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Paul and Booker overcome return of the Freak to nail down Game 1 of NBA Finals

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The Milwaukee Bucks got the pre-game lift of all lifts when Giannis Antetokounmpo, their two-time MVP, went from a might to a will in terms of playing in Game 1 of the NBA Finals.

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But whatever lift that might have brought Milwaukee, it was no match for the lift 17,000 fans gave the Phoenix Suns on their home court on their way to a rather one-sided 118-105 win and an early lead in the series that will decide the winner of the Larry O’Brien Trophy.

Antetokounmpo’s speedy return from a hyper-extended knee did provide a spark for the Bucks, who matched the Suns own energized start that has almost become their trademark.

But when the two teams started to settle into the game, it was the Suns backcourt stars who started to take over.

Chris Paul, playing in the NBA Finals for the first time in his 16th year in the league, looked very much like a guy who had been saving something for this very occasion.

When Paul wasn’t leading Deandre Ayton with passes that took him right into the basket, he was handling the scoring himself, both from behind the arc and with his crafty in-between game.

“He’s just a really good basketball player,” Suns head coach Monty Williams said. “He’s one of those rare guys that can see the floor and he knows where all five guys should be. He took advantage of his opportunities tonight versus their switching defence and thankfully he made shots.”

Paul would ensure his NBA Finals debut was a memorable one, scoring 32 points while dishing out eight dimes.

When he wasn’t filling basket, it was his backcourt mate Devin Booker handling things.

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Booker was nowhere near as efficient as Paul, who was 12-for-19 from the floor, but his 27-point night was made possible as he tempted and teased the Bucks defenders repeatedly until they put him on the line.

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Ten of his 27 points came from the charity stripe.

The Bucks as a team only got to the line 14 times and came away with just eight points, two fewer than Booker had by himself.

Credit Antetokounmpo for the work he has put in allowing him to make his return. Antetokounmpo had plenty of bounce and plenty of energy, even if he didn’t take the ball to the hole with the same ferocity as he has in the past.

“I think there were a lot of good things, considering five days (off the court) and what he’s been through these last five, six, seven days,” Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer said of his alpha dog. “I’m sure we’ll find some things where he could be better.

“I think it usually takes him playing — he’s a rhythm guy. So, I’m excited about how he’ll improve from Game 1 to Game 2. We’ll see how he feels.”

The Greek Freak finished the night with 20 points and 17 rebounds, but it was fellow all-star Khris MIddleton who kept this game from becoming a rout.

Every time the Suns appeared ready to put this one to bed, there was Middleton knocking down a three or driving into the lane and pulling up for a bucket to keep the game from getting out of hand.

Middleton finished with a Bucks-high 29 points.

The Suns seemed content to force the Bucks into defensive switches until they got one of their scorers on Brook Lopez and then tortured the big man.

Lopez did chip in offensively with 17 points and added six rebounds, but he was continually exposed by the the crafty Suns on the defensive end.

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Jrue Holiday, the Bucks point guard and a guy with a fantastic defensive reputation, said the issue wasn’t so much Lopez as it was Paul just having one of those nights.

“Yeah, I think Brook played defence pretty well but that’s what CP does, those mid-range twos, those 15-footers, side-steps, side-step to the right, he makes those,” Holiday said. “Maybe just do something else. Make him put it in his left hand. Make him drive to the basket. Give him maybe a different look and do something different next time.”

The other big gun for the Suns was Ayton, Phoenix’s athletic centre, who had a game-high 19 rebounds to go with 22 points.

The two teams will regroup and adjust for a day before returning to the court Thursday for Game 2.

mganter@postmedia.com

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