Chris Paul went scoreless in the first quarter of his NBA Finals debut but exploded for 16 in the third and 32 points overall to lead the Phoenix Suns to a commanding 118-105 home victory over the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 1.
However, he wasn't the only debutant to impress on Tuesday night, during the Suns' first Finals game since 1993.
Devin Booker scored 27 points to go with six rebounds and three assists while Deandre Ayton had another dominant night at center, scoring 22 and snatching down a game-high 19 rebounds.
Chris Paul is only the third player aged 36 or older to have 30+ points in a Finals game, joining Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Tim Duncan.— Sky Sports NBA (@SkySportsNBA) July 7, 2021
He's also the first player with over 30 points and 8 assists in a Finals debut since Michael Jordan in '91.
Historic company. pic.twitter.com/P5XJbiUbcd
Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo, who was a surprise late starter after suffering from a hyperextended left knee in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals, finished with 20 points and 17 rebounds in 35 minutes after missing the last two games. Khris Middleton had 29 points and Brook Lopez scored 17.
Paul, who was playing in his first Finals game in his 16th NBA season, scored 10 of Phoenix's 12 points in a 2:35 stretch late in the third quarter to increase the 74-62 score into an 86-68 advantage.
The 'Point God' took over what had been a relatively tight encounter to that point, scoring 16 in the period as the Suns took a decisive 16-point lead into the final period.
The Bucks cut the deficit to 101-94 on a basket by Antetokounmpo with 7:16 to go, briefly spurting into life after coach Mike Budenholzer moved his star player to the five position. The momentum didn't last as Booker and Paul responded with back-to-back baskets for the Suns to stem the side.
Milwaukee never got closer than nine the rest of the way.
Appearing inspired by Antetokounmpo's return, the Bucks took a 20-18 lead with 3:37 remaining in the first quarter. A 3-pointer by the impressive Cameron Johnson seven seconds later gave the Suns a 21-20 advantage, and they never trailed again, leading 30-26 at the end of one quarter and 57-49 at halftime.
Mikal Bridges ended 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 one point and was 0-for-8 from the field.
Even so, Crowder was a team-high +19 in plus/minus and produced a number of impressive stops on the defensive end, repeatedly putting his body on the line to take fearless charge calls on Antetokounmpo as he rampaged to the basket.
Booker, who led the Suns in scoring during the regular season, didn't have his best shooting night, going 8-21 (38.1 per cent) from the floor and just 1-8 (12.5 per cent) from beyond the arc. On the other hand, Paul was relentless with his scoring, hitting 12-19 (63.2 per cent) of his field goals and 4-7 (57.1 per cent) on his three-point attempts.
The Suns shot 32.4 per cent (11-34) from distance overall while the Bucks were at 44.4 per cent (16-36).
Jrue Holiday compiled 10 points, nine assists and seven rebounds for the Bucks, who were just 9 of 16 on foul shots. Antetokounmpo was 7 of 12 on his free throws as a cacophonous Phoenix crowd counted down his every trip to the foul line.
In contrast, the Suns made 25 of 26 free throws - hitting every shot from the line until the final minute of the contest.
The only downside for the Suns on what proved to be a near-perfect start to the Finals was a knee injury sustained by their backup center Dario Saric in the first quarter. He hobbled to the locker room and didn't return for the remainder of the game.
Game 2 of the best-of-seven series is on Thursday night, once again at the Phoenix Suns Arena before the teams head to Milwaukee on Sunday night.