He’s excited for sure, but it wasn’t supposed to be THIS much of a challenge already. The Suns blasted through the West with the second best record in the league and the conference, and were supposed to get a fairly easy first round warm up match against a 7-seed like the Memphis Grizzlies or San Antonio Spurs. Heck, even the Portland Trail Blazers, or Dallas Mavericks or Golden State Warriors would have been perfectly acceptable.
But no, it’s got to be the defending champs themselves. The Los Angeles Lakers suffered a lot of injuries this season and fell to the 7th seed in the playoffs because of it.
Now the Suns are the first 2nd seed in league history to be the underdog against the 7th seed.
Yet now the Lakers are finally healthy, and with their Big Three they are 21-7 this year (75% win rate), including the Play-in win on Wednesday night. Sure-fire Hall of Famers LeBron James and Anthony Davis lead the way offensively, while the league’s best defense holds down the opponents on the other end. They bottled up the Golden State Warriors in the second half last night, outscoring them 61-45 to solidify their 7th seed and the right to face the Suns in round one.
Is Chris Paul frustrated? TNT’s Charles Barkley asked Paul about this possibility a week ago, right after the Suns had defeated the Blazers. Barkley asked what Paul thought of maybe facing the Lakers or Warriors in round one.
“Man, Chuck, Chuck, I hate to cut you off man,” Paul said a week ago, “I’ve been in the West my whole career. The West[ern Conference] ain’t ever been easy. I don’t care who you’re playing, what series it is, what game it is.”
He went through all the greats from his 15-year career, 12 of which ended in playoff runs including the last 10 straight.
“You can’t duck nobody if you really want to win it all.”
Chris Paul has certainly never had the chance to duck anybody in his career. Sometimes you get an easy-ish playoff round or two, but eventually if you want to go all the way to the Finals you’ve got to face some stiff competition. And beat them. Paul’s teams have not done the latter as well as he might have hoped.
As recently as 2019, with James Harden and the Houston Rockets, they (4th seed) went on the road against eventual champ Golden State Warriors (1st seed) in the second round. They lost the first two games in Oakland by a total of 10 points, won two at home, lost game five back in Oakland and eventually went down in the sixth game at home. Paul had a solid series, increasing his scoring and rebounding over regular season averages, but Mike D’Antoni’s small ball eventually came up short to the Four-Hall-of-Famer Warriors.
The year before, 2018, was his best chance at a championship but his Rockets (1st seed) lost to the even-better Warriors (2nd seed) in the Western Conference Finals. This time the Rockets had the right formula and the momentum but Paul suffered a hamstring injury and missed Game 7, where his team missed something like 846 straight threes and scored only 92 points to allow the Warriors to move on to the Finals. The four-HoF-Warriors scored 90 of their 101 points in the deciding game.
That’s the Rockets run. Two losses to the juggernaut Warriors, who didn’t lose to anyone in the West for five straight years.
Paul’s time with the Clippers before that was full of a lot of ups and downs, ending with playoff downs that sullied his post-season reputation despite him playing incredible.
They lost in the 2017 first round in the 4-5 matchup, despite having home court advantage, largely because Blake Griffin suffered a toe injury in game 3 and never returned. Paul averaged 25.3 points, 9.9 assists and 5 rebounds but his only other double digit scorers after Blake went down were DeAndre Jordan and sixth man Jamal Crawford.
The year before, in 2016, they lost the 4-5 matchup in the first round as well, losing four straight games after going up 2-0. This time it was Chris Paul AND Blake Griffin who suffered from injuries and could not finish the series. Griffin (quad) went down in game four, Paul in game five.
Four playoffs — five if you included the 2020 playoffs with the Thunder — where Paul played very well, only to be derailed by his own injuries or injuries to teammates.
So why does Chris Paul have a bad playoff reputation?
It goes all the way back to 2015, in the second round of the playoffs where the 3rd seeded Clippers faced the 2nd seeded Rockets. Chris Paul’s Clippers had a 3-1 lead and their health intact, but epically collapsed in three straight losses to James Harden’s Rockets. The biggest fail was with the Clippers AT HOME with a 3-2 series lead and a 92-79 lead heading into the 4th. Just playing okay would have won the series and sent them to the Conference Finals. But that’s not what happened. The Rockets, down 13 to start the quarter and facing a long summer vacation, outscored the Clippers 40-15 on the backs of the two-way efforts of Josh Smith and Corey Brewer of all people.
That’s it. That’s the series that gave Chris Paul a sullied playoff reputation that he has not been able to shake no matter how well he plays when he’s not injured.
He’s been in the playoffs 12 times in his career, made only one Conference Finals and been ousted in the first round six times. But it’s rarely been his fault when he’s been healthy — in fact, his career playoff averages (20.9/8.3/5.2) are higher everywhere except assists, which go down for everyone in the playoffs, than the regular season (18.3/9.4/4.5).
This 51-21 Suns team is one of the best teams Chris Paul has ever played on, actually.
Those Lob City Clippers did not win at the same rate as this Suns team before the playoffs started. And they weren’t as deep as this Suns team.
The Mike D’Antoni/James Harden Rockets did have a better record (65-17) than this Suns team one year, but they kept falling to the juggernaut Warriors.
The Thunder last year were spunky but not nearly as good as this Suns team up and down the roster.
Let’s see what Paul can do this time. Now he’s got the defending champs, featuring two sure-fire Hall of Fame monsters, coming up on Sunday with a young team that’s never been under this kind of pressure before.
He can restore his playoff reputation if he can stay in one piece and lead this Suns team past the Lakers and deep into the 2021 Playoffs. It’s going to take the greatest leadership effort of his career, but he’s most proud of being healthy right now.
“I think at this point in my career, I think one of the biggest things I’m probably most proud of is being available,” Paul said. “I think that’s a talent in itself, is just being available for your team.”
The best ability is availability.
Game one. Lakers at Suns. 12:30 PM on ABC.