After the Suns’ 118-105 victory over the Bucks on Tuesday night, Devin Booker was asked about Chris Paul’s offensive prowess in his NBA Finals debut. The All-Star guard scored 32 points in Game 1 on 12-of-19 shooting from the field, giving him 73 points in his last two games. That’s tied for the most points Paul has totaled over a two-game span in his NBA career.
Who was this scoring machine? And what had he done with one of the best pure point guards in basketball history?
MORE: Best highlights from Game 1 of NBA Finals
“Chris Paul, he’s been a bucket, man,” Booker said. “I mean, he obviously gets his team involved. He’s the greatest leader to play this game. But he’s been a bucket for a very long time. And my six years of playing against him, or five years of playing against him, you understand that. There’s no scouting report that says Chris Paul can’t get a bucket.”
The truth is that there is no scouting report with a secret plan to truly stop Paul. Even on a high-scoring night, he dished out a team-high nine assists. Still thriving in Year 16, the future Hall of Famer has seen every kind of defense and knows how to dissect whatever is thrown his way.
Unfortunately for Mike Budenholzer and the Bucks, they learned that lesson the hard way in their series-opening loss.
Suns vs. Bucks: Switching defense
Milwaukee started out switching screens involving Paul, appearing content to live with mismatches as long as he saw a body in front of him. Once Paul knew that was the strategy, he began hunting for the weak link.
In this case, it was Brook Lopez.
And in this case, it was Lopez again.
And in this case . . . yeah, you get it.
“I think I could have done a better job in trusting my teammates more behind me and try to make them put the ball on the floor more,” Lopez said. “But he hit tough shots. That’s what he does. That’s what he’s done his whole career and he did that tonight.”
But Lopez wasn’t the only big man who found himself in an uncomfortable spot. Paul also attacked Bobby Portis, who got beat off the dribble for a layup and 3-pointer late in the third quarter.
When the Bucks rolled out a small-ball lineup in the second half, Paul remained patient and found his preferred target. Step right up, Pat Connaughton.
“We have to punish teams for switching one through five like that,” Booker said. “Like I just heard Chris say, we prepare for any type of defense and we watch a lot of basketball, and where we have been most successful in that situation is space out. So every time he shoots it, we think it’s going in.”
Suns vs. Bucks: Drop defense
So, what happened when Milwaukee decided to drop Lopez back instead of pushing him up to the level of the screen? Well, that didn’t work out great, either.
In the play below, Paul has the room to penetrate into the paint, draw two defenders and find Deandre Ayton for an easy bucket.
When Lopez continued backing up, Paul just kept his dribble alive and got to his spot. Not a bad contest here from P.J. Tucker, but Paul has been making this kind of shot for a long time.
“Their pick-and-roll game is tough to guard,” Budenholzer said. “I think we have to just keep getting better. We have to keep looking at the film and see how we can maybe take away some of the rhythm, or make it where he’s not getting into his spots as easily. That will be a big part of looking between Game 1 and Game 2.”
Suns vs. Bucks: Pressure defense
Hey, what about picking Paul up near half court and forcing him to get rid of the ball? Jrue Holiday tried to apply pressure in the fourth quarter, but Paul blew by him and found Booker for an open 3-pointer.
And when Giannis Antetokounmpo attempted to take on the Paul assignment in transition, Paul beat him down the middle of the floor, pumped the brakes and got the floater plus the foul.
How will the Bucks adjust ahead of Game 2?
It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Budenholzer stick Holiday on Paul for most of Game 2 because he is clearly the Bucks’ best defensive option. Staying attached to Paul through multiple screening actions is no easy task, but Holiday (and Milwaukee’s other guards) must be better at the point of attack.
This play is a good example of Holiday fighting over the top of a screen rather than accepting an easy switch.
The Bucks may also lean more on the small-ball groups with Antetokounmpo operating as the center. However, Budenholzer’s rotation isn’t deep enough to simply eliminate Lopez’s minutes, and that would be an overreaction after one game. Lopez has been an important member of this team all season long, and he can still be effective despite his limitations.
When it comes down to it, though, sometimes there is no stumping the guy who walks into the classroom with all of the answers.
“We do this so often, and we have seen just about every coverage you could possibly see, so it’s second nature,” Paul said. “I think our coaches, the way they prepared us since training camp day in and day out, it seems repetitive to some, but for us it’s necessary.”