Late last year, Chris Paul’s basketball fate seemed sealed. He would go down as one of the best players ever, to be sure: a 10-time All-Star, nine-time All-NBA performer, six-time steals champion, former All-Star Game MVP, and surefire future Hall of Fame member. But he would also be remembered as one of the best players to never appear in the NBA Finals, let alone win a championship. Every one of Paul’s teams—from the start of his career with the New Orleans Hornets, his long run with the Los Angeles Clippers, and then brief stops with the Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder—had bowed out in the conference finals or sooner. Even that undersells his teams’ playoff difficulties. Paul didn’t even play in a conference final until 2018, when the Rockets lost in seven games to the Golden State Warriors, who went on to win the championship that year.
In November, the Thunder traded Paul to the Phoenix Suns, a talented but shaky team that had just finished 10th in the Western Conference. Paul was 35 at the time (he’s now 36) and seemed destined to ride into the sunset without a championship ring.
But things can change quickly. The Suns turned out to be really good, and they finished second in the conference in the regular season. They ratcheted their play up another level in the playoffs, and they’ve reached the Finals by beating the Los Angeles Lakers, Denver Nuggets, and Los Angeles Clippers. They didn’t need more than six games to dispatch any of those teams, and they looked strong while taking a 1-0 NBA Finals lead against the Milwaukee Bucks on Tuesday.
Paul has been a key part of the Suns’ success. Despite a nagging shoulder injury that caused him two miss two games, he has averaged 19 points, 8.7 assists, and 3.9 rebounds—a solid nightly contribution. And in Game 1 of the Finals, Paul was in fine form, going for 32 points, nine helpers, and four boards against Milwaukee:
— NBA (@NBA) July 7, 2021
It has been a long time coming, but Paul is finally getting his shot at an NBA championship. Here’s a deeper look at how things have clicked for him in Phoenix.
Paul and Devin Booker complement each other well.
“The big reason was the light skin guy right here, No. 1 Devin Booker. … He is a dog.”
—Chris Paul on why he wanted to play for the Suns pic.twitter.com/jcqIqiT3Xp
— ESPN (@espn) July 1, 2021
The Suns’ biggest star these days isn’t Paul. It’s Booker, who averaged 26 points per game in the regular season and has inched that up to 27 in the playoffs. The 36-year-old Paul and 24-year-old Booker have an unusually large age gap for a conference finalist backcourt, but the generational divide has not stopped them from playing well with each other.
Paul is adept at creating his own shots off the dribble. Booker is clearly happy to have another guard who can do that, which takes some of the offensive load off his shoulders:
Look at Devin Booker on this bucket. Dude had full confidence in letting Chris Paul cook and even started bantering with fans on the sideline pic.twitter.com/HmSjDiY9nu
— Jackson Frank (@jackfrank_jjf) July 2, 2021
And when Paul gets penetration against the defense, Booker is often waiting for a kick-out pass. Paul has assisted 26 of Booker’s 155 made field goals in the playoffs—twice as many as anyone else on Phoenix’s roster. On the other hand, all but 11 of Paul’s 106 made shots have been unassisted, as he dribbles around for a while and attempts to put his defender on skates. Paul and Booker have different playing styles, but they work well together.
The Suns’ depth means Paul doesn’t have to crush himself.
Chris Paul with some sorcery on ESPN. pic.twitter.com/NLDH0XFqZs
— NBA (@NBA) June 27, 2021
One of the most important benefits for Paul this season has been backup point guard Cameron Payne’s development into a dependable No. 2 option. When Payne replaces Paul in the Suns’ lineup, the team’s net efficiency between offense and defense does not change much. (Payne was great in Game 1 against the Bucks, scoring 10 points in 17 minutes.)
You could take that as a knock on Paul, but doing so misses the point. Paul is 36. He’s not as spry as he used to be, and Payne’s emergence has helped him stay fresh. Paul is playing 33 minutes per game in these playoffs, a far cry from his early career, when he played more than 40 per game.
Paul plays a hectic style, running and dribbling frantically when he has the ball and chasing opposing guards around when the other team has possession. That’s easier to do when he can get a breather, and the Suns have been able to give him plenty without endangering their chances.
That strategy has also paid off at the end of games. Paul’s effective field goal percentage in the second half in these playoffs is 60.2, up from a mere 44.3 in the first half. In the first game against Milwaukee, he didn’t score in the first quarter and somehow finished with 32 points anyway.
On a roster with several solid scorers, Paul has rediscovered his playmaking touch.
17 PTS, 15 AST, 0 TOV for @CP3
Chris Paul becomes the first player in @NBAHistory to reach 15 assists with 0 turnovers three separate times in the #NBAPlayoffs! #ThatsGame @Suns seek 3-0 series lead on Friday at 10 PM ET on ESPN. pic.twitter.com/uixM2u9g5O
— NBA (@NBA) June 10, 2021
Paul will go down as one of the best playmaking guards ever. Even so, his setup ability didn’t shine through in the last two years, when he shared a backcourt with James Harden in Houston and then tried to anchor a lousy Thunder team.
Paul’s assist rates those years (the percentage of a team’s baskets a player assists on while on the floor) were uncharacteristically low, including a career-worst 34 percent in Oklahoma City last year. It jumped to 41 percent this year, which is more in line with his typical excellence.
It helps to have good outlets for the ball. Of Paul’s 131 assists in the playoffs, 36 have gone to center Deandre Ayton, 26 to Booker, 22 to wing Jae Crowder, and 22 to forward Mikal Bridges. No matter who else is on the floor, Paul is comfortable giving them the ball. Ayton has called Paul’s arrival in Phoenix “the best thing that happened to my career.”
— NBA (@NBA) June 27, 2021
It might have been the best thing to happen to the Suns in general. Now Paul is three wins from putting the finishing touch on a memorable career.