Welcome to "One Play!" Throughout the 2020-21 NBA season, our NBA.com Staff will break down certain possessions from certain games and peel back the curtains to reveal its bigger meaning.
Today, Phoenix Suns star Chris Paul takes the spotlight.
Context: Chris Paul sure looked comfortable in his Finals debut.
In Game 1 of the 2021 NBA Finals, Paul led the Phoenix Suns to a 118-105 win over the Milwaukee Bucks with another masterful performance, scoring a game-high 32 points to go along with nine assists while shooting 12-for-19 from the field and 4-for-7 from 3-point range.
Paul made some history in the process. Not only did he join Michael Jordan as the only players to record at least 30 points and nine assists in a Finals debut, he joined two other legends in Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Tim Duncan as the only players to score 30 or more points at his age in the Finals.
Paul has had a number of big games in these playoffs, but there was one thing he did in Game 1 of the Finals that we haven't seen from him in a while.
You know what that means - to the film room!
Breakdown: Pretty standard stuff, here.
Paul brings the ball up the court for the Suns following a missed shot from Jrue Holiday. On the floor with him are Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges, Jae Crowder and Deandre Ayton.
PJ Tucker starts the possession on Paul, but Khris Middleton switches onto him following a screen from Ayton. The thing is, Middleton isn't the player Paul wants defending him, so he calls for Crowder to set a screen for him, resulting in Bobby Portis switching onto him.
With Portis guarding him, Paul dribbles the ball out to survey the scene.
You might not be surprised to hear that Paul has been one of the league's best one-on-one scorers this season.
According to NBA.com, there were 20 players who averaged more isolation points per game than him during the regular season, but Paul ranked in the 81st percentile with 1.05 points per possession. He's been even better in the playoffs, scoring at a rate of 1.25 points per possession to rank in the - wait for it - 97th percentile.
To maximize spacing for Paul, Booker, Bridges and Crowder park themselves on the 3-point line while Ayton hangs out in the dunker spot.
Now that the coast is clear, Paul goes to work.
Like Michael Jordan said, "You reach, I teach."
Portis tries to poke the ball away from Paul but is unsuccessful, opening the door for Paul to attack the basket.
With Holiday on Booker, Middleton on Crowder, Pat Connaughton on Bridges and Tucker on Ayton (who does a nice job of keeping Tucker honest by relocating when Paul gets downhill), there's little-to-no help defence in sight.
The result? The easiest bucket of the night for Paul.
Why it matters: Here's a stat for you: Paul attempted a total of 11 shots in isolation in Game 1 of the 2021 NBA Finals, per InStat, seven of which he made.
Why is that notable? According to InStat, that's tied for the second-most shots Paul has attempted in isolation since 2011-12, which is when he joined the LA Clippers. Not only that, but he's only attempted 10 or more shots in isolation eight times during that nearly decade-long span. And of those eight times, six came when he was with the Houston Rockets.
Paul has long been one of the league's most efficient one-on-one scorers, but it wasn't until he played under Mike D'Antoni in Houston that he became a big-time isolation scorer. (More about that here). In 2017-18, only John Wall (7.0), Kevin Durant (7.0), LeBron James (10.0) and James Harden (13.0) averaged more isolation points per game than Paul (6.0). He was in similar territory in 2018-19, trailing only Harden (15.6), Damian Lillard (6.0), Durant (5.4) and Kawhi Leonard (4.6) with 3.9 points per game on those plays.
In other words: Paul turned back the clocks a little in Game 1 of the 2021 NBA Finals.
|Team||Opponent||Date||Isolation FGM||Isolation FGA|
|Houston Rockets||Golden State Warriors||May 24, 2018||5||12|
|Oklahoma City Thunder||Houston Rockets||Aug. 31, 2020||6||12|
|Houston Rockets||Golden State Warriors||Jan. 20, 2018||6||11|
|Phoenix Suns||Milwaukee Bucks||June 7, 2021||7||11|
|Houston Rockets||Los Angeles Lakers||Dec. 31, 2017||4||10|
|Houston Rockets||Golden State Warriors||April 1, 2018||6||10|
|Houston Rockets||Chicago Bulls||Jan. 8, 2018||5||10|
|Houston Rockets||LA Clippers||Jan. 1, 2018||5||10|
It was needed, because the Bucks decided to switch everything in the first half and most of the second half, rather than playing their usual drop coverage that would have left them vulnerable to the midrange pull-ups Paul and Booker have been torching teams with in these playoffs.
Both Paul and Booker were quick to make them pay for those switches, targeting Portis...
...and Brook Lopez relentlessly whenever they were on the court.
It gives the Bucks a lot to think about heading into Game 2. Do they continue to switch, banking on Paul and Booker not being able to exploit their switches quite as easily as they did in Game 1? Do they get more selective with their switches, whether it's switching one through four as opposed to one through five or switching only late in the shot clock when it's easier for them to provide help? Or do they look to apply more pressure to Paul and Booker, doubling and trapping them to get the ball out of their hands?
There are other options, of course, many of which the Bucks tried in Game 1, although they didn't have much success with any of them.
When they did go to their normal drop coverage, Paul went to work as a passer.
When they went small in the fourth quarter by moving Giannis Antetokounmpo to center, Paul continued to hunt mismatches, only by targeting Connaughton and Bryn Forbes instead of Portis and Lopez. (These are the situations the Bucks miss Donte DiVincenzo, by the way, because he's better equipped than Connaughton and Forbes to be the fifth player in Milwaukee's small ball lineups).
Does that mean the Bucks are at a complete loss in this series? Of course not. We're talking about the best defensive team in these playoffs and it's important not to overreact to one game. If anything, it goes to show how difficult both Paul and the Suns are to defend because of the amount of ways they can beat you.
Like Booker said of Paul after the game: "He's one of those guys that you take one thing away, he does the other."
In Game 1, "the other" for Paul was going into Rockets mode.
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