Chris Paul has never been to the NBA Finals in his 16-year NBA career.
Now, he’s on pace to break that streak with the Phoenix Suns.
Behind five late free throws and an 18-point, seven-assist, four-rebound performance, Paul helped lead the Suns to an 84-80 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers in Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals on Saturday night in Los Angeles. Phoenix now leads the series three games to one and has a chance to advance to its first NBA Finals since 1992-93 in Game 5 at home on Monday.
With the Suns leading 71-70 with 6:35 to play, Paul threw a lob pass to Suns center Deandre Ayton — who finished with a career-high 22 rebounds along with 19 points — for a two-handed slam, giving them a 3-point lead after no field goals were made by either team for 3:44.
Minutes later, Paul drove by Clippers center Ivica Zubac for a layup, giving Phoenix a 77-74 advantage with 3:43 left. Paul missed his final three shots of the game but came through when the Suns needed him most, hitting five free throws in the last seven seconds to eventually give them a two-possession advantage and the win.
After the game, Paul said he was proud of his younger teammates for overcoming a game in which they collectively shot 31-of-86 from the field, including a second half in which they scored 34 points, shot 10-of-41 (24.4 percent) from the floor and went 0-of-9 from 3-point range.
“We got a ways to go, but everybody always talks about, ‘Oh, it’s a young team, it’s a young team,’” Paul said. “I think back to when I first got in the playoffs, sometimes it’s best like that because you’re just hooping. You ain’t thinking about all this and that, and we got a young team but with some old souls.”
Fellow All-Star Devin Booker commented on Chris Paul’s chance to finally make an NBA Finals, and what this run means to Paul.
“I have a lot of respect for him as a man, not even as a basketball player,” Booker said after the game. “Just understanding how bad he wants this, and how much time he’s put into it. Sixteen years, that’s a long time.
“When we made the Western Conference Finals, he’s like ‘I’ve only been here one time’. So we know how bad he wants it. Same with coach Monty, I get that same feeling from him. Me and Deandre are sitting here, and Mikal, this is our first time in (the playoffs). It’s a little spoiled but it came with a lot of work. But we definitely have his back.”
Here’s more of what Paul had to say after the Suns’ Game 4 win.
On the emotions of the fourth quarter and being one win away from the NBA Finals:
“Man, it was a lot. It was a lot. It was emotional, it was loud. Tired. Hell, (Suns starting shooting guard) [Devin Booker] fouled out, I ain’t even realized it. But it’s just how our team has been all year long, showing that grit and fight and staying together.”
On what allowed the Suns to pull out a win in close game:
“Just poise. Just poise and the togetherness. That ball can bounce either way, and I think a lot of times, teams are reflective of their coach. And (Suns coach) [Monty Williams] has been so detail-oriented all season long. In practice, we watch, talking about boxouts, talking about end-of-game situations. We’ll take it tonight.”
On the poise of Booker:
“It ain’t about noticing that. I watch a lot of basketball man, and it’s a lot of really good players in our league that don’t get the opportunity to show what they can do. I’d known Book since before his rookie year, and like we know each other, know each other. And when we play against each other, we almost fight. And that’s because I know how competitive he is and that’s why I think this has worked. There’s no ego from either one of us. At the end of the day, we just want to win.”
On he had been a part of anything like the fourth quarter in terms of missed shots and late free-throw shooting:
“Probably not. I think it was 14-15 fourth quarter. I had a free throw to end the game, and I missed it. You know what I mean? But then I got a chance to do it again. It was a crazy, emotional game. The fans were great, and it’s good. It’s good to get that win and then going back home, going back home, I didn’t get a chance to feel that energy in Game 1 and 2. I was at the crib with my family, so I’m excited to go back to Phoenix. I ain’t been in Phoenix in a while.”
If there was any extra layer to winning an important game in his career against the Clippers, who he played for previously:
Chris Paul's reaction to Paul George's offensive foul: pic.twitter.com/Gy9ow776sJ— The Bright Side (@BrightSideSun) June 27, 2021
“Not until the job is done. Not until the job is done. We can talk about all that then, but right now, it’s just laser-focused. Three wins don’t win a series. So right now, we do what we can do, we wanted to get one of these. And now, we got to stay focused and be ready to go back to our crowd. Big shoutout to Phoenix fans. (Suns equipment operations manager) Jay (Gaspar), our trainer, showed us the arena. I didn’t know they did a viewing party, so that’s super, duper dope and we need one more win.”
On how he has learned to calm his mind in games like these:
“I was mad I missed them [mid-range jumpers] that could have put us up five or seven. But it’s so crazy, man, when I went to the free-throw line, I thought about my son. I talk to my son all the time about the importance of shooting free throws, and he’s really getting into basketball now and he’s training and texting me earlier today telling me about his game this morning. And I seriously went to the free throw line and was like, ‘How the hell am I going to tell him to stay poised if I don’t do it my damn self?’ Right? Like serious. So that’s what was dope is after the game, looking up there in the suite and seeing my son excited.”
On poise shining through for the Suns defensively in the fourth quarter:
“Absolutely man. DA and the way he was in there battling and getting rebounds, and (Suns starting forward) Jae (Crowder) got a big steal down there when, I think they hit (Clippers starting center Ivica) Zubac and I was like, ‘Dang, he about to get a dunk.’ And then the ball just magically appeared. So that’s trust, it’s a lot man. It’s been an emotional year for everybody, not just our team but especially our team. Guys, family, things and all this. So it’s definitely been a process and we having fun.”
If he has a new perspective of approaching a 3-1 lead, given he lost one with the Clippers in the 2015 Western Conference semifinals:
“Everything happens for a reason. Everything happens for a reason. Don’t dwell on things, you always remember. But I’m here now, excited about this opportunity. And all I can worry about right now is Game 5.”
On Ayton’s defensive presence:
“At shootaround this morning, DA told me, ‘C, you stay out there, I got all this in here.’ And I said, ‘Alright big fella, you got it.’ And to see his growth man, I get goosebumps. Seriously man. We done had some heated conversations this season, especially earlier in the season. But I genuinely love him. You know what I’m saying? The person that he is, and to see everything that’s coming to him, national audience getting to see who he is and why he was the No. 1 pick (in the 2018 draft), I couldn’t be happier for him.”
On his impressions of Ayton before he arrived in Phoenix:
“I might be dating myself a little bit, but I coached against DA. My AAU team, Team CP3, I coached against DA in the (Nike) EYBL (circuit). So that was sort of my experience. We smacked them one time and then one time, he got at us. Didn’t know much about him, and I just had to try and build a relationship with him. And to see where we’re at now, like I said, it’s been a journey, and I’m happy we’re all doing this together.”
On how he has felt about his team’s poise throughout the postseason:
“It says a lot man, it says a lot. Still like I said, we got a ways to go, but everybody always talks about, ‘Oh, it’s a young team, it’s a young team.’ I think back to when I first got in the playoffs, sometimes it’s best like that because you’re just hooping. You ain’t thinking about all this and that, and we got a young team but with some old souls. Especially Book, he like an old man. He like the oldest 24-year-old I’ve ever met in my life. You see him with his old schools and all that. But the biggest thing, he know the game. He know the game. He watch every game, every night just like me. So it’s cool being on this journey with (Suns starting forward) Mikal Bridges, (backup guard) Cam Payne, who’s been unbelievable. We’re just a, ‘Next man up,’ type of team.”