When Chris Paul tore his hoarding in Game 5 of the 2018 Western Conference Finals and had to sit helpless and watch as the Houston Rockets hosted a 3-2 lead for the Golden State Warriors, it felt like the beginning of the end.
When the Rockets flared out next season to the same Warriors without Kevin Durant in the second round, it felt like the actual ending. Paul, who laid a 3-to-14 egg in Game 5 with the series tied 2-2, would never be the same player. His best and final shot on an NBA Finals berth had passed him by.
The Rockets traded him to Oklahoma City. Everyone wrote him off. I remember walking into the CBS newsroom the morning after this trade and suggesting to Raja Bell that the Thunder actually got the better end of it, that Paul, even though he was a diminished version of himself, was still better than Russell Westbrook.
Bell laughed at me. Waved me off like crazy. It turns out we were both wrong. There was nothing diminished about Paul as he stunned everyone, including myself, by leading what was believed to be a pathetic Thunder team to the playoffs. He looked as good as ever. And he still does.
On Sunday night, Paul authored his most recent masterpiece as the Suns completed another round of sweeping Denver Nuggets and finished with a season-high 37 points on 14-of-19 shooting, including 9 for 9 from the free-throw line. . He did not or even did take, a single 3-pointer. He did not need that. Paul has adjusted his game a bit as the analytical age has tried to phase him out, but not much. He remains a middle class champion.
This is just one of the many stories that Paul continues to refute. You don’t have to shoot 3s on a disproportionately large clip to win in today’s NBA. You just have to be good at the shots you trust. If you are, then every shot is analytically sound, and Paul is still amazing by any reasonable measurement. He finished fifth in the MVP poll, and he has the Suns, a team that had gone a decade without playing playoffs before his arrival, in the conference finals. The road to his first NBA Finals, potentially his first championship, is as open as it has ever been in his career.
I mean look at those numbers. Ridiculous. We’re talking about what LeBron James is doing as a 36-year-old, but you do not know that Paul is the same age.
This is not a sign that Paul has done this alone. Far from. The suns hardly have a weakness to be found. Deandre Ayton has broken out completely. Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson are two-way studs. They are deep. Versatile. Cameron Payne may be the league’s best career turnaround story. Monte Williams connects with his players in a way that few coaches do.
And Devin Booker is a superstar.
After scoring 47 in the Suns’ final game in the first round against the Lakers, Booker put 34 on the Nuggets Sunday in his second final game. Booker and Paul are third pair of Suns teammates to score at least 34 points in the same playoff game – he joined Charles Barkley / Dan Majerle in 1993 and Steve Nash / Shawn Marion in 2005.
As Paul has done with the narrative that he was, or is, washed up – and frankly the idea that he was never really a winning playoff player in the first place, a media-made story that was almost exclusively based on accidents and lucky to play in the western conference – Booker has made this good statistic / bad team reputation that he was saddled with look completely stupid.
It turns out that when you score 70 points in an NBA game, you’re pretty damn good. We do this a lot with young players, marking them as this or that without regard to context, and trying to overcome what our eyes tell us by indulging in these supposed all-encompassing statistics that don’t actually tell the whole story.
The Suns, from top to bottom, became trash cans throughout the first four years of Booker’s career. If you watched, he got better all the time. If you did not think he was always a guy who could be a big-time scorer on a big-time team (if he only had one chance to play in such a group), you did not know what you saw. But playmaking, the sense of pick and roll, the obligation to defend, all this proof that Booker has long been more than just a shooter for no reason, had been readily available for some time.
Now we can not ignore it. Just as you can not ignore it than Trae Young, is another young player you can feel that the masses who want to throw in the good-stats / bad-team bucket is a true blue star. Young has had to get better during his first three years and he still has the Hawks alive in the second round. But the incredible talent was always there. Same with Booker. The only thing is: Now he is at a stage where everyone gets to see it.
Where do the suns go from here? First up will be a date with either Utah or the Clippers. Jazz – a team that feels a lot like the Suns because they are a sum-of-their-parts device that is much better than probably many people are aware of – leads the series 2-1 with Game 4 sets for Monday night.
Phoenix can beat one of those teams, and now with Kyrie Irving sick in Brooklyn, and James Harden already out (so far) with an injured hamstring, anyone coming out of the East can also be a very beatable group. If you’re one of the many who jump on the Paul bandwagon in hopes of seeing him get his long-awaited first title or at least his first last berth, you will not get ahead of yourself. But it’s hard not to get excited. This is right there for Paul and the Suns, just when it should all be over.