Welcome to Morning Shootaround, where every weekday you’ll get a fresh topical column from one of the SI.comNBA Writers: Howard Beck, Chris Mannix, Michael Pina, Chris Herring and Rohan Nadkarni.
Chris Paul doesn’t really like flying in planes. Even though it was a kind of prerequisite for his job, he never got used to it. His body stiffened a little. His hands were never perfectly still. Not that Paul, a 16-year NBA veteran, was afraid. He just hates it when he’s not in control.
In the third quarter of Game 6 of the Western Conference finals, the Suns experienced some turbulence. The 17-point lead has been cut to seven with less than two minutes remaining. After leading comfortably for most of the night, Phoenix looked to be heading into a tight fourth quarter with the Clippers. So what does Paul do with things that are difficult for his team? He took the wheel himself.
First, following a miscommunication by Los Angeles, Paul stopped for three that were wide open and hit nothing but the net. Ten point advantage. Then on the Suns’ subsequent run, he forced a switch to longtime rival DeMarcus Cousins and rocked him with a series of ballet moves—hesitating, dribbling in and out and stroke after punch—slicing paint to the left. -hand finished. Twelve-point advantage. And finally in the final seconds of the quarter, he called for a high screen, caught Nicolas Batum in a short moment and pulled three from the left flank. His shot was pristine, and the lead went back to 15. Paul continued his 8–0 streak to crush any hopes of a comeback. The Clippers will never again hit single digits. And CP3 added another 19 points loss in the fourth quarter—finishing with 41 to follow with eight assists and zero turnovers—to secure his first career run to the Finals with a 130-103 win.
It’s been a tough road for Paul to finally get his first round of the championship. In many ways, he is the anti-superstar of the NBA. He had no friends in the league with whom he planned his period of free agency. He doesn’t have many fans defending him online. He failed. He has a personal rivalry with the officials. He’s an instigator. But Paul’s obsessive nature didn’t allow him to be anything other than those things. And the combination of those traits created one of the greatest point guards in the game, a top contender who refused Wednesday night to squander another chance to advance to basketball’s highest-stakes round.
Paul’s offensive streak came against a franchise for which he suffered some of his saddest losses. Score 2-0 to the Grizzlies. Turnover in Oklahoma City. Explosive 3-1 result for the Rockets. The injury-hit first half was eliminated. Paul has failed at almost everything in his career. Sometimes in his own hands, other times just bad luck. Through it all, he never changed. He never stops getting under people’s skin. He never stops demanding the best from his teammates. And he never questioned whether he had the talent to be a champion player or not.
In the summer of 2019, Paul was simply dumped in the Thunder after falling out with James Harden. He was a superstar trapped in purgatory, completely removed from competitor conversations in the NBA. How did he respond? He put together one of the best seasons of his career. He pushed the unsuitable OKC team to be better than anyone expected. He went from having one of the toughest contracts in the NBA to one of the most coveted. And Phoenix GM James Jones, who could have continued to methodically build his youth team, decided instead to take a chance on the win-now veteran who would take control of his franchise by swapping him out last November.
How many people have praised Paul for the success of the Suns has almost become a meme. That’s a little unfair to the roster Jones built, filled with shrewd vets, solid role-playing, and rising stars in Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton. However, it was no coincidence that victory followed Paul everywhere he went. Some would say Phoenix had an easy path to the Finals, against a team with major injuries in each round. Well, it wasn’t easy for Paul. Not after he injured his shoulder in the first game of the postseason and had to face defending champion Lakers with a drooping right shoulder. Not after he had to miss the first two games of the West final after entering the league’s COVID-19 protocol. And not after 15 years of finding creative ways to lose. It was amusing to see a video of Paul chatting with his teammates right after those opening two games; the only thing worse than not being able to fly a plane is not being in it at all.
Paul once said he wanted to be the “old man rocking on the bench” who roamed the league long enough to chase the winning team at the end of his career. One of the reasons he enjoyed that season at Oklahoma City was because—even if he didn’t play below title expectations—he was relied on. He’s a player who, during the game, when the fans hold their breath, when the pressure is at their highest, counts. Paul didn’t join the superteam when he was sold to the Suns. But he joined a franchise he could print. And now he has the best chance of his life to snatch the elusive Larry O’Brien Cup.
The work was clearly not finished. The Suns are still waiting for their opponents from the East, either the rookie Hawks or the future Bucks. And this year won’t be a success for Paul unless he actually completes the task he desperately wants to check off his career list. Throughout his career until now, CP3 had to watch the Finals from afar. Having never had any doubts about who he was as a player, whether his team was the last one standing was never more in Paul’s control.
Finally, Chris Paul made it to the NBA Finals. Now was his chance to land the plane.
Other NBA Playoffs Coverage:
• Rosenberg: Trail Blazing Arrogance
• Who Helped, Hurt Their Case in the Combine?
• Rockets Option with No. Choice. 2
• Q&A: Kevin Huerter High Rides