Chris Paul torched the Bucks’ defense in his Finals debut. How was he so effective in Game 1, and what can the Bucks to do slow him down moving forward?
The primary benefit of having two offensive creators as skilled as Chris Paul and Devin Booker is that there’s always something a defense can’t take away. Championship offenses are usually led by these kinds of players — indomitable scorers that can exploit whatever advantage their opponent concedes — and the Suns looked the part of a champion in Game 1 of the NBA Finals as their two best players meticulously picked apart what has been one of the NBA’s best defenses for the last three years. Booker and Paul combined for an efficient 59 points and 15 assists, with just five turnovers between them, giving Milwaukee no rest from a lethal mid-range attack.
Chris Paul eats switches for breakfast
Paul did most of his damage in the first half as the Bucks struggled to find a suitable defensive counter to his methodical pick-and-roll operation. The Bucks began the game switching every on-ball screen — a departure from their customary drop pick-and-roll coverage — even if that meant leaving Brook Lopez on an island. In many ways, that approach had its intended effect, neutralizing Phoenix’s spread pick-and-roll attack and forcing Paul and Booker to create seams on their own. But it also allowed the Suns to choose the defender they wanted to attack (often Lopez) and target him time and again in the kind of action he’s least comfortable defending:
Against most players, that constitutes commendable defense. Lopez stays in front of the ball, takes away the rim and forces a reasonably well-contested long 2. But against Paul, that’s almost a death sentence. The distance Lopez plays off of Paul is just enough space for one of the best mid-range shooters in NBA history to comfortably shoot over a defender he scarcely notices. When Paul wasn’t patiently working to his spots, the Suns often found Deandre Ayton sealing his man in the paint after the Bucks switched a smaller defender onto him, or Booker setting up catch-and-shoot 3s when defenders helped on drives:
The Bucks pivoted to their more familiar drop coverage in the third quarter, though even that still allowed Paul and Booker to dribble into rhythm jumpers while Ayton rolled to the basket, and the Suns still hunted matchups they wanted and forced switches. Mike Budenholzer shelved his centers entirely in the fourth quarter, and Milwaukee eventually found success playing more switchable lineups with Giannis Antetokounmpo at center and Jrue Holiday, Khris Middleton, Pat Connaughton and either P.J. Tucker or Bryn Forbes around him. Those small units outscored the Suns 27-21 in over 11 minutes on the floor, but they also underscore a fundamental flaw of Milwaukee’s rotation that has only been exacerbated by Antetokounmpo’s ailing left knee.
Without Donte DiVincenzo’s defensive versatility and offensive connectivity, the Bucks effectively have six players who can survive on both ends of the floor against Phoenix (one of whom, Lopez, may no longer qualify after the abuse he endured in Game 1); that simply isn’t enough to cover the 240 collective minutes in an NBA game. It’s harder to take Lopez off the floor and get to more versatile defensive lineups without adequate depth, and with Middleton and Holiday already logging over 40 minutes per game and Antetokounmpo limited, Budenholzer doesn’t have the option of simply dialing up his stars’ minutes. Milwaukee must lean on at least one of Forbes, Bobby Portis and Jeff Teague, all of whom are major defensive liabilities, while the Suns run deep with players who, at the very least, won’t be exploited on either end of the floor. In a postseason of attrition, Phoenix is far better suited to sustain a heavy physical toll.
That isn’t to say this series is over, or that the Bucks are out of options. They should be able to deploy Antetokounmpo at center slightly more often as he gets healthier, and pushing Lopez’s minute total closer to 30 should allow Budenholzer to excise Teague or Portis from his rotation. That would require Lopez to hold up better defensively against Phoenix’s backcourt, which could involve pressuring the ball more, shading the diminutive Paul left and bringing late help if he gets all the way to the rim. Milwaukee could also try keeping Lopez in drop coverage but bringing him slightly higher out on the floor to shrink the area Paul and Booker have to get a jumper off — a move that would likely accompany Holiday spending more time as Paul’s primary defender.
Jrue Holiday’s shot selection
Holiday was an important part of Milwaukee’s limited defensive success in Game 1, and will continue to be the Bucks’ most important perimeter defender in a series that has thus far been dictated by Phoenix’s guards. The other end of the floor, however, proved more challenging for Holiday, who finished with just 10 points on 4-of-14 shooting. Holiday can be a good shooter when he has the time and space to step into a clean look, but most of his shots were rushed, heavily contested or both. He shot 1-of-7 on jumpshots in Game 1, many of which came early in the shot clock off of little to no ball movement and prevented Milwaukee from finding any kind of offensive rhythm:
Holiday’s shot selection has been puzzling at various moments throughout the playoffs, most notably in the second round against a Nets team that didn’t offer much resistance on his drives to the basket. The same is true now, albeit to a lesser degree. Neither Booker nor Paul is nimble enough to handle Holiday on the perimeter, and the Bucks’ point guard is too strong for any individual Suns defender to hold his ground one-on-one. Even the 7-foot, 250-pound Ayton got bodied in transition midway through the third quarter:
Those are the kinds of shots Holiday should seek out. His best offensive moments in Game 1 involved him getting downhill and either finishing strong or dropping the ball off to teammates. His jumper comes and goes, and he’ll likely make more of them in Game 2, but he’ll always have the strength to clear defenders out of his way when he wants to. The urge to create and attack more is understandable given that Antetokounmpo is hobbled and Middleton is drawing tougher defenders, but a bit more discretion would do Holiday and the Bucks well the rest of this series.