NBA Playoffs, Phoenix Suns

Chris Paul cements legacy, first NBA Finals berth with best game of his career

Chris Paul waited 16 years for his first NBA Finals appearance. In Game 6 of the 2021 Western Conference Finals, the Phoenix Suns star seized his moment.

Despite being an 11-time NBA All-Star, 10-time All-NBA selection, four-time assists leader, six-time steals leader and one of the top-five point guards to ever play the game of basketball, Chris Paul‘s biggest career knock was one that just kept pounding away at his credentials: He had never won a championship, and he had never even been to the NBA Finals.

For many, it was a difficult dichotomy to reconcile. How could one of the greatest point guards of all time have only reached two conference finals, never played in the Finals and never hoisted the Larry O’Brien Trophy?

The answer, of course required context: CP3 rarely lost playoff series in which he definitively had the better team, and a string of bad luck and playoff injuries hampered him at almost every turn. All people ever remembered was a few late-game blunders against the Oklahoma City Thunder and coughing up a 3-1 lead to the Houston Rockets during his time with the LA Clippers. But buried beneath those traumatic, benchmark moments was a proven playoff competitor who needed things to shake his way just once to finally break through.

That same combination of facing tough opponents, injury woes and plain bad luck could apply to the Phoenix Suns and their 52-year history as a franchise … which is why it’s only fitting that their union now has both parties on the cusp of finally breaking the mold.

In Game 6 of the 2021 Western Conference Finals, Paul was finally back in Point God form. Finishing his night with 41 points to tie his playoff career high, along with 8 assists and zero turnovers while shooting 16-for-24 from the field and 7-for-8 from 3-point range, Paul delivered a truly historic performance.

He was absolutely dominant against the very same Clippers franchise he had never been able to get over the hump.

“There was questions about his production before tonight, and in my heart, I felt like it was a matter of time,” head coach Monty Williams said. “I didn’t know it was gonna be like that, but that’s who Chris is.”

It hadn’t been as easy as Paul made it look on Wednesday night. Coming off a dominant series in the team’s sweep of the Denver Nuggets, the Suns’ starting point guard was forced to miss the first two games of the conference finals after testing positive for COVID-19.

“Even before the series started, I got that call that Chris might be out,” Williams said. “And your heart sinks for a second because you’re just like, ‘Man, not right now.’”

Paul was unable to participate in basketball activities for more than eight days, and when he returned, he didn’t look like the same guy from the Nuggets series. It felt borderline unfair for a guy who had always been dealt tough hands to have another malady thrown at him.

After watching Phoenix built a 2-0 lead on the Clippers from afar, Paul proceeded to shoot 19-for-60 from the field over his first three games back. LA went 2-1 in those games, and for all the adjustments the Suns could make in Game 6 after squandering their Game 5 opportunity at home, none of those tactical adjustments would make up for another poor outing from Paul.

Fortunately, the Point God did not waste his second straight chance to book his first trip to the Finals.

“We talked about it this morning and we just wanted to seize the moment whenever the opportunity presents itself,” Jae Crowder said. “And I think he understood that more than anybody.”

The final results spoke for themselves, but much like this playoff run and Paul’s entire career, it was something of an uphill climb. He only had 10 points in the first half as the Suns led by nine at the break. A 17-point lead in the third quarter evaporated after a quick 10-0 Clippers run, and if Phoenix coughed up that lead, along with another good opportunity to close out on the road, all bets would’ve been off in an anything-goes Game 7.

But for once in his playoff career, Paul caught a break: A miscommunication in the Clippers defense left CP3 wide open for 3, in a moment that almost dared the Point God to prove his mortality yet again.

Chris Paul drilled it, putting his team back up by 10, and the floodgates opened back up.

“It was a shot that helped me loosen up in a certain area of my body,” Williams joked. “For whatever reason they didn’t guard him on the right wing, and they just kind of stared at him, and it was a moment. Chris loves those moments, but when he hit that shot, it was almost like symbolically he was like, ‘Coach, I got it.’ And he’s done that time and time again this season.”

Paul finished with 31 second-half points — the most of any half of his career, regular season or postseason. He scored Phoenix’s final 8 points in the third quarter, and then had 19 of their first 27 fourth-quarter points, propelling the Suns to their first Finals berth since 1993 with the most important performance of his career.

The adversity was there throughout, even when Paul’s heat check was out in full force.

After CP3 drilled yet another 3 to put the Suns up 26, a simple look in Patrick Beverley’s direction sent the one of the NBA’s biggest villains over the edge. He lost his composure, shoving Paul in the back with two hands to earn an ejection that revealed his true colors.

The Suns, meanwhile, stayed composed, knowing it was officially over at that point.

“Over the years, people talk junk to me, and a lot of times, I’ll usually say something back,” Paul said. “But I done changed a little. And I just kept thinking, if we do what we’re supposed to do, I’ll get the last laugh. You stay the course long enough, you break ’em. And that’s what we did.”

Even as Phoenix led by 21 points with five minutes to go, Crowder said his point guard refused to take his eye off the ball. He had been here too many times, suffered too many heartbreaks, to not see it all the way through.

“I kept asking him in the fourth quarter, ‘You taste that? You taste it?’ And he was like, ‘No. No,’” Crowder laughed. “Five minutes to go, we up 21, ‘You taste that?’ ‘NO.’

“He’d go back down — bang — hit the top-of-the-key 3, and I’m like, ‘All right, he’s still feelin’ it.’ It took us up to getting subbed out of the game, he was like, ‘I taste it now, I taste it now.’”

Complain about that third-quarter flop all you want, but Chris Paul’s unrelenting focus on his journey to this stage — even in this postseason alone — has been remarkable.

In Game 1 of the Phoenix’s first-round series against the Los Angeles Lakers, a shoulder stinger threatened to derail his playoff hopes right from the start. The Suns won that game, but Paul couldn’t use his right arm again until about halfway through Game 4. That timing aligned with Anthony Davis’ unfortunate groin injury, and the Suns dismantled the defending champions in three straight games to overcome a 2-1 series deficit.

Paul expressed his disappointment he wasn’t of more use to his team in the first round, and he came out on a mission against the Nuggets. Then came the positive COVID test and more than a week of isolation. Then, as he revealed after Game 6 on Wednesday, he suffered yet another nagging injury in his first game back.

Reflecting on his series of bad luck up to that latest injury, he recounted how, in 2018 with the Rockets, he’d never forget how he didn’t get a chance to play in those last two games against the Golden State Warriors after his equipment manager mentioned the “Western Conference Finals champion” hat and T-shirt he’d have waiting for him with just one more victory.

And yet, when Paul was asked if he ever began to doubt whether his moment to collect that hat and that T-shirt would arrive, he was resolute.

“Nope. Nope. I ain’t built like that,” he said. “It’s just … get to work. Get to work. What was it, Game 3, I found out I had partially tore some ligaments in my hand? And I was like, ‘Ahh, here we go.’ But I got an unbelievable team around me.”

The partially torn ligaments explain some of the shooting struggles in this year’s conference finals, but this whole postseason has been a roller coaster for a player who has to be sick of the turbulence by now. It’s the reason his embrace with Monty Williams and those postgame tears hit home so hard.

“I’m really happy for Chris, because again, I see the work that he puts in, I see the care, you saw the tears after the game,” Williams said. “You never know if you’re gonna be in these positions. And you watch guys get there three, four, five times, some people get there more than that, and you’re like, ‘Man, I worked my tail off.’ And then you just realize it’s a blessing, because everybody works at it. So if you get a chance to be a part of it, you realize you’ve been unbelievably blessed.”

No matter what happens from here, Chris Paul has finally reached an NBA Finals, and doing it at the age of 36, with such a young Suns team, is remarkable. Even if one were to ignore Paul’s shoulder stinger and positive COVID test, Devin Booker‘s broken nose and Cameron Payne’s rolled ankle, the Suns’ injury “luck” shouldn’t be accompanied by an asterisk, because good luck convincing any tortured Phoenix fan or Chris Paul stan that they should feel bad about the basketball gods finally smiling down upon them.

Paul reuniting with Monty, for this forlorn franchise, while closing out his former team in LA? That’s too good a story to be bogged down by pointless asterisks when every team is injured anyway.

“He has a number of contemporaries that have won championships and been in this position, and having been around him, that’s all he wants,” Williams said. “He wants to be a part of winning, and he’s persevered through a lot: injuries, playoff heartbreak, being as close as he was in Houston and getting hurt and not having a chance to compete for a title. I know that burned him. So for me to be able to watch that and then be in a position with him to go forward and have a chance is pretty cool.

“If you can learn anything from Chris Paul, it’s to keep going. Don’t quit. Serve others, because that’s what he does. He cares about his teammates, he spends a lot of time — you guys have no idea how much time he spends with these young guys on our team. I think when you serve people like that, they follow you. And that’s why he’s such a good leader, because he serves the guys that are around him.”

The job is not finished for Paul and the Suns. They still have four more wins and “the Larry” to play for, as Booker called it. But no matter what happens, and as if this were ever in doubt, CP3’s masterful Game 6 performance sealed his place among the all-time greats.

“Chris Paul is stamped regardless,” Booker said. “Anything else from here is extra just to solidify it. I know he wants it bad, I know he’s happy about this for his first time, but I know what he’s on the pursuit of, and we have that same understanding. We don’t talk about it much, but we know where we’re trying to get to. But as far as ‘he needs a ring to be considered’ — he’s one of the best point guards to ever play the game. And that’s a fact.”

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