PHOENIX — Chris Paul had never played in an NBA Finals game.
You couldn’t tell by the Phoenix Suns point guard’s performance in Game 1 on Tuesday against the Milwaukee Bucks.
Playing like a Finals regular, Paul scored a game-high 32 points and delivered nine assists as the Suns defeated the Bucks 118-105. Game 2 is Thursday (9 p.m. ET, ABC).
With first-time NBA finalists flooding the court — Phoenix’s Jae Crowder is the only player on either team with Finals experience — the Suns were more fresh, the Bucks a step late.
Phoenix guard Devin Booker added 27 points, and center Deandre Ayton dominated the paint with 22 points and 19 rebounds.
The Suns hadn’t played in almost a week since beating the Los Angeles Clippers on June 30, and the Bucks just finished off the Atlanta Hawks on Saturday.
But Milwaukee had one encouraging development. All-NBA forward Giannis Antetokounmpo returned after missing two games with a hyperextended left knee sustained in Game 4 against Atlanta in the conference finals. His availability and effectiveness is integral to the Bucks’ success in the Finals. He had a 20 points and 17 rebounds Tuesday.
The Bucks will need more from him and Jrue Holiday. The Paul-Holiday matchup is another important factor, and Paul took round one. Holiday had just 10 points on 4-for-14 shooting and 0-for-4 on 3s. He had nine assists but also three turnovers.
The Bucks were praised this year for the ability to switch on defense and adapt. But in Game 1, the Suns punished Milwaukee on switches, especially when they created a mismatch with Bucks center Brook Lopez defending smaller, quicker guards in Paul and Booker.
Solid from start to finish, Paul had 16 points in the third quarter, including 10 during a 14-6 Suns run that pushed their lead to 88-68. When the Bucks had a center or forward on Paul, he made them pay. He drew a foul on Lopez for a four-point play and he rattled in a long 3-pointer with Bobby Portis defending.
The Suns outscored the Bucks by 17 points with Lopez on the court, and he played just seven minutes in the third quarter and sat the entire fourth quarter.
Even though the Bucks trailed by 20 in the third quarter, they cut it to 101-94 in the fourth. But Paul’s driving layup with an and-1 at 3:36 to go put the Suns up 113-99.
Milwaukee wasn’t badly outplayed, shooting the same from the field and 10 percentage points better on 3-pointers. Khris Middleton started slowly but finished with 29 points.
One drastic difference: free throws. The Suns were 25-for-26 (Booker made all 10), and the Bucks just 9-for-16. Phoenix earned them. Milwaukee wasn’t aggressive enough outside of Antetokounmpo, who had 12 attempts and was just one of three Bucks to shoot a free throw.
Follow Jeff Zillgitt on Twitter @JeffZillgitt.