After 16 seasons, five franchises and 123 playoff games, Chris Paul has officially taken his name out of the running for the title of being the "best basketball player to never make the NBA Finals." Paul was absolutely masterful in the Phoenix Suns' 130-103 Game 6 road win over the Los Angeles Clippers to send the Suns to their first Finals series in 28 years.
Paul scored 41 points (31 in the second half), dished out eight assists, committed zero turnovers and made huge shot after huge shot in the second half to keep his team ahead when the Clippers made their run. After L.A. cut the lead from 15 to seven late in the third quarter, Paul scored 24 of Phoenix's next 30 points to help put the game out of reach.
What a performance... Chris Paul erupts for an #NBAPlayoffs career-high tying 41 PTS, including 31 in the 2nd half, as the @Suns win Game 6 and advance to the #NBAFinals presented by YouTube TV for the first time since 1993. #ThatsGame— NBA (@NBA) July 1, 2021
41 PTS | 16-24 FGM | 7 3PM | 8 AST pic.twitter.com/OiGaa0NGN2
After the game, Paul simply couldn't contain his emotions when asked how it felt to earn a trip to the NBA Finals for the first time in his career.
"It sounds damn good. Damn good. It's been a lot of work -- a lot of work," Paul said. "Damn, that feels good. ... I don't know man, it's just a lot of emotions."
It was ironic that Paul earned his first trip to the NBA Finals at Staples Center against the Clippers -- the franchise which disappointingly failed to make a Western Conference finals appearance in six seasons with Paul at the helm. His only trip to the conference finals came with the Houston Rockets against the Golden State Warriors in 2018 -- a series that Paul watched from the sidelines for the final two games, both Rockets losses, due to a hamstring injury.
Even during this postseason, which has gone so well for the Suns, at times, it seemed as if Paul was truly cursed. He injured his shoulder in the Suns' opening playoff game against the Los Angeles Lakers, and even after his return was visibly limited when dribbling and shooting. After the Suns swept the Nuggets to reach the conference finals, Paul was forced to miss the first two games of the Clippers series after a positive COVID-19 test.
But, as Paul has proven with his improbable career, it's not how you start -- it's how you finish.
"Sixteen years of this," Paul said during the on-court trophy presentation following the game. "Sixteen years of surgeries, hard work, losses, bad losses, but we're gonna enjoy tonight. We're gonna enjoy it."
After an injury-plagued two seasons with the Rockets and a bitter break-up with former teammate James Harden, Paul's career, and his days of competing for titles, seemed to be coming to an end. He was shipped off to the Oklahoma City Thunder, a franchise on the cusp of a rebuild, and instead, he took the young players under his wing, earned his first All-Star selection in four seasons as a 34-year-old, and led OKC to a shockingly impressive 44-28 season, coming within one win of a first-round upset of his former Rockets.
With OKC making the decision to bottom out before this season, general manager Sam Presti worked with Paul to get him to the Suns -- a destination he chose partly because of his ties to assistant coach Willie Green, general manager James Jones and head coach Monty Williams, who coached Paul in New Orleans. But there was one reason that trumped all others.
"The big reason was the light-skinned guy right here, No. 1 Devin Booker," Paul said during the ceremony after Game 6. "He is a dog."
In his first season with the Suns, Paul has helped lead his team to the NBA Finals after they'd missed the playoffs in each of the last 10 seasons.
Booker has put together a brilliant postseason debut, to be sure, but let's not get confused. This isn't a situation where a once-great vet latches onto a superstar in his prime to get one last shot at a ring. Paul, at 36, has been the best player on the floor for the Suns many times this postseason, and his playoff averages of 18.1 points, 8.7 assists and 1.6 turnovers on 47/41/91 shooting splits are right on par with his career numbers.
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The teams they've beaten have suffered injury problems, which is always going to be a part of the narrative, but Paul has undoubtedly earned his first trip to the Finals. And if he's able to hoist the Larry O'Brien Trophy in a couple of weeks, he will have earned his championship ring as well.
"If you can learn anything from Chris Paul, it's to keep going," Williams said after the Game 6 win. "Don't quit. Serve others. He cares about his teammates."