Remember when Chris Paul and the Phoenix Suns were laughable picks going up against the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round of the NBA playoffs? There were not a whole lot of people giving Paul and the Suns the benefit of the doubt going up against LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and the rest of the Purple and Gold crew.
It didn’t matter that Paul and the Suns had posted the second-best record this season in the Western Conference. It didn’t matter that Devin Booker, one of the league’s hedging stars on the rise, is about the closest thing in the NBA that comes close to resembling the toughness and sheer heart of Kobe Bryant.
No one really cared that Phoenix head coach Monty Williams, with Paul’s help, had resurrected the Suns back into basketball prominence. And then there’s Paul, a man playing in his 16th season. Before arriving in Phoenix this season, Paul was pretty much thought of being on the last leg of his brilliant career.
In the last four seasons, Paul has played for three teams, a not-so-subtle signal that the end is near. Or so many thought. After spending six seasons with the Los Angeles Clippers, where he never advanced past the second round in the playoffs, Paul was sort of in a castaway role. In two seasons in Houston, Paul and James Harden couldn’t get it done.
A one-year stint with the Oklahoma City Thunder seemed almost like a banishment into basketball oblivion for the 11-time NBA All-Star. And so Paul became almost an afterthought, a future Hall of Famer finishing his career into the abyss. But then he connected again with Williams, who coached Paul when the New Orleans franchise was first the Hornets and later on the Pelicans.
It seemed things have worked out pretty well for Williams and Paul. It has been Paul’s steady hand as a veteran of NBA wars in the regular season as well in the postseason that has propelled the Suns to being one series away from playing in the NBA Finals. Who would have thought? Not too many folks. Not a lot of people saw this coming.
“The game is a lot easier when he’s out there,” Phoenix guard Cameron Payne said after the Suns had beaten the Lakers in Game 4 of their first-round playoff series. “We’re a much better team. He’s been the quarterback the whole season, so it’s always a blessing to have him out there with us.”
Sure, Phoenix had the prolific scoring machine in the young Booker. Yes, the Suns had a sideline mentor in Williams who would coach up and maximize the potential of his young players. And you know what you’re getting in Paul, an elite floor general with enough moxie to get in your face. More importantly, Paul still has the talent to drop 37 points on you as he did against the Denver Nuggets in a semifinal elimination game.
That’s the kind of scoring production basketball fans didn’t get a chance to see in the Suns’ six-game elimination of the Lakers in the first round. That’s because a shoulder injury suffered in Game 1 of that series limited Paul to almost mop-up duty work as Booker took over, including a smashing of last year’s NBA champions with a 47-point performance at STAPLES Center in Game 6.
The funny thing is Paul and the Suns, even with Davis injured, were expected to roll over and go home quietly in the night after five games. That’s how disrespectful many basketball know-it-alls had the Suns-Lakers series going. So much for expertise. All throughout the regular season, Paul and Suns proved to be the more superior ballclub to the Lakers.
Phoenix entered the postseason as the No. 2 team in the Western Conference. The Lakers were the No. 7 seed and had to win a play-in game against the Golden State Warriors just to have the right to play in Phoenix in the first round. And so who should have been the favorites to win that series? Not the Lakers. They simply were not good enough this season to be crowned champions again.
The prevailing thought among the experts was that Paul and the Suns were a nice little team who had a pretty good season and would be reminded of just that when they went up against the mighty Lakers. The predicted outcome didn’t register with Paul and the Suns. They were not feeling that at all.
In dominating the Lakers in Game 5 with a 115-85 win on their home floor and beating the defending champs 113-100 in the close-out game, Paul and the Suns won the last two contests of that series by 33 points. Simply put, the better team won. All the bellyaching about injuries, no one wants to hear it. Paul, who averaged 16 points and nearly nine assists (8.9) a game during the regular season, started to get his mojo back in the last two games.
In the four-game sweep of Denver, Paul looked more like himself than that imitator in the first round. In Game 1, Paul went for 21 points and 11 assists in the Suns’ 122-105 win. In Game 2, Paul concentrated more on being a distributor, dishing out 15 assists to go along with his 17 points in Phoenix’s 123-98 victory.
Then in Game 3, Paul and Booker played tag-team on the Nuggets. Booker scored a team-high 28 points in the Suns’ lopsided 116-102 win. Paul added 27 points, saving the best for last.
As Phoenix was putting the finishing touches on a 125-118 road win, Paul, the No. 5 assist man in NBA history, would let his scoring do all of the talking for him with his virtuoso performance. Knowing what was at stake, Paul came through in the clutch as he has done many, many times before. After erasing the Lakers from the postseason and getting the broom out to sweep the No. 3 Nuggets out of the playoffs, no one should be caught napping on Paul and the Suns.
“A couple of years ago they were writing me off,” Paul told TNT after Phoenix beat the Nuggets in Game 4. “This ain’t about me. It’s about us.”
Featured Image Caption: April 8, 2021-Phoenix Suns guard Chris Paul (3) moves the ball up the court against the Los Angeles Clippers during the regular season. Photo by Dennis J. Freeman/News4usonline