Phoenix Suns star point guard Chris Paul has long been renowned for his savvy and craftiness, but the Milwaukee Bucks are struggling with the more simplistic elements of his game during the 2021 NBA Finals.
Paul and the Suns still hold a 2-1 series advantage over the Bucks despite losing Game 3 of the Finals. Milwaukee will hope to even the series on Wednesday night. Defending the pick-and-roll figures to be one of the Bucks’ keys to the game.
Chris Paul has been tremendous during the NBA Finals
Paul has lived up to his “Point God” nickname through the first three games of the NBA Finals.
The 36-year-old poured in 32 points in Game 1, also chipping in nine assists and four rebounds. He became the first player to tally at least 30 points and eight assists in his Finals debut since Michael Jordan back in 1991. Paul was incredibly efficient, shooting 12-for-19 from the field and committing just two turnovers.
It was a sensational opener for Paul and the Suns, one they would follow with another victory in Game 2. Devin Booker was the catalyst for Phoenix, scoring 31 points. Still, Paul was every bit the orchestrator on the offensive end, notching eight assists to go along with his 23 points.
Even in Phoenix’s lone loss, Paul still excelled. He scored 19 points on 8-for-14 shooting in Game 3, also finishing the contest with nine assists.
The Suns are vying for their first NBA championship in franchise history, and Paul is doing everything in his power to lead them to the mountaintop.
The Milwaukee Bucks are having a hard time stopping Paul in pick-and-roll sets
The pick-and-roll is one of the most basic actions any offense can run. Yet, the Bucks appear to be struggling with how best to attack Paul when he engages in those sets.
Bucks point guard Jrue Holiday said Paul’s ability to utilize angles and force defenders to choose between screener and ball-handler make things difficult for the defense.
“A lot of times, you just have to figure out when it actually happens, so in real time.” Holiday said of Paul’s play in the pick-and-roll, via Eric Nehm of The Athletic. “That’s why Chris goes into pick-and-roll. He’s one of the best at it. He doesn’t make it easy for the defender, and for the most part, he gets to the spot, or he gets the big rolling.”
One of the reasons Paul has been so challenging to guard in pick-and-roll is the emergence of Deandre Ayton. The Suns are averaging 1.49 points per possession during the playoffs when Ayton is the roll man, per NBA.com. That’s an elite figure.
Holiday lauded Ayton’s ability to “read his guard,” whether by staying on the screen or slipping early to find space for chances around the rim. The danger Ayton poses as a rim-runner is incredibly valuable given Paul’s vision and decision-making both as a facilitator and a scorer.
How can the Bucks slow Paul down in pick-and-roll?
Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer made some interesting adjustments in Game 3.
Budenholzer played center Brook Lopez for nearly six fewer minutes and gave Bobby Portis an extended run. Whereas Lopez struggled earlier in the series to hedge on screens and play Paul higher on the perimeter, the more nimble Portis was able to get out quicker and make things a bit more difficult.
Now, it should be said the Bucks were beneficiaries of a 3-for-14 shooting night from Devin Booker. Still, Milwaukee did a better job pressing up and keeping Paul out of the lane and away from his favored elbow jumper.
Ultimately, the onus will be on Holiday and Milwaukee’s bigs to solve the Paul pick-and-roll puzzle. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Budenholzer continue to play a bit smaller with Portis to try to combat the quickness of Phoenix’s guards.
All stats courtesy of Basketball Reference unless otherwise noted.