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Paul and Booker reaching new heights together as a duo in Suns back court

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The teammates are two steps away from taking the themselves and the Phoenix Suns somewhere they have never been: the NBA Finals

2021 NBA Playoffs - Los Angeles Lakers v Phoenix Suns Photo by Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images

When Chris Paul helped angled his way via trade to the Phoenix Suns last winter, he had two primary things in mind: reuniting with Suns coaches and playing for the first time with future star Devin Booker.

He probably also had in mind to reach his first NBA Finals, but considering the Phoenix Suns were on a 10-year drought not even making the playoffs at all, he likely thought that was a long shot, and that he could re-evaluate next summer. First things first: Monty Williams and Devin Booker.

Surprise, surprise, the Phoenix Suns might just help Paul reach that other milestone after all. With a 1-0 lead in the second round of the playoffs, this team looks more poised to reach an NBA Finals that any team Paul has ever been on.

Sure he’s been on great teams, including the Lob City Clippers and the Mike D’Antoni / James Harden Rockets, but those teams had juggernaut obstacles in their way. Those teams were underdogs, unlikely to survive the gauntlet of the West.

But this team, this 2021 Phoenix Suns team, has no such insurmountable obstacle. Of the four remaining West teams, none have even made the Finals with their current core and only two have ever made the Finals as a FRANCHISE. The Suns had the second-best regular season record of the four.

The time is now for Chris Paul. This is his best shot, with his favorite team and an open runway to the Finals. He’s the leader of a young, hungry team dialed in to their final destination.

So you can imagine the devastation he felt when his head got knocked in game one of this playoff run and he felt a stinger turn his dominant arm into a piece of rubber. He couldn’t shoot for a week, yet lugged that arm around the court anyway because he could not fathom missing any time.

“It was scary,” Paul said, simply. “But I’m good to go.”

He struggled for the next few days, to say the least.

Paul had scored less than 10 points only 10 times in 70 games during the regular season (15% of the time) this year.

He always steps up his scoring in the playoffs.

  • Season (career): 18.4 points, 9.4 assists
  • Playoffs (career): 20.3 points, 8.3 assists

Sure, he’s slowing down a bit at age 35/36, but not by much. It’s the first round, after the injury, where he fell off a Cliff.

  • Season (2021): 16.4 points, 8.9 assists
  • Playoffs (2021 Round 1): 9.2 points, 7.7 assists

In 109 career playoff games before this year, he had scored less than 10 points only 5 times (5% of the time).

Let’s not just limit it to scoring. In those 109 career playoff games before this year, Paul had played less than 30 minutes in only 8 of them (8% of the time).

Yet, in that first round series last week against the Lakers, he scored less than 10 points in five of the six games (83%) and played less than 30 minutes in 4 of them (67%).

Yes, Chris Paul — a 2021 All-Star, probable All-NBA as one of the top 6 guards in the whole league and contender for the 2021 Most Valuable Player award — has been severely hampered during these playoffs. Sure, Anthony Davis was in and out, and LeBron James was moving slowly. But the Suns were basically missing their best player too.

Since suffering the shoulder injury in the second quarter of game one, Paul could barely get his arm over his head, which is a prerequisite to shooting the basketball. And in a couple of games, he had trouble keeping his handle on the ball at times.

Yet, despite those shortcomings, Chris Paul was still a positive on the court in the first round against the Lakers. The Suns outscored the Lakers by 8 or more points in his minutes, however limited, in four of the six games — all wins for the Suns. He still averaged 7.7 assists against only 1.4 turnovers per game against the league’s best defense.

Before you cry about the missing Anthony Davis or hobbled LeBron James, you need to know this: the Lakers led the league in defense for the season even while missing each of those two for at least a third of it. So, don’t blame the Lakers defensive issues on missing Davis. They were great all season, no matter who was on the court.

Now in the second round, it appears that Chris Paul might be returning to form a little bit.

In game one against the Nuggets, he poured in a more Chris-Paul-like 21 points and dished 11 assists against only 1 turnover while also grabbing 5 rebounds. No player his age (36) has posted a stat line like that in the playoffs in more than 50 years.

Through seven games this postseason he has 57 assists and just 10 turnovers — the most assists by a player with 10 or fewer turnovers through the first seven games of a playoff run since...well... the same Chris Paul had 85 assists and 9 turnovers through the first seven games of the 2008 playoffs. In case you’re wondering, those were the first seven playoff games of Paul’s life, way back when he was 23 years old.

“It was just sort of trying to be aggressive, trying to stay aggressive,” Chris Paul, now 36 years old, said after the game. “I missed a lot of shots early, especially at the start of the third quarter and just knew, me and (starting shooting guard) [Devin Booker] play together, and he’s in and I’m in. So just trying to be more assertive.”

One good thing about Paul’s injury — always have to see the Bright Side, right? — is that teammate Devin Booker has been asked to step up his game to cover for Paul’s troubles.

And step up he did:

  • Season (2021): 25.6 points, 4.3 assists
  • Playoffs (2021): 28.4 points, 5.4 assists

Booker stepped up not only in raw stats, but also in efficiency. Someone was going to get extra points with Paul’s injury, but Booker did it on improving his efficiency — again, in the face of the league’s top defense focusing primarily on stopping Booker from beating them.

Booker responded in a big way.

  • Season (2021): 58.7% True Shooting
  • Playoffs (2021): 63.5% True Shooting

In Game 1 against Denver, the two All-Star guards came together to deliver the best game a pair of Suns teammates had from the guard ranks in more than 20 years.

Next Up

The Suns take on Denver in Game 2 on Wednesday night in Phoenix, at 6:30 PM AZ time. The game will be televised on Bally Sports Arizona and TNT.

Data used in this article came from basketball-reference.com, nba.com/stats and statmuse.com.

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