On the surface, The Three-Body Problem wouldn’t seem to relate to NBA strategy. The Hugo Award–winning science-fiction novel, penned by Chinese author Liu Cixin, involves a fictional civilization stuck on a planet orbiting three suns. When only one sun is close, the civilization can survive; when two are close, fires ravage the landscape and chaos reigns; and when all three line up just right, the entire planet will plunge into the nearest one and be destroyed forever.
No basketball is involved in that breakdown. But Game 1 of the 2021 NBA Finals offered a real-world example of the destruction that three starry suns, or three starry Suns, can wreak when working in sync.
The Suns and Bucks couldn’t have played their regular-season meetings, their preludes to an unexpected Finals matchup, any tighter. In February, in Phoenix, the Suns eked out a one-point win with Jrue Holiday absent; in the rematch in April, in Milwaukee, they did the same after the Bucks lost Giannis Antetokounmpo to cramping early in overtime.
Yet in front of a raucous home crowd in Game 1 of the Finals, the Suns weren’t so interested in that sort of drama. They never trailed after the 3:37 mark of the first quarter and grabbed full control with a thrilling third-quarter run. And when the final buzzer sounded on Phoenix’s first Finals game since 1993, the Suns and their three brightest stars had won by a lot more than one point, 118-105.
In a novel Finals matchup, featuring exactly zero players with a championship ring, the Suns’ Big Three demonstrated that Finals experience, apparently, is overrated. Their teammate Jae Crowder, the only player on either team with previous Finals experience, missed all eight of his field goals and scored just one point. But the team’s stars provided so much firepower that they could take over the game all on their own.
In the first quarter, Chris Paul didn’t score—but Devin Booker picked up the slack with 12 points. In the second quarter, Booker made just one field goal—but Paul took his turn, with 11 points to help Phoenix build its lead.
The whole team came together in a resplendent third quarter, led, of course, by the veteran. Paul scored 16 points on 6-for-7 shooting in the frame, including 3-for-3 from distance, and notched multiple highlight-worthy buckets as he played with his food on the perimeter.
Chris Paul is just punishing these switches against Bobby Portis. Sheesh. pic.twitter.com/25qaC0emPd— Steve Jones Jr. (@stevejones20) July 7, 2021
Paul finished his first Finals game with 32 points on 12-for-19 shooting. Booker didn’t shoot as well overall—just 8-for-21, including 1-for-8 on 3-pointers—but compensated by reaching the free throw line 10 times, leading to 27 points of his own.
The third member of Phoenix’s Big Three is Deandre Ayton—yes, the third-year center has played with sufficient oomph in these playoffs to warrant that inclusion. Ayton has held his own against Anthony Davis, Nikola Jokic, and now Giannis, and on Tuesday night, he was simply spectacular.
As in the regular season, Ayton was the Suns’ main defender against Giannis, yet his greatest contribution on the defensive end may have come on the glass. Ayton is Phoenix’s only traditional big, yet the Bucks struggled to crash the offensive boards after their many misses. Milwaukee had rebounded 30.8 percent of its misses in the playoffs entering the Finals, tops for any team that made the second round; in Game 1, that figure was a mere 20.4 percent, which would rank last in the playoff field.
And on the offensive end, Ayton paired with Paul, as he has all season, to tap out a melodious rhythm in the pick-and-roll. When the Bucks switched in the first half, Ayton posted up P.J. Tucker and converted a soft jump hook. When the Bucks employed their typical drop coverage in the second half, Ayton rolled hard to the rim and flushed home a Paul lob.
Ayton finished the game with 22 points and 19 rebounds—finishing one board shy of the first 20-20 Finals game since Shaquille O’Neal in 2004. If Ayton wasn’t considered a part of any Big Three before Tuesday night, he must be now.
Other Suns stepped up as well. Mikal Bridges scored 14 points, and the bench Camerons, Johnson and Payne, each added 10. Entering Tuesday night, Phoenix was the favorite in this series because of its well-rounded roster and solid play on both sides of the ball, and the Suns lived up to that reputation in all facets in Game 1.
The Bucks, for their part, don’t need to panic yet. They rebounded from Game 1 losses against both the Nets and Hawks, and they have some low-hanging strategic fruit to pluck going forward. Giannis will play more, after going just 35 minutes in Game 1 as he works his way back from injury. Jeff Teague (10 minutes) will presumably play less, and Mike Budenholzer will surely pivot away from any defensive schemes that force Bobby Portis to scramble against Paul and Booker on the perimeter.
As befits the first game of a series, the Bucks experimented with both rotation and strategy. Tucker started the game guarding Paul, with Holiday chasing Booker, but the Bucks flipped from a scheme of mostly switching in the first half to mostly dropping in their pick-and-roll coverage in the third quarter. Paul was quickly comfortable attacking both. In the fourth quarter, however, the Bucks went small—just as they had in an attempted comeback in Game 1 against Atlanta.
In that game, Brook Lopez and Portis played a combined 35 minutes through three quarters—then 12 combined seconds in the fourth. The Hawks won, but the quarter provided proof of concept for a Giannis-at-center strategy. (At least, it did until Giannis’s injury, after which Lopez and Portis excelled in the star’s stead.)
In Tuesday’s game, similarly, Lopez and Portis played a combined 37 minutes through three quarters—then 25 combined seconds in the fourth. Bryn Forbes, glued to the bench for most of the early periods, played nine of his 12 minutes in the final frame and knocked down a pair of 3s. The Bucks didn’t complete their comeback or even come particularly close—they never bridged the gap any closer than seven points—but their small lineup outscored the Suns in the fourth quarter. Expect more of the same in Game 2 and beyond.
Yet the lesson of The Three-Body Problem is that mere mortals cannot contend with three simultaneous suns, no matter the adjustments they make on the ground. When the Suns’ Big Three are all playing as well as they did on Tuesday, the Bucks might not be able to survive. In the novel, the suns rained fire on the poor planet when they worked together; in Game 1 of the NBA Finals, the Suns did the same to the Bucks.