Welcome to the Morning Shootaround, where every weekday you’ll get a fresh, topical column from one of SI.com’s NBA writers: Howard Beck, Chris Mannix, Michael Pina, Chris Herring and Rohan Nadkarni.
Chris Paul doesn’t really like flying on airplanes. Even though it’s kind of a prerequisite for his job, he’s never quite gotten used to it. His body tenses up a bit. His hands are never perfectly still. It’s not that Paul, a 16-year NBA veteran, is scared. He simply hates when he’s not in control.
In the third quarter of Game 6 of the Western Conference finals, the Suns were experiencing some turbulence. A 17-point lead had been cut to seven with less than two minutes to go. After leading comfortably for most of the night, Phoenix appeared to be headed for another tight fourth quarter with the Clippers. So what did Paul do with things getting rocky for his team? He took the wheel himself.
First, after miscommunication by Los Angeles, Paul pulled up for a wide-open three and hit nothing but net. Ten-point lead. Then on the Suns’ next possession, he forced a switch onto longtime rival DeMarcus Cousins and shook him with a series of balletic moves—a hesitation, an in-and-out dribble and a blow-by—slicing into the paint for a left-handed finish. Twelve-point lead. And finally in the waning seconds of the quarter, he called for a high screen, caught Nicolas Batum in a brief moment of inattention and pulled up for a three from the left wing. The shot was pure, and the lead went back up to 15. Paul went on a personal 8–0 run to squash any hopes of a comeback. The Clippers would never again get within single digits. And CP3 added a whopping 19 more points in the fourth quarter—finishing with 41 to go along with eight assists and zero turnovers—to secure his first career trip to the Finals with a 130–103 win.
It‘s been an arduous road for Paul to finally get his first taste of the championship round. In many ways, he’s the NBA’s anti-superstar. He doesn’t have buddies around the league with whom he plans his free agency periods. He doesn’t have a legion of fans defending him online. He flops. He has personal rivalries with officials. He’s an instigator. But Paul’s obsessive nature doesn’t allow him to be anything else other than all of those things. And the combination of those traits created one of the game’s greatest point guards, a top-tier competitor who refused Wednesday night to squander another opportunity to advance to the highest-stakes round of basketball.
Paul’s offensive barrage came against a franchise for whom he suffered some of his most miserable defeats. The blown 2–0 lead to the Grizzlies. The turnover in Oklahoma City. The blown 3–1 lead to the Rockets. The injury-plagued first-round exits. Paul has fallen short almost every way possible in his career. Sometimes it’s been at his own hand, other times just awful luck. Through all of it, he never changed. He never stopped getting under people’s skin. He never stopped demanding the most from his teammates. And he never questioned whether or not he possessed the talent to be a championship player.
In the summer of 2019, Paul was unceremoniously dumped on the Thunder after a falling out with James Harden. He was a superstar stuck in purgatory, completely removed from the contender conversation in the NBA. How did he respond? He put together one of the finest seasons of his career. He pushed a mismatched OKC team to be better than anyone predicted. He went from owning one of the most onerous contracts in the NBA to one of the most coveted. And Phoenix GM James Jones, who could have kept building his young team methodically, instead decided to take a chance on a win-now veteran who would take the reins of his franchise by trading for him last November.
How much people credit Paul for the Suns’ success has almost become a meme. That’s a little unfair to the roster Jones built, filled with wily vets, solid role players and ascending stars in Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton. Still, it’s no coincidence that winning follows Paul everywhere he goes. Some will say Phoenix had an easy path to the Finals, battling teams with a major injury in every round. Well, it hasn’t been easy for Paul. Not after hurting his shoulder in the first game of the postseason and having to take on the defending champion Lakers with a floppy right shoulder. Not after he had to miss the first two games of the West finals after entering the league’s COVID-19 protocols. And not after 15 years of finding creative ways to lose. It was funny to see Paul video chatting with his teammates right after those opening two games; the only thing worse than not being able to fly the plane is not being on it at all.
Paul once said wanted to be the “old man rocking on the bench” who hung around the league long enough to catch on to a championship team late in his career. One of the reasons he relished that season in Oklahoma City was because—even if he wasn’t playing under title expectations—he was depended on. He was the player who, when the game seized up, when fans held their breath, when the pressure was the highest, was counted on. Paul wasn’t joining a superteam when he was traded to the Suns. But he did join a franchise he could put his imprint on. And now he has the best chance of his life to capture that elusive Larry O’Brien Trophy.
The job is obviously not done. The Suns are still awaiting their opponent from the East, either the upstart Hawks or championship-expectant Bucks. And this year won’t be a success for Paul unless he actually completes the task he’s desperate to check off his career list. For his entire career until now, CP3 had to watch the Finals from afar. After never wavering on who he was as a player, whether or not his team is the last one standing has never been more in Paul’s control.
At last, Chris Paul has made it to the NBA Finals. Now it’s his chance to land the plane.