There’s not much to go on anymore, in framing Chris Paul’s clash Sunday with the Los Angeles Clippers as anything edgy or bitter or otherwise worthy of some sort of statement.
Sure, Paul spent six tempestuous, teasing seasons with the Clippers from 2011-17, serving as floor general for a team that annually ranked near the top of the league in drama without ever getting beyond the Western Conference semifinals.
But that was then, this is now. In a nod to how long four years in the NBA really is, not a single Clippers player remains from the roster Paul last played with in 2016-17. Only assistant Brendan O’Connor is left from the coaching staff. So many of the big names with big personalities — Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, Doc Rivers — have been scattered to the wind.
Paul himself is thrice-removed from that L.A. bunch, one that maybe coulda and even shoulda, yet didn’t. Now 35, he has left the Clippers, the Rockets and the Thunder in his wake to take over as the triggerman and resident old head for a young Phoenix Suns team looking to take a huge stride or two this season.
Spinning forward from their 8-0 performance in the Orlando bubble last summer, the Suns became the first NBA team to reach five wins with their high-altitude, back-to-back victories Thursday and Friday, respectively, at Utah and at Denver.
They’re doing it with defense (stingiest in points allowed, second-best in shots allowed and defensive 3-point percentage). They’re doing it with the development of youngsters Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges. They’re doing it in coach Monty Williams’ second season (Phoenix improved from 19 victories to 34 last season, in just 73 games).
And they’re doing it with a few key veteran acquisitions, including Jae Crowder and Cam Payne but none more significant than Paul.
“The one thing about our team is, they’ve seen Chris do this before,” Williams said after Phoenix stiffened in time to beat the Nuggets Friday, 106-103. “So when you put the ball in his hands, they know what he’s trying to do and to a degree they know what to expect.”Paul nails the dagger jumper at Denver.
In blowing a fat lead yet rallying to win at Denver, Paul gave — and his Suns teammates witnessed — a tour de force closing performance. He scored eight of his 21 points in the fourth quarter, sure. But it was his nudge of Williams to challenge a foul call on Bridges with 31.2 seconds left that helped seal the deal for the Suns.
That and the 15-foot step-back shot Paul hit to make it 104-100 with 7.3 seconds left. And the pair of foul shots he sank with 2.9 to go.
It started with Paul encouraging Williams to question the foul against Gary Harris, who lost the ball attacking the basket as Bridges cut in front of him. Replays showed no actual contact, so Ayton met Nuggets center Nikola Jokic at midcourt for a jump ball … and won it, tipping the ball to Paul, naturally.
“I was thinking about our timeouts; you don’t want to lose your timeouts,” Williams said. “Usually fouls aren’t overturned. But we got eye contact and he’s like, ‘Coach, why not? Let’s just go for it.’
“He’s an asset to our team in many ways. That kind of gave us a swing there, to win the jump ball and get some points out of it and take some points off their board, really helps us win the game.”
Instead of Harris potentially hitting two free throws to tie at 102-102, Paul’s jumper put the Suns up four points. His free throws were enough when Denver scrambled for a Jamal Murray 3-pointer that missed.
The finish was a great example, in just his sixth game with a new team, of Paul imposing his will on events when it mattered most.
As former teammate J.J. Redick recently said of him, “When I think of Chris, I think of someone who is trying to manipulate every possession and squeeze the juice, so to speak, out of every single possession to gain an advantage.”
Paul’s competitiveness, at 6-foot-1 and 175 pounds, carries with it a Napoleonic whiff among the NBA’s tall trees. And it’s something that has rankled opponents, fans and even teammates at times.
That’s how it went, anyway, in the point guard’s higher profile stops in Los Angeles and Houston. But now Paul is into a second consecutive season of image polishing and reputational restoration, freshening the look of a 10-time All Star who never has reached the Finals.Chris Paul’s efficient flair for the game is already on full display in Phoenix.
In 16 seasons, with nine All-Defensive Team honors and as many All-NBA selections, Paul only has made it to a conference championship round once. But he opened eyes with his commitment and results last season in Oklahoma City, helping to turn the early stages of a rebuild into a productive playoff showing.
Now Paul is showing by doing in Phoenix, imparting on-the-fly lessons to the team’s brightest young stars with nothing less than a postseason berth in sight. Not of the play-in variety, either, if they can help it.
“I think we’re building experiences together,” Williams said late Friday. “I think he and Devin are going to have some synergy as we go forward. Chris has done it over the course of his career — he’s not afraid to make plays at the end of the game and he’s not afraid to take those shots.”
Paul made it known as camp began that he wasn’t on board merely to Yoda his tender teammates through the schedule. In his first Zoom media session, he said: “Everyone always talks about what I can teach [Booker] or teach some of these other guys, but they’re teaching me at the same time too. I’m not James Naismith by no means. First things first, I’m not just coming in here trying to teach everybody.”
It’s too soon to tell how well the Suns’ and their point guard’s timelines will sync up. Paul has a player option worth $44 million for 2021-22, but if his play and the team’s results both shine, he could be on the move again just as Booker, Ayton, Bridges and the rest are hitting their stride.
For now, though, there’s an unmistakable sense of ownership, even pride, in Paul’s voice when he talks about the Suns’ capacity to win and build at the same time.
“I’m gonna tell you something: Win or lose this game, I already know who this team is,” Paul said after Friday’s victory. “I know who every guy on this team is. I know what they’re made of. I know the kind of energy they bring … Regardless of what happens night in and night out, I know what type of team we have and what each guy represents.”
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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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