Time to party like it’s 1993.
The Suns advanced to their first Finals in nearly three decades in Wednesday’s 130-103 win over the Clippers, with the franchise’s landmark victory cementing Chris Paul’s legacy as an all-time great point guard. This frankly shouldn’t have been a question entering the 2021 playoffs. Paul has logged over 15 years of quality point guard play, with his best years in New Orleans and Los Angeles representing peak performance at his position this century. Paul went toe-to-toe with Kobe and the Lakers in 2011. He buried a series-winner in Game 7 vs. San Antonio in 2015, and he’d probably already have a Finals berth to his name had he not hurt his hamstring in the 2018 Western Conference finals.
There are playoff clunkers on Paul’s resumé to be sure, including season enders in 2017 and 2019. But that’s frankly inevitable with 131 playoff games under his belt. Wednesday night served as a reinforcement of Paul’s brilliance, with a dominant second half sending Phoenix to the Finals for the first time in nearly 30 years.
Deandre Ayton continued his ascent as a dynamic young center in Wednesday’s victory, tallying 16 points and 17 rebounds on 8-for-10 shooting from the field. Devin Booker finished with a plus-23 in 42 minutes, and Phoenix received important first-half contributions from Jae Crowder and Torrey Craig. The Suns’ organizational depth was on full display on Wednesday, a credit to James Jones’s work rebuilding the franchise around Devin Booker. But as the Clippers cut Phoenix’s lead to seven late in the third quarter, the team's directive was clear. Put the ball in Paul’s hands, and let the Hall of Famer take them home.
Paul ripped off an 8-0 solo run to extend Phoenix’s lead to 14 at the end of the third quarter, and he put the game fully on ice in the final period. Paul finished with 19 in the fourth, pulling out each one of his patented moves along the way. Phoenix’s leading man cooked DeMarcus Cousins in isolation, stepped right into top-of-the-arc threes and even induced a pair of Los Angeles flagrant fouls along the way. Paul’s 41 points on Wednesday is tied for the most in his playoff career. He remains an All-NBA talent, a historic competitor and a sage leader for a young Phoenix squad. Even if the Larry O'Brien Trophy doesn’t arrive in the coming weeks, Paul’s legacy as an all-time great is firmly secure.
Winning the Finals is of course no guarantee, but as we survey the remaining playoff field, it’s very possible Phoenix is the favorite entering Game 1. The return of Giannis Antetokounmpo at any point this season is not certain, and even a healthy Trae Young wouldn’t make Atlanta the favorite vs. Paul and Co. Which brings us to a point that will likely be brought up ad nauseam in the coming days.
Don’t let the talking heads fool you. There is no such thing as an asterisk on an NBA title. Sure, Phoenix benefited from an injured Anthony Davis and Kawhi Leonard, but nearly every postseason is impacted by injury. Kevin Durant tore his Achilles in the 2019 Finals. The 2017 and 2018 Warriors advanced after injuries to both Leonard and Paul, and the 2015 Golden State team didn’t have to face Kyrie Irving or Kevin Love. This isn’t to discredit the Warriors dynasty or any previous champion. But to act like Phoenix’s path to the Finals was historically easy is ahistorical. A championship for Paul will be as satisfying as any first-time title in recent memory.
There was a certain burden lifted off Paul’s shoulders down the stretch on Wednesday night. He taunted Patrick Beverley off the floor after an egregious shove in the back, and the final minutes featured a jovial Paul gesturing to his family in the stands. Paul can be abrasive and harsh to referees, opponents and even teammates. But his joy upon advancing was one of the most pure reactions from a player in recent memory. Paul has dedicated his life to the craft of winning basketball, guiding contenders in New Orleans, Los Angeles, Houston, Oklahoma City and now Phoenix. His Finals breakthrough deserves a moment of celebration, even if he isn’t a champion just yet.
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