2021 Playoffs: West Final | Suns vs. Clippers
Chris Paul's masterful closeout performance ends pair of long droughts
After 16 long years, the star guard is going to The Finals for the first time while helping the Suns end their long Finals drought.
People in his high position aren’t supposed to cut loose and behave this way, not with 1,213 NBA regular season and playoff games of wrinkles and experience on the body. Not at age 36, not when you’re supposed to be setting a composed example for young teammates who hang on your every word and study your well-crafted and polished moves on and off the court.
But, what the hell: Chris Paul is going to The Finals, so of course, he can whoop and holla and dance if he wants to. He can’t act like he’s been there before, because he hasn’t … until now.
When you finally arrive at the doorstep, as he did Wednesday in a 130-103 victory after a 16-year journey that had its share of anguish, you kick the damn thing in. With a steel sneaker. Because, as an 11-time All-Star, you don’t want to end up among a group of great players who never played for a championship. You don’t want them to stand you next to Tracy McGrady and Bernard King and George Gervin and Dominique Wilkins. You want to leave the company of Damian Lillard, who is fiercely trying to prevent being part of that group, kicking and screaming, much like Paul did before this breakthrough.
Therefore, you saw what the man did in the Game 6 coronation against the LA Clippers, who were punished repeatedly by his mid-range jumpers and his 3-point punches and were mostly defenseless in what was Paul’s finest game of the series. This was a masterful closeout performance with a career playoff-high-tying 41 points, eight assists, three steals and no turnovers. After Karl Malone, Paul is now the second-oldest player in history to collect that many points in a playoff game. He had killer plays in the second half that left no doubt about the outcome and Paul’s overdue moment.
As he checked out of the game, Paul screamed: “Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!” And that emotion came from the depths of his stomach and his deprived soul. Not even a tasteless shove in the back by Pat Beverley late in the game could spoil Paul’s mood.
So, which was the greater surprise: that it took this long, or that he did this while triggering one of the league’s biggest turnaround stories in recent memory by elevating the — get this — Phoenix Suns?
This is his first season with the Suns and a most unexpected one it has turned out to be so far. Paul came aboard bringing hope and experience to a franchise that two seasons ago had the worst record in the West. Phoenix hadn’t made the Finals since 1993, when Charles Barkley was slim and John Paxson ripped their hearts out with a championship-winning jumper for the Bulls. The Suns were helplessly dormant in the several years before Paul’s arrival, and such a sudden uptick wasn’t greatly anticipated in Year One, but here he is and here they are.
“They welcomed me with open arms,” Paul said.
Fortunately for the Suns, Paul wasn’t washed at this stage of his career. Actually, he collected Kia MVP and All-NBA votes in 2020-21 and became an extension of what he did last year in Oklahoma City (which had far less talent but went seven games into the playoffs because of Paul). If nothing else, Paul solidified his rep as a generational leader and crafty all-time great point guard, only now, he’ll perform in the brightest of lights.
Coincidently, the Western Conference championship clincher came in Los Angeles at Staples Center, where he starred for six years for the Clippers and created the entertainment spectacle known as “Lob City.” Paul and the Clippers weren’t always the top playoff seed in those years, which collided with the Golden State Warriors’ dynasty, but injuries and a few collapses doomed them.
Frustrated by this, Paul forced his way to the Rockets in 2018 because misery deserved company in Houston; James Harden was without an NBA title. That’s when a hamstring pull while up 3-2 on the Warriors three years ago was crushing for Paul, who a year later had a fallout with Harden and fled to OKC.
Perhaps, if history could rewrite itself, Paul’s best chance would’ve been a decade ago while riding next to Kobe Bryant. That dream tandem was nixed by NBA commissioner David Stern, who turned down a the deal while acting as a de facto GM of the rudderless New Orleans Hornets.
“I’m really happy for Chris,” said Suns coach Monty Williams, who coached Paul in New Orleans. “I see the work he puts in and the care and the tears after the game. You never know if he’s going to be in this position.”
It’s rare for a player of his level to never reach The Finals. Before this win, Paul had the distinction of owning the most playoff wins of any All-Star who never made The Finals. He didn’t join a super team to get over the hump. He came to the Suns, collaborated with Devin Booker and motivated teammates who’d never tasted playoff basketball. This Finals trip was anything but guaranteed.
Paul scored 31 points in the second half Wednesday because he was a player possessed. He carried the Suns for long stretches in the third and fourth quarters where he accounted for 75% of their buckets. He shot an astonishing 7-for-8 from deep overall.
His 41 points were the second-most in a playoff game by a player 36 or older and this marked the second straight closeout game in which he scored 35 or more (he had 37 in Game 4 vs. Denver in the West semifinals). That also set a record for the oldest player with 35 or more points in consecutive closeout games.
In short, he wanted this to be over — the game, the series and his lengthy misery.
“Everything happens for a reason,” Paul said.
This was true before he reached the Finals, and true now.
“I’ve been a fan of his for a long time,” Booker said, “and I’ve learned so much from him this year. I always talk about off the court how he carries himself, and he’s just a true professional at every level at all times. I have a lot of respect for him as a man, not even as a basketball player, just understanding how bad he wants this and how much time he’s put into it … 16 years, that’s a long time.”
And now? Now he can attack another milestone and win an NBA title against the winner of the Bucks-Hawks and avoid being aligned with Barkley and Patrick Ewing and Karl Malone and Allen Iverson, among other greats who came and went without rings. But, one hill to climb at a time.
“We’re going to enjoy this one for a minute,” he said.
After 16 long years, you can best believe that minute to Chris Paul will feel like … 16 years.
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