PHOENIX — Chris Paul waited 16 years to get to the NBA Finals, bringing with him a team starving for its first championship.
The setting was entirely new.
The performance was same ol’ Chris Paul.
“Just knew he’s ready,” Phoenix forward Mikal Bridges said. “He’s prepared his whole life for this moment and it shows out there on the court.”
Paul had 32 points and nine assists in an NBA Finals debut that was well worth the wait, Devin Booker scored 27 points and the Suns beat the returning Giannis Antetokounmpo and his Milwaukee Bucks 118-105 on Tuesday night in Game 1.
Paul scored 16 points during a sensational third quarter that had Phoenix fans who waited 28 years to see the NBA Finals again screaming in delight.
“Every time he shoots it we think it’s going in,” Booker said.
It almost did in the third quarter, when Paul was 6 for 7 and made all three 3-pointers.
Finally playing for the title in his 16th season, the star point guard has the Suns in the NBA Finals for only the third time, and it sure looked as if they could make this ending different than the other two.
“We’ve been building all season long for these moments,” Paul said. “We’re going to keep playing. This is just one game. We’ve got to stay locked in.”
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) July 7, 2021
Deandre Ayton added 22 points and 19 rebounds to continue his breakout stretch of play in his first postseason.
Antetokounmpo had 20 points and 17 rebounds after missing two games with a hyperextended left knee. Khris Middleton scored 29 points, but the Bucks will have to play from behind again after dropping Game 1 for the third straight series.
“We know it’s not going to be easy. We know it’s going to be tough,” Middleton said. “There’s times where we’re going to be down in this series. But this series isn’t over. We’re down. We’ve still got to keep competing and just playing.”
The series opener was the first NBA Finals game in Phoenix since Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls won their third straight championship here in Game 6 in 1993. The Suns, who came into the NBA with the Bucks in 1968, made their only other finals appearance in 1976.
They hadn’t even made the playoffs since 2010 and just two years ago were last in the Western Conference with a 19-63 record.
But Booker was already headed for stardom by then, and 2018 No. 1 pick Ayton has played at that level in the postseason. Paul has been steady as always since his arrival in an offseason trade.
Now 36 and a 10-time All-NBA selection, he is on the list of best players to never win a championship. It appeared he might never even get to play for one until Oklahoma City dealt him to a team of Suns on the rise, and he might be the final piece that takes them all the way to the top.
Despite so many debuts on the finals stage — the Suns’ Jae Crowder was the only player who had appeared in them, and that was for Miami at a neutral site last year — there didn’t appear to be many first-time jitters.
But Paul shifted the Suns into another gear in the third. His opening jumper provided the first double-digit lead of the game, and he followed with a four-point play for the Suns’ next basket.
He scored eight straight Phoenix points later in the period, hitting a 3-pointer, dancing around Bobby Portis for a layup and then hitting another 3. He then fired a pass to Ayton, who was fouled and made both free throws to make it 88-68 with 2:20 left.
“Their pick-and-roll game is tough to guard,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “I think we’ve just got to keep getting better. We’ll look at the film. We’ll see how we can maybe take away some of the rhythm.”
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) July 7, 2021
The Bucks cut it down to seven near the midpoint of the fourth before Paul helped the Suns restore a safe margin. He found Booker for a 3-pointer, stole the ball from Middleton and then hit a jumper to make it 106-94.
Milwaukee also is making its third finals appearance, having won the title in 1971 but not getting another chance since losing in 1974. The Bucks got a boost for this appearance when Antetokounmpo worked his way back quickly from an injury that looked serious when it happened.
The two-time MVP missed the final two games of the Eastern Conference finals. He was listed as doubtful for the opener, but he was upgraded to questionable Tuesday and then inserted into the starting lineup after he worked out on the court before the game.
“I’m just happy that I’m out there and I’m able to help my team in any way possible and participate in my first NBA Finals,” Antetokounmpo said.
The Bucks threw a lob to Antetokounmpo on their first possession — a play similar to the one he was defending when he was injured in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals against Atlanta — and he seemed to attack the basket just as forcefully as always.
But Jrue Holiday, who played so well while Antetokounmpo was out, shot just 4 for 14 and scored 10 points.
Bucks: The Bucks said they had 9,000 fans watching the game inside Fiserv Forum and 20,000 outside in the Deer District. … Brook Lopez scored 17 points.
Suns: Ayton, who came in shooting 70.6% in the postseason, was 8 for 10. … Bridges scored 14 points. … The Suns are 4-0 in Game 1s in this postseason. … Reserve forward Dario Saric missed the second half with a right knee injury.
HAPPY TO BE HOME
The Bucks coach used to be a Suns fan.
Budenholzer is from Holbrook, Arizona, about three hours from Phoenix. He said his parents and other family members would be at the game.
This isn’t the first postseason matchup between the Bucks and Suns. Milwaukee was formerly in the Western Conference and beat Phoenix in the first round of the 1978 playoffs.
Emma Raducanu lives to play another day at Wimbledon – The Globe and Mail
Despite all the hype, Emma Raducanu’s first-ever arrival on Centre Court on Monday afternoon took everyone by surprise.
It had been that sort of day to start this year’s Wimbledon. It rained for most of the early afternoon which meant everything was running late. Matches continued under the roof at the big court, but the opener, Novak Djokovic, found himself up against someone who hadn’t gotten the memo. South Korea’s Kwon Soon-woo played like he expected to win. If you turned your head just so, it seemed for a moment like he could.
By the time Djokovic got Kwon under control, three hours had passed and the crowd was in need of relief. When Raducanu emerged onto Centre Court 10 minutes later, there were more people in line for the toilets than there were in the stands.
Sensing the shambling nature of her entrance, the remainers leapt up to give her a standing ovation. Raducanu waved her hand at them distractedly.
This is what happens when you put too much emphasis on something that’s difficult to predict, like the scheduling of live outdoor events or tennis careers.
Raducanu, who won a surprise U.S. Open last fall and then nothing since, plays like someone who feels every eye in the place on her. Between points, she wanders off to the back wall to have a little chat with herself. During breaks, she stares ahead blankly while breathing in and out hard enough to light a fire. You just know this is a person who has really gotten into meditation, and not for fun.
Who could blame her? Right now, there may be no young athlete on Earth who feels more pressure to perform in one particular place.
Raducanu won on Monday because she sort of had to, didn’t she? Which is not to say that she won with much elan. She wore down Belgian puncher Alison Van Uytvanck 6-4, 6-4.
What was it like that first hour? To say the first set was played at a snail’s pace would be a calumny on snails. It’s one thing to play turgid tennis. It’s another to do it on a cool late afternoon at a place where they serve champagne for breakfast. You could see heads around you in the stands nodding.
But having gone through that set-long crucible of boredom, Raducanu perked up in the second. The crowd was back and the air was lighter. Then Van Uytvanck did the neighbourly thing and gave up.
Afterward, Raducanu was more than pleased. She positively glowed. She celebrated like she’d won something that mattered, which I guess she had.
“I felt the support the minute I walked out those doors,” Raducanu said, though she hadn’t really.
“Thank you to everyone who’s been here supporting …” she said, though that wasn’t totally correct either, since she made only a medium-sized dent in this tournament last year.
“ … through the tough part as well.”
Well, that is right.
Since winning the U.S. Open, Raducanu’s career has split into two streams.
First, there is her personal brand. That is rated AAA by multinationals everywhere. Raducanu is that unicorn in sports marketing – an athlete who looks like they were designed in a computer, talks like they are a normal human and emotes like your new best friend. However the tennis turns out, she will make a fortune selling things for as long as she is willing to drag herself onto a court, and probably long after.
Then there’s the tennis. That hasn’t gone so well. Pernicious injuries and false recovery starts have blighted the past nine months. After the worst of it was over on Monday, Raducanu likened it to her gap year (only, I suppose, more painful and more profitable).
This sudden rise and fall has an almost direct parallel with Canadian 2019 U.S. Open winner Bianca Andreescu. Andreescu also introduced herself to people by winning a major and also immediately fell into a thicket of injuries.
The biggest difference between the two stories is that in Canada, we’re willing to wait on our tennis stars. In this country, not so much. The British tabs have spent weeks playing up Raducanu’s Wimbledon – only her second – like it’s her last chance to win this thing.
A national injury watch was launched after she bailed out of her only match at her only warm-up tournament three weeks ago. The all-clear was announced on Saturday.
It’s not clear if Raducanu’s fit to play here, or ‘fit’ to play here. But she’s playing, however slowly.
“Looking forward to hopefully coming out and playing in front of you guys again,” Raducanu said afterward.
Maybe the “hopefully” is a verbal tic. Or maybe she actually meant it like it reads.
This is the unbearable heaviness of being British (and good at tennis and playing at Wimbledon). It is an unfair ask, until you consider the rewards being dangled for success. Win here, however young you are, and you can hire someone to write your obituary now. Unless things go very wrong, the first few paragraphs won’t change much.
What you are struck by is how much Raducanu seems to enjoy interacting with a crowd, but not while she’s playing. Every pro finds her zone, but few need to visibly grind so hard to stay in it. It speaks to a young person who senses keenly – maybe too keenly – what’s at stake.
“I’m going to play like a kid who just loves playing tennis,” Raducanu said over the weekend. She didn’t. She played more like someone trying to squeeze the racket handle to splinters.
But one win means there will be no disaster. If she loses now, she can blame her fitness – which would be more of an explanation than an excuse. The important thing is that she cemented one positive memory on the most recognizable surface in tennis.
So having done the minimum, Raducanu sounded less like a star doing PR and more like what she is – a teenager of remarkable self-possession trying to figure out how to be famous.
Her voice trembled only a little and only once, when she told the crowd, “I’m just so happy to stay another day.”
How Colorado’s patience, intangibles challenged a Tampa offence with no answer – Sportsnet.ca
Over the years of their recent post-season success, which has included a pair of Stanley Cups and appearances in five of the last six Conference Finals, the Tampa Bay Lightning morphed from Team Speed & Skill, to Team Intangibles. They’ve gone from the high-flying offensive team that put others on their heels, to the positionally-sound defensive juggernaut that basically said to their opponents: “See if you can beat us, because we sure as hell won’t beat ourselves.”
And yet again, beat themselves they did not.
Beleaguered as a team can be, Tampa Bay laid back and stayed patient, even when it seemed like their opponent was taking it to them. They’ve had the ultimate trust in Andrei Vasilevskiy, as they should, and it forced opponents to get frustrated, open up, and give them just that extra chance or two that has allowed the Lightning to score and prevail. Like Tiger Woods in his prime, sometimes the size of their well-earned reputation forced others to beat themselves.
Still, at some point you have to be able to create some offence to win games, and as they got more injured, that became a bigger challenge. They didn’t have Brayden Point as they did in Round 1, where a Bolts team on the ropes saw him go directly to the Maple Leafs crease and finish a rebound goal to keep their Cup hopes alive. That obviously hurt them.
Beyond that, though, they didn’t have the depth scoring come through as it has in past years, and they simply couldn’t dial it up on offence and remain as defensively stout as they knew they needed to be against an offensively-gifted Colorado Avalanche team. This time, that was the Avs’ reputation coming into play. Each of Alex Killorn (19:16 TOI per game), Anthony Cirelli (also 19:16), and Brandon Hagel (14:21) played in all 23 playoff games for the Lightning, and they combined for just five goals. Killorn, who scored 25 in the regular season (and had eight in 19 playoff games last year), was blanked with zero. So many players had to turn their attention solely to the little details of defending and positional play, and they excelled at it. But it came at a cost.
I reference Tampa didn’t have that same depth offence as they had in the past, because we all remember the Cup-winning Bolts teams getting huge goals from their third line of Yanni Gourde, Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow, but it’s worth noting the crucial difference: Colorado wasn’t Dallas and they damn sure weren’t Montreal, not even close. The depth guys on the Lightning this year were faced with a much different chore than Coleman-Gourde-Goodrow. The Avalanche were extremely well-coached throughout this playoff run, and they recognized Tampa Bay’s weakness: they didn’t have another offensive gear to kick it into, so they leaned harder on that struggle.
The Colorado Avalanche all but stole the game plan from Tampa, which was to play smart and positional and choke the life out their opponent, all while saying “The burden of creating offence is on YOU, and you’re going to have to go through every last one of us.”
“Offensively-gifted” or not, the Avs’ scoring was stunted down the stretch of the series, but it was a concession they were willing to make knowing Tampa Bay’s inability to create. Here’s the most telling stat of the series and why I leave the Final fixated on positional patience. If the Bolts were sitting back and waiting for the Avs to get desperate, open up and make mistakes in this series, here’s what they got off the rush:
A hot bowl of nothing.
Over six Stanley Cup Final games the Avalanche had more rush chances than the Bolts by an average of six per game (per Sportlogiq). Six extra rush chances, which in the end was the difference, wasn’t it?
The Stanley Cup game winner comes off a rush where Artturi Lehkonen makes an unbelievable off-hand one-time shot that finds the top corner, which maybe you’d call a bit “lucky” because who knows how many times out of 10 he could place that puck there again. But in very hockey fashion, it’s not luck, because they created enough chances to “get lucky” like that. As it always goes in hockey’s big picture, making your own luck is a reason to love teams like the Avs who create chances in volume.
There’s been much said about the Lightning’s injuries and their inability to be at their best in this Final, but let’s not pretend the Avs were at max capacity. Andre Burakovsky was hurt, Valeri Nichushkin was hurt, and hell, Nazem Kadri had his trainer tie his skates and played in an oven mitt (and scored an OT winner). Sammy Girard was too hurt to get in a game in the Final.
Even with their injuries, the Avalanche played with a maturity the Lightning’s other opponents could not. Colorado got the better of the Bolts to open the series, then Tampa went into full lockdown mode, playing for low scores and hoping to lean on their experience and again, patience. In Games 3, 4, 5, and 6 the Avs scored just 2, 3 (with overtime), 2, and 2 goals. But instead of starting to cheat and stretch and open up to generate more against a goalie that could’ve frustrated the heck out of them, they recognized that for Tampa to win, they’d have to score too.
The Lightning are getting deserved love as “Team Intangibles” this year, and they certainly played great and blocked shots and proved themselves to be warriors. But don’t let the Avs’ demonstration of those same things get lost.
That’s coaching, that’s leadership, that’s playing (and sometimes losing) enough big games to see that forcing plays and taking chances can bury you in the post-season. You have to trust that it will come, you have to trust the plan, and when offensively talented teams get to that point, they’re almost impossible to beat.
This Final was two teams that were “almost impossible to beat,” and as a result, the series was delightful to watch. The Avalanche used all their tough experiences of the years past to give their opponent jack squat in the biggest moments of the season, and they finished the playoffs losing only four times the whole way through.
The Lightning were worthy foes, for sure, but the Avalanche are deserving champions.
What a Stanley Cup Final.
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