Bucks got 29 points from Khris Middleton, but are getting the Greek Freak back in sync. They also got blitzed by the Suns’ transition game, and Paul’s 16-point fourth quarter. And Ayton.
“Intense, but that’s as expected for the first games of the Finals, especially us being on the road,” said Middleton. “Chris Paul got into his rhythm and was able to extend leads for them and we weren’t able to catch up after that. … All in all, it was a great test for us in the first game: I just hope we come out and respond a little bit better.”