The Big 3 of Chris Paul, Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton put the Phoenix Suns that much closer to their ultimate goal in Game 1 of the 2021 NBA Finals.
Just a few months ago, when Deandre Ayton was getting benched in fourth quarters and Mikal Bridges was blossoming as a two-way threat, it felt like the third spot of the Phoenix Suns‘ supposed Big 3 was transitioning from the team’s No. 1 overall pick back in 2018 to the player they traded for later on in that same draft.
Bridges is still a fundamental part of the Suns’ success, but if Game 1 of the 2021 NBA Finals proved anything, it’s that when Ayton is locked in like he has been all season, and Phoenix’s dynamic duo of Chris Paul and Devin Booker is firing on all cylinders, this team is impossible to stop.
In a 118-105 win on Tuesday night, each member of the Suns’ Big 3 showed up in a big way. Paul, who led the way with 32 points and 9 assists on 12-of-19 shooting despite missing his first four shots, was surgical in picking apart both switches and drop coverage from the Milwaukee Bucks.
Devin Booker, who only shot 8-for-21 from the floor and 1-for-8 from 3-point range, still finished with 27 points, 6 assists and 3 steals, including 12 first-quarter points to help carry the offense early on. And Ayton, who was one stolen rebound away from a 20-20 game in his first Finals appearance, notched 22 points, 19 rebounds and shot 8-for-10 from the floor.
Though Giannis Antetokounmpo was still somewhat limited for the Bucks due to that hyperextended knee, it was an eye-opening performance as to what this Suns team is capable of when all three members of the Big 3 are completely locked in, especially with Paul leading the charge.
“When it’s going like that, you just want to space the floor well and let him orchestrate,” Monty Williams said of the Point God. “I thought he was making the right plays. They were switching a ton, and we have to offer that space and play faster if he gets off of the ball. But he was making shots, and when he’s in that mode, we just feed off of that.”
Over the last two games — the two biggest games of his life — CP3 has made 28 of 43 shots and racked up 73 points, which tied the most in any two-game span over the course of his 16-year, Hall-of-Fame career. With 32 points in Game 1, he also joined Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Tim Duncan as the only players 36 years or older to drop 30-plus in a Finals game.
“Chris Paul, he’s been a bucket, man,” Booker said. “Obviously he gets his team involved, he’s the greatest leader to play this game, but he’s been a bucket for a very long time.”
Paul is making the most of his moment, just as he did to close out the Western Conference Finals in Game 6, but none of this was guaranteed for a 36-year-old whose loaded contract was undesirable around the league only two years ago. The Suns (and the Oklahoma City Thunder) knew better than to overlook the value of his twilight years … much to the chagrin of the Los Angeles Lakers, Denver Nuggets, LA Clippers and now, at least for Game 1, Milwaukee Bucks.
“Anybody that counted Chris Paul out, we just went down his track record of, he’s walking in the Hall of Fame, first ballot,” Booker said. “You can’t ever count any guy out that has done the things that he’s done on the court. So if I hear things like that, which I did, I take it as complete nonsense. If he doesn’t play another game for us, you can still pay him his contract; his effect’s that big.”
Of course, CP3 wasn’t the only one operating at a high level in his Finals debut. Despite not shooting the ball well, Booker’s 12 first-quarter points got the ball rolling early, and by getting to the foul line 10 times (and making all 10), he gave the Suns a rare advantage in free-throw attempts, 26-16.
Two of Booker’s 13 misses were last-second heaves at the end of quarters from half-court and beyond, providing yet another small example of how this 24-year-old was unfairly painted as an empty-calories scorer who didn’t possess the qualities of a winner. Now that he has legitimate help around him, the world is seeing what he’s capable of:
And even though his normally efficient shooting wasn’t there in Game 1, his defense absolutely was:
The list of NBA legends Booker has already passed with the 13th 20-point performance of this Finals run is impressive, and although his 6 dimes are hardly anything to write home about, on a team that moves the ball so well and racks up hockey assists, Book’s vision and willingness to move the ball with the right pass shouldn’t go overlooked on a roster filled with shooters.
“It just opens up everything, I think,” Mikal Bridges said of Booker and CP3’s aggression. “Just for other guys that’s out there, we’re spacing and stuff, it opens it up for us to get an opportunity if they start helping toward Book and CP, and then we get shots. For us, it’s just having that mindset to stay ready and be ready at all times, because C and Book, they’ll find you.”
Paul and Booker are established superstars, though. Everyone figured they’d be good on this kind of stage. The surprising member of this Big 3 who’s elevated his game the most during Phoenix’s Finals run has been Ayton, the 22-year-old who is finally escaping the Luka Doncic comparisons with one of the most impressive debut postseasons in recent memory.
“He’s just locked into the role, and sometimes when you tell a player he has a role, they tend to think that you’re limiting their ability,” Williams said. “I don’t think DA thinks that. I think he understands his role and how he can affect winning on both sides of the ball. It certainly helps to have Chris and Book creating opportunities for him, but he’s done a really good job of understanding the angles and screens and where to be in the pocket to finish around the basket, and he’s just a presence down there.”
Ayton kept the Bucks, one of the NBA’s best offensive-rebounding teams of the playoffs, off the glass with 17 defensive rebounds. He also converted nearly every look he had around the basket, continuing a remarkable postseason of ultra-efficiency.
In the playoffs, Ayton is now averaging 16.5 points and 12.2 rebounds per game on an absurd 71.6 percent true shooting. Game 1 marked his fourth game with 20 points on 80 percent shooting in the playoffs, which is the most in any postseason during the shot clock era. Just look at the prestigious company he finds himself in:
Paul and Booker both said after Game 1 that they’re more proud of his progress this season than anything else.
“Just hearing him talk, just seeing the maturity in him, not only as a basketball player but as a person,” Paul said. “Everybody doesn’t get a chance to know him off the court, but he has the biggest heart, one of the best guys you’ll ever meet, so the success and the recognition that he’s getting right now is well deserved and I couldn’t be happier for another guy on our team — not even you, Book.”
“Chris whispered to me when he was walking out, he was like, ‘We’ve been on his ass,'” Booker added with a smile. “And we have, and that’s why Chris can say that’s who he’s most proud of. And I feel the same way, because sometimes you walk out on the court, Chris will be talking to him, I’ll be waiting right there, ‘You done, Chris? All right, now let me go tell him something.’ So we’re all in his ear, we’re all on him, and for him to retain all that information and come perform at the level that he’s been performing, it’s hard to put words to it.”
In Game 1 on Tuesday night, the Suns’ Big 3 combined for 81 points — the most by any trio of teammates all making their Finals debut together since the 1976-77 merger. All three scored more than 20 points, marking the fourth instance in NBA history where a trio of teammates did so while all playing in their first Finals game.
What’s interesting is how rare it’s been for all three of the Paul-Booker-Ayton trio to be so dominant at the same time this season. Before the Finals opener, there were only four games this year where all three notched at least 20 points in the same game, and one of those came in the playoffs (Game 1 against Denver). On Tuesday, their 81 points marked the trio’s fourth-highest scoring total of the season, trailing only Game 3 against the Nuggets (83 points), an April 5 win over the Houston Rockets (82) and an April 7 overtime win over the Utah Jazz (82).
“Earlier in the year, there was some gray areas as to how to help those guys play together,” Williams said. “I think that those three deserve a lot of credit for the time that they spent after practice talking about certain environments. I’d love to tell you that I orchestrated it all, but we’ve given them a system, and then those guys talk about the angles of the screens and different ways to run plays that we have so that they can be effective. I just think it’s a lot of intentional conversations between those three and all of our guys.”
Ayton said from his perspective, it’s been all about staying alert, approaching the game the right way and taking care of the little things that can make all the difference over the course of a 48-minute playoff game. He credited Paul’s leadership and all of those tough but honest conversations with his playoff leap.
“It’s just the respect level,” Ayton said. “We all got on each other, had candid conversations where we had to adjust. But candid conversations lead to wins. It started to be great communication and constructive criticism, and we just all take it into a positive and play together. Bring it to the other guys and they see how we’re playing as a unit, and it’s contagious.”
Through the first 16 games of the season, the Suns’ starting lineup had a horrific Net Rating of minus-3.7. It was worrisome start for a five-man unit that had logged the most minutes of any lineup in Phoenix by far and would continue to do so for the rest of the year. Slowly but surely, the Suns’ Big 3 — flanked by 3-and-D wings in Bridges and Jae Crowder — began to turn things around.
“It’s been a lot,” Paul said. “It was some tough ones. DA couldn’t have said it better: Sometimes people take it as arguing or whatnot, but I think it was all constructive.”
One of the Big 3’s most complete performances yet has the Phoenix Suns three wins away from uncharted territory and their first-ever championship. “Constructive” might be underselling it.