Chris Paul stood on the court after the final buzzer of the Phoenix Suns’ series-ending win over the Denver Nuggets at Ball Arena in Denver, looking for family. He began walking toward the his team’s locker room with a sea of orange and purple cascading over his vision. But through those waters, he found what he was looking for: his mother, Robin, and brother, CJ.
Paul embraced each of his family members, his heart likely full as chants of ‘MVP’ rained down on him from Suns fans. This was a moment that Paul had worked hard for. But seconds earlier, he said others deemed it unlikely.
“A couple years ago, they was writing me off,” Paul said to TNT’s Chris Haynes. “‘You can’t do this.’ This ain’t about me, it’s about us.”
Such is the attitude that carried Phoenix to its first Western Conference Finals berth since 2009-10 with its 125-118 win over the Denver Nuggets in Game 4 of the Western Conference semifinals at Ball Arena on Sunday night. Even when the Suns acquired Paul — a 10-time All-Star before the season who came off one of the most impactful years of his career with the Oklahoma City Thunder — they were collectively written off as a playoff team, nothing more.
Instead, they — and their point guard — have proven to be legitimate contenders to make their first NBA Finals berth since 1992-93. And perhaps beyond that, favorites to win their first championship in their history.
“You never want to count out a guy like Chris, and what he’s been able to do for our program, I’d be here all day talking to you all day about the things that he’s brought to the staff, to the players,” Suns coach Monty Williams said. “But more than that, I think our guys can see his will every single day. He’s competitive, he cares and I’m glad to be a partner with him.”
Those feelings have resonated with the entire Suns’ roster. Starting shooting guard Devin Booker has said numerous times he learns something new from Paul every day. Earlier this series, starting center Deandre Ayton said he’s in awe of how he manages the pick-and-roll. And starting forward Mikal Bridges said he appreciates how Paul gets on him, keeping it real if he’s playing well or not.
He has had a presence that has lifted Phoenix throughout the season, especially during its series-clinching victory over the Nuggets. Paul finished with a season-high 37-points on 14-of-19 shooting, seven assists and three rebounds.
And whenever his team needed him most, he delivered.
“He did what Chris Paul does,” said starting forward Jae Crowder. “And that’s, point guard, ‘Point God,’ whatever you want to call him. He controlled the game.”
Noted for his fourth-quarter activity in the first three games, Paul increased his offensive output in the first half on Sunday, totaling 12 points and five assists on 4-of-7 shooting. He didn’t stop there.
Paul matched his first-half total with 12 points on 6-of-6 shooting in the third quarter, in which the Suns ran away with games in this series. All of those shots came from his patented mid-range jumper, which broke the Nuggets’ backs continuously.
Chris Paul (@CP3) made 6 mid-range jumpers in the 3rd quarter.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) June 14, 2021
That is tied for the most by any player in a playoff quarter over the last 20 seasons. @Suns
The last player to do this was LeBron James in 2018. pic.twitter.com/zWbkg2kVIC
But it wasn’t just the frequency of Paul’s jumpers that hurt Denver — it was the timing of them. After an 8-2 run from the Nuggets to start the third quarter, he hit back-to-back jumpers to force a timeout. Once Denver starting forward Michael Porter Jr. hit a 3-pointer to cut the Suns’ lead to 71-70, Paul calmly called for a middle ball screen from starting center Deandre Ayton, burying another shot to quiet the Nuggets’ crowd.
After a steal and slam from Booker, Paul scored the Suns’ next six points with his pull-up. Nuggets starting center and NBA Most Valuable Player Nikola Jokic was ejected shortly afterward, and the Suns closed the quarter on a 13-8 run to take a 96-83 lead into the fourth.
That period is when Paul’s bread is buttered, and Sunday was no different. He had 13 points in the quarter with two assists and zero turnovers on 4-of-6 shooting, including a 5-of-5 clip from the free-throw line. He again stymied the Nuggets’ runs, hitting a pull-up to halt a 7-1 spurt to start the period, and controlled the pace throughout the quarter.
With 3:28 left in the game, Paul was the subject of an after-timeout play that led to a score at the rim plus the foul. One play later, he leaked out on a fastbreak attempt and scored, leading him to flex at the ground and let out a scream toward his teammates.
It was a rare emotional moment for a player who himself said he prefers to stay locked in. But given the situation, there was good reason to get excited.
“I mean, what can you say?” Williams said. “Other than he was darn near perfect all night long. Scoring the ball, managing the clock.
“He’s just an unbelievable basketball player. But more than that, he has a will to win. And it’s impressive to watch and fun to be a part of.”
The Suns will have at least a week of rest before their conference final matchup against the Utah Jazz or Los Angeles Clippers. Utah leads that series two games to one with Game 4 taking place on Monday night.
For Paul — a 36-year-old veteran who already had an injury scare earlier in the postseason — that time off will be well-used.
“Now, we’re going to get some rest,” Paul told Haynes. “Some much-needed rest.”
For at least Sunday night, that rest will include celebration. The Suns are back in the conference finals two seasons after posting their second-worst record in franchise history. They have the top Net rating of any team in the second round, according to NBA.com, and have a scoring margin of plus-106 over their last six games, all of which were victories.
The job is not done for Paul and the Suns. But no matter the outcome, they’re going to keep doing things their way. And they wouldn’t rather do it any differently.
“It ain’t always been sweet for me,” Paul said. “I’ve always had to grind, and I like that mentality. And that’s always been who I’ve been, and I’m going to stay that way. If you like it, cool, if you don’t, it’s cool too.”