Chris Paul waited 16 years for his first NBA Finals game and seized the moment.
Shaking off a left ankle turn and a sore left hand, the 36-year-old future Hall of Fame point guard scored 16 of his game-high 32 points on seven shots in a third quarter that blew open what to that point was an evenly matched series opener, and his Phoenix Suns rolled to a 118-105 win over the Milwaukee Bucks.
"That's CP3, man. What else do you want me to say?" third-year Suns wing Mikal Bridges (14 points) told the NBA TV crew's postgame broadcast. "He's the guy when I was a kid, looking up, seeing him, knowing he was going to be a Hall of Famer, wishing, 'Dang, CP been in the league, he deserves a ring,' and now I'm in this seat where I have an opportunity to help him get one, and it's amazing seeing him doing this."
The Suns host the Bucks again Thursday for Game 2 at 9 p.m. ET on ABC.
In the hour before tipoff on Tuesday, Milwaukee gave Giannis Antetokounmpo the green light to play on his hyperextended left knee and ran the first play of the game to get him a rolling alley-oop attempt at the rim. If he was hindered by the injury, it was hard to tell, especially on his chase-down block late in the first half.
Antetokounmpo collected 20 points and 17 rebounds in 35 minutes of defeat.
"It's a credit to him, the work he puts in, the work the sports performance group puts in, for him to be back playing in Game 1," Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer told reporters. "It's really impressive what he did."
Paul abused Milwaukee bigs Brook Lopez and Bobby Portis on switches in the pick-and-roll, creating for himself and others with the aplomb of an 11-time All-Star who had seen everything the game has to offer but its biggest stage. And he commanded the spotlight, making 12 of 19 shots and issuing nine assists.
In the final two minutes of the opening half, five straight points from Bridges turned a one-possession edge into a 57-49 lead at the break, and the Suns kept their foot on the gas. Paul scored his team's first six points of the second half, including a four-point play on which he turned his left ankle over a hard Lopez close-out. That pushed the Phoenix lead to double digits, and it climbed as high as 20 points.
"Chris Paul, he's been a bucket, man," said Suns star Devin Booker. "He obviously gets his team involved. He's the greatest leader to play this game, but he's been a bucket for a long time. In five years of playing against him, you understand that. There's no scouting report that says Chris Paul can't get a bucket."
Antetokounmpo's putback layup with 7:16 remaining in the fourth quarter capped a 7-0 run that cut the Suns' lead to 101-94, but Booker immediately answered with a 3-pointer (assisted by Paul, of course) that pushed their advantage back to double digits, and the Bucks never really sniffed a comeback again.
Phoenix also got big Finals debuts from the two young stars Paul has shepherded through an improbable turnaround from lottery mainstay to current championship favorite. Booker recorded 27 points and six assists, while Deandre Ayton added 22 points and 19 rebounds. The Suns made 25 of their 26 free throws.
The Bucks got 29 points from Khris Middleton and 17 from Lopez, but Jrue Holiday — the point guard they acquired to raise their championship ceiling — scored just 10 points on 4-for-14 shooting (0 for 4 from 3).
"We've been through it all," said Middleton. "We know it's not going to be easy. We know it's going to be tough, and there are times where we're going to be down in the series, but the series is not over yet."
If the first half was an indication of how the Finals will unfold, this should be a long series between two well-balanced teams, but if the second is the sign of things to come, Paul is your runaway Finals MVP favorite. (He is favored to win it at BetMGM (-145).)
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