Arms crossed, thinking retrospectively about a career spanning 16 seasons, five teams and copious postseason calamity, Chris Paul shared what he’s learned about leadership playing for the Phoenix Suns.
“What you learn, is that in order to make a team go, it’s OK to approach things differently,” he said. “Everybody doesn’t have to be the same, and I’ve learned that over the years. At the end of the day, you know somebody’s heart.”
If you don’t, just check the game tapes in what’s been a masterful postseason for Paul that vaults him atop the leaderboard for our first edition of the Race to NBA Finals MVP Ladder. That’s right, we’re bringing the Kia Race to the MVP Ladder to the NBA Finals, and we’ll update it after every game of this series, which tips off on Tuesday at Phoenix Suns Arena (9 ET, ABC).
Paul finished fifth in the voting for the 2020-21 Kia NBA MVP Award, but he should fare much better in the chase for this piece of hardware.
Interestingly, Paul makes his first NBA Finals appearance in the 1,214th game of his career. Only Kevin Willis appeared in more games (1,428) before making his finals debut.
Paul appears to be the early favorite in this wide-open field, which also features a two-time Kia MVP in Giannis Antetokounmpo, but no former NBA champions, let alone former NBA Finals MVPs. Over the last 12 years, just four different players — LeBron James (4 NBA Finals MVPs), Kawhi Leonard (2), Kevin Durant (2) and Kobe Bryant (2) — accounted for 10 NBA Finals MVP awards, while Dirk Nowitzki and Andre Iguodala took home the other two.
So, we’re guaranteed to finally see a new NBA Finals MVP.
Paul started off the playoffs ranked 19th all-time in postseason assists, and he’s moved past Mark Jackson, Maurice Cheeks, Kevin Johnson, Bob Cousy, Jerry West, Isiah Thomas, Dennis Johnson and Michael Jordan to take over the No. 11 spot. Paul needs to serve up just 16 more assists to move past Bryant for No. 10 on the list, and he’s 38 assists behind Larry Bird at No. 7.
If Paul hits that mark, he will have also surpassed Scottie Pippen (9th) and Steve Nash (8th) on the way.
And now, the Top 6 in our first 2021 Race to the NBA Finals MVP Ladder:
1. Chris Paul, Phoenix Suns
Playoff stats: 18.1 ppg, 8.7 apg, 1.4 spg
Tied his playoff career-high with 41 points in Phoenix’s Game 6 series-clinching win over the LA Clippers, while contributing eight assists and three steals with zero turnovers. With that performance, Paul became the first player since Shaquille O’Neal (2000) to finish a conference finals contest with 40 points or more with no turnovers. Michael Jordan (1998) was the last guard to accomplish that feat on that stage. This postseason, Paul has notched 122 assists with just 22 turnovers, and he’s a major reason why the Suns own a 6-1 record in this year’s playoffs in games decided by single digits.
2. Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns
Playoff stats: 27.0 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 4.8 apg
He’s got something in common with Julius Erving, Maurice Lucas, Rick Barry, Elgin Baylor and Tom Heinsohn in that he’s one of the six players over the last 70 years to be the leading scorer of a team to reach The Finals while making his postseason debut. “It’s crazy with Book, I don’t think about his age (24) a lot,” Paul said. “He came into the league at a young age. So, he’s seen a lot of things. He may be 24, but he’s a lot older in NBA years because it grew him up really fast.” Booker is the youngest leading scorer for a Finals team since Kevin Durant (23 years, 210 days) led Oklahoma City in 2012.
3. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
Playoff stats: 28.2 ppg, 12.7 rpg, 5.2 apg
Antetokounmpo’s status for Game 1 remains in question, with the league actually excusing him from Monday’s Media Day availability due to that shaky status. But let’s not for one minute question the two-time MVP’s hunger to bring his squad its first title since 1971. He’s working diligently behind the scenes at a private gym to rejoin his teammates. They’ll need him because the Suns swept Milwaukee in the regular season, winning both games by one point. Interestingly, the Suns and Jazz are the only two teams in the league that the Bucks haven’t defeated this season. Antetokounmpo averaged 40 points on 60% shooting in his two appearances against the Suns, the highest scoring average for any player who played at least two games against the Suns this season.
4. Khris Middleton, Milwaukee Bucks
Playoff stats: 23.4 ppg, 8.0 rpg, 1.5 spg
This man’s dangerous from deep and scored 27 of his 32 points in the second half of Saturday’s close-out win over the Hawks. A good portion of that scoring output came during this ferocious third-quarter surge. Milwaukee is 11-0 in this postseason when Middleton hits the long ball at a clip of 40% or better. In the Bucks’ losses this postseason, Middleton is shooting 15% from deep. In the wins, he’s knocking down 42% from range. “You know, he’s a bucket-getter,” coach Mike Budenholzer said. “He’s just got such a great overall package, and I think he’s just an underrated playmaker. He’s got the ultimate green light. He can pass it, he can shoot it, he can do a little bit of everything. You know, he’s been special. We’ll need more of that going forward.”
5. Jrue Holiday, Milwaukee Bucks
Playoff stats: 17.6 ppg, 8.4 apg, 1.5 spg
Holiday has been one of the league’s best two-way players for quite a while, but now the world finally gets a chance to see him on the game’s greatest stage. Holiday finished the conference finals with back-to-back performances with 25 points or more and gobbled up four steals to go with two blocks in the series-clinching Game 6 win. It’s worth watching how Holiday performs on the road this series. Before closing out the Hawks, in Milwaukee’s three previous road games, Holiday shot just 26%. He’s averaging 19 points on 46% shooting at home throughout the postseason and 16 points on 39% shooting on the road.
6. Deandre Ayton, Phoenix Suns
Playoff stats: 16.2 ppg, 11.8 rpg, 0.9 bpg
Give Ayton his flowers for flourishing this season and throughout the playoffs. Ayton has racked up 11 double-doubles so far in the playoffs and just three players in team history have put up more in a single postseason (Charles Barkley, Nash and Shawn Marion). Ayton is shooting 70.6% this postseason with all 120 baskets coming from fewer than 15 feet from the rim. Ayton is shooting nearly 75% in the paint (116 for 155) and is coming off a series against the LA Clippers in which he knocked down 42 of 61 from the floor.
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