It would be a stretch to say the Bucks need to be perfect. They’re not playing the ‘01 Lakers or the ‘96 Bulls, or even the ‘07 Suns. Chris Paul was incredible in Game 1, but you would still rather he was six years younger, and Devin Booker describes the slight yet meaningful separation between All-Star and All-NBA. No, it’s not the opponent, it’s that the Bucks are not very good, that makes this a steep ask. They are good-good, solid. The formula should resemble the briefly Kawhi-bolstered Raptors, an object of impossible density and its trusty satellites, but the Milwaukee bench is much shorter and Coach Bud ain’t Nick Nurse. And though we all like Jrue Holiday, he’s been frighteningly DeMar DeRozanish on the offensive end over the past month. Oh, and Giannis is hurt. Not terribly, not like Anthony Davis in the opening round but when you have to give close to everything, Giannis is a hell of a thing to have less of. They could really use 44 minutes and roughly as many points, in one or two of these contests. That doesn’t seem to be on the table. Khris Middleton took 26 shots on Tuesday night. That’s a high number, not for him, he’ll fire as many times as you ask, but in the sense of what should be, vaguely defined cosmic laws.
If I’m framing Milwaukee as the protagonists of this story, it’s because I like their players more, I like the city—cut here to the owner of five greater Glendale CBD shops, sticking his tongue out at the camera—but there is also the fact that the Suns just showed up. Their arc is that they were young and quite bad for a while, then young and interesting for eight games last August, and now with Paul in the fold they’ve strided over the street clothed rubble of the Western Conference. Their growth has been largely organic, this isn’t some thrown-together supersquad that feels as much like a brand summit as a basketball team. (Hat tip to the Nets, probably your 2021 if-they-were-healthy champs.) More than half the Suns available minutes last night went to guys they drafted—Booker, Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges, and Cam Johnson—guys who up until this year didn’t win much. This is not to express surprise that a bunch of young players improved, but the way this typically works is the hot upstarts go out in the first or second round, and then the next year they lose in the Conference Finals, and then maybe they lose in the second round again, and through their failures we get to know them. So that if and when they break through, it feels like a hard-won triumph. This feels like the fourth-best team in their own conference catching an absurdly strong tailwind, like an electoral victory in which 27 people voted. Anyway, Chris Paul scored 32 points on 19 shots with nine assists and two turnovers. The Suns fully deserve to be up 1-0.
They’re the more complete team. Something that’s not going to go away, even as Giannis draws closer to something approaching full health, is that Bryn Forbes has to play, giving teammates and opponents alike more space in which to work, and Pat Connaughton is required to exhaust himself on defense and hit a couple standstill threes at the other end, and that Brook Lopez might be unplayable against Phoenix’s starting guards, and there’s no obvious application for P.J. Tucker’s peculiar skills. Dear lord, Jeff Teague might have to give them eight okay minutes here and there. It’s 2021. You’re going to see problems everywhere after a 13-point loss that seemed broader, but the Bucks have issues, both specific to this matchup and universal, and you don’t start worrying about the Suns until you get to Jae Crowder’s flightiness, who’s going to fill the minutes that Ayton spends with a towel over his neck. I don’t guess I trust Cam Payne, I know that I do.
And so it would be a stretch to say the Bucks need to perfect, or suggest that they could be. They need to be at the top of their good-good game, because that’s where the Suns are, that’s the register at which we’re operating in these Finals. Leftover ziti for lunch, the sunday afternoon TNT cut of Tombstone, staying friends after the divorce, that kind of thing. You manage your expectations, you can have a swell time. If there’s a certain anxiety about what this series means, that comes mostly from people who understand history as a series of lists, every moment and individual appraised as a commodity, and it’s overwhelmed by a more urgent anxiety in the Bucks’ locker room, over the swiftness with which Chris Paul solved all those pick and roll coverages, ways to get Jrue Holiday a few easy buckets that might kickstart a run of tougher ones. It’s early but it always seems to be getting late very quickly, when you’re behind. Those Suns fans were annoying, seeing them after every bucket, preening and glowering in faux cinematic shallow focus, but man they were loud, like they knew something wonderful and important was happening. They were the sound of momentum building. Inexorably? That’s up to Milwaukee.