The Milwaukee Bucks will be looking to bounce back from their series-opening loss by upsetting the Phoenix Suns in Game 2 of the NBA Finals on Thursday night. Giannis Antetokounmpo threw on his red cape and made his triumphant return from his knee injury on Tuesday, but it still wasn’t enough to suppress the rising momentum of Chris Paul, Devin Booker and the Suns. Phoenix has a chance to take a commanding lead in the series if they can defend The Valley from Milwaukee for a second straight game.
The Bucks seemed to find more success with a smaller lineup and Antetokounmpo at center, which is a look they might go back to in Game 2. They have finally run into a team deeper than they are on the floor, and it’s going to take a masterclass in coaching from Mike Budenholzer for them to pull this one out.
PHOENIX — With two franchises that are strangers to this stage and two rosters filled with key players making their NBA Finals debuts, it was reasonable to expect some jitters and tiptoeing. And with Giannis Antetokounmpo added to the starting lineup less than an hour before tip-off, no one would have blamed the star forward if he eased into his return from a hyperextended knee.
The two-time MVP wasted no time taking control of Milwaukee’s offense, driving hard to the basket from the outset in hopes of re-creating his regular season success against Phoenix’s defense while tallying eight points and five rebounds in the first quarter. Other than the protective sleeve he wore on his left leg, Antetokounmpo hardly seemed affected by his injury despite having just one week of recovery time, finishing with 20 points, 17 rebounds and four assists.
By halftime, he had accumulated an array of highlights, including a forceful dunk, well-timed passes to open shooters and a spectacular chase-down block of Suns forward Mikal Bridges, during which he covered roughly 80 feet in four seconds to spike an attempted layup off the backboard.
Yet the Suns were unmoved by Antetokounmpo’s energetic opening salvo, taking the lead in the first quarter thanks to a hot start from Booker and never looking back. Phoenix pulled away with a third-quarter run, sparked in part by a flagrant foul by Brook Lopez. The Bucks center slid underneath Paul as he attempted a three-pointer, causing the Suns guard to roll his left ankle.
Paul, who during the playoffs has battled a shoulder injury and a bothersome wrist and missed two games because of coronavirus protocols, started slowly in the first quarter as he sought to unlock Milwaukee’s switching defense. The 36-year-old guard, making his Finals debut in his 16th season, heated up after the flagrant foul, scoring 16 points in the third quarter as Phoenix pushed its lead to 20. Paul finished with a game-high 32 points and added nine assists and four rebounds. Booker had 27 points and six assists; Deandre Ayton posted 22 points and 19 rebounds; and the Suns went 25 for 26 from the free throw line to seal the win.
As Game 1 of the Finals unfolded, Phoenix appeared to make the most of its rest advantage. The Suns entered the series after five days off, three more than the Bucks had. Phoenix won the third quarter 35-27 as Antetokounmpo fell out of rhythm and scored just three points. Khris Middleton finished with a team-high 29 points and helped Milwaukee pull within seven in the final period.
There will be no respite for the weary Bucks, who must play their eighth contest in 16 days when they take the court for Game 2 on Thursday before the series shifts to Milwaukee. Antetokounmpo’s return provided hope, but hope alone won’t suffice against the poised and determined Suns.