There are multiple reasons why the Phoenix Suns beat the Milwaukee Bucks 118-105 in Game 1 of the NBA Finals on Tuesday night, but one big issue was that the Suns were torching Bucks big man Brook Lopez on his pick-and-roll defense. Thus, there's a school of thought that Coach Mike Budenholzer could start Giannis Antetokounmpo as a small-ball center in Game 2 on Thursday. The Suns are 5.5-point favorites on the William Hill Sportsbook NBA odds but have lost reserve big man Dario Saric to a season-ending injury.
Without Giannis in the final two games of the Eastern Conference Finals, the Bucks essentially switched on every Hawks pick-and-roll – which usually involved Lopez -- to keep the Atlanta players out of the paint and force, ideally, mid-range jumpers with Lopez dropping off a guard after the switch.
That absolutely didn't work in Game 1 vs. Phoenix as Suns guard Chris Paul simply picked which Bucks defender he wanted to attack. He and Devin Booker are two of the best mid-range shooters in the NBA and combined to make 15 of their 23 shots inside the arc. Nine of Paul's 12 made field goals came against either switches onto a secondary defender or against Lopez in drop coverage
"We have to punish teams for switching 1 through 5 like that," Booker said afterward. "Where we have been most successful in that situation is space out."
Lopez had a nice line of 17 points and six rebounds but was pulled with about five minutes to go in the third and didn't return because he was such a defensive liability as noted by his team-worst minus-17 rating. Phoenix scored 126 points per 100 possessions with him on the court. (Bobby Portis was being abused in the same way and only played 14 minutes with a minus-10 rating).
Budenholzer eventually went to a lineup where Giannis played a small-ball center and, for what it's worth, the Bucks outscored the Suns 29-26 in the fourth quarter. The Greek Freak can defend any position for the most part.
Also potentially look for guard Jrue Holiday, an excellent defender, to guard Paul more often than he did Tuesday. Holiday could fight over those pick-and-roll screens. After finishing with a game-high 32 points, Paul is set with an Over/Under of 21.5 for this one. Paul has 73 points in his last two games, tied for his most over any two-game span in his career, regular season or playoffs. Giannis is set at 26.5 points after 20 in Game 1. He probably plays more than 35 minutes this time.
Phoenix did get some bad news in Game 1 when reserve forward Saric left in the first quarter with a knee injury that has been diagnosed as a torn ACL that obviously ends his playoffs and puts his entire 2021-22 season in jeopardy – he's under contract for two more seasons.
Saric averaged 8.7 points and 3.8 rebounds in about 17.4 minutes in the regular season and 4.5 points and 2.5 rebounds in 10.5 minutes in the playoffs. That injury may mean a few more minutes for the likes of Cameron Johnson (10 points in 21 Game 1 minutes) and even Frank Kaminsky (zero points in four minutes).
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