As the Phoenix Suns have lost their once-firm grip on these NBA Finals, going from a 2-0 lead over the Milwaukee Bucks to 2-2 heading home for Game 5 on Saturday, Chris Paul critics are circling and savoring the low-hanging fruit of what could, at a surface-level glance, be construed as another postseason choke job in the making.
We all know Paul's playoff history, which has long been unfairly mocked. Yes, he's had some bad moments on big stages. There was Game 5 in a 2-2 series against the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2015, when Paul, in a one-possession game, coughed up two turnovers inside the last 20 seconds en route to the Los Angeles Clippers blowing a seven-point lead inside the final minute. OKC won the game and the series.
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One year later, the Clippers were up 3-1 on the Houston Rockets with a 19-point lead in the third quarter of Game 6, and they found a way to gag up both the game and the series. Narrative wise, it canceled out Paul's masterful first-round performance against the San Antonio Spurs. All told, Paul's Clippers became the first team in history to lose a series they led at some point in five consecutive postseasons and never advanced past the second round.
But there is context to all this. For starters, Paul has never been on a team that any logical pundit would consider a title favorite. So he was always expected to lose at some point. That, on occasion, it happened sooner than expected is more about cruel injury luck than anything.
Paul might've won a championship with Houston in 2018 had he not torn his hamstring in Game 5 of the Western Conference finals. In 2017 with the Clippers, Paul averaged 25 points, 10 assists and five rebounds on 50 percent shooting against the Jazz, but Blake Griffin was lost for the series in Game 3.
In 2016, the 53-win Clippers went up 2-0 on the Portland Trail Blazers before Paul (broken hand) and Griffin (quad) were lost for the remainder of the series in Game 4. There was no shame in losing to the 2014 Thunder, who were a homegrown superteam and still went on to blow their own 3-1 lead a year later against the 73-win Golden State Warriors, who then blew their 3-1 lead against the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Finals.
Point is, these things happen. Not just to Paul, but to the likes of Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry and LeBron James. Durant, who is probably the best current player in the world and will likely go down as a top 10 player of all time, has been bashed as a guy who can't win without hitching his wagon to superteam. Curry had one of the most boneheaded turnovers in history when he floated a behind-the-back pass out of bounds with five minutes to play in Game 7 of that aforementioned 3-1 collapse vs. Cleveland.
Meanwhile, LeBron went into hiding against the Dallas Mavericks in the 2011 Finals, when the Miami Heat blew a 15-point lead in Game 2 and he had just eight points in Game 4. In the 2013 Finals, LeBron bricked two 3s and committed a turnover in the final minute of Game 6. Had Ray Allen not bailed him out with the most famous corner 3 in history, the Heat would've lost that series and LeBron's legacy might read a lot differently.
But those guys, because of the superteams on which they've played, got multiple cracks at championships and eventually faded out the memory of their failures. This was, and still is, Paul's chance to finally do the same. He was the best player on the floor in Game 1 of these Finals with 32 points and nine assists, and his six turnovers in Game 2 went largely unnoticed because the Suns won to take a 2-0 lead.
But now the turnovers are piling up -- 15 over the last three games, the most Paul has racked up over a three-game playoff stretch since 2012 -- and the Suns are suddenly losing, in large part, because of them. Phoenix shot 50 percent to the Bucks' 40 percent, yet the Suns lost because their 17 turnovers turned into 24 Milwaukee points, while Milwaukee's five turnovers only netted Phoenix five points.
"The turnovers just crushed us tonight," Suns coach Monty Williams said after Game 4. "[The Bucks] got 19 more [shots] than we did."
Paul had five of those turnovers, including the one that will be talked about for far too long if the Suns go on to lose this series. As you'll see in the final play of the video below, with the Suns down two and under 40 seconds to play, Paul crossed over left to right and fumbled the ball, allowing the Bucks to cap their 15-0 advantage in fast-break points and seal the game:
These are clearly uncharacteristic blunders for Paul, who is one of just three players in history -- along with Magic Johnson and John Stockton -- to have at least 1,000 career playoff assists with at least a 3-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. He does not give the ball away like this. Paul's 10-point performance in Game 4 on 5-of-13 shooting was an outlier; this postseason, he's the only player to advance past the first averaging at least 18 points and eight assists on 40 percent 3-point shooting. So what happened?
The shock jocks will tell you he's choking again. Don't listen to that. The truth is there are, potentially, three reasons for Paul's recent struggles. The first one is simple: Great players have bad games. Even a few in a row sometimes. If you thought otherwise, consider this an official welcoming to the real world.
The second reason is Jrue Holiday, who is catching his own form of hell for his offensive struggles but has been such a defensive beast on Paul and Devin Booker that if I were voting, I would have him as Milwaukee's second-most valuable player in this series despite Khris Middleton's 40-piece in Game 4.
This series changed when Mike Budenholzer unleashed Holiday on Paul in Game 2. Since that time, Holiday has been the primary defender on Paul for 78 possessions, per NBA.com matchup data, and Paul has turned it over on seven of those possessions. For reference, P.J. Tucker, who drew the main Paul assignment in Game 1 and is still a pretty nasty on-ball defender/screen navigator in his own right, has guarded Paul for 35 possessions, and only created one turnover. In the first round, the Los Angeles Lakers' Dennis Schroder guarded Paul for 82 possessions and also forced just one turnover.
The seven turnovers Paul has amassed when guarded by Holiday should, in fact, be eight. Watch here as Paul's feet clearly come down before he desperately drops the ball to avoid a travel after Holiday pinches every bit of space available to him by fighting over the ball screen. (No matter ... Holiday kept pursuing Paul until he had to force up a jumper with Giannis Antetokounmpo roaming the area).
It's not just the turnovers. Holiday, as he did on the play above, is picking up high, fighting over screens rather than soft switching, and not letting Paul get downhill to his sweet-spot jumpers. By both design and natural cross-matching, Holiday has spent a good amount of time defending Booker, too -- 57 possessions as the primary defender, per NBA.com, and via those possessions Booker has scored only 13 points on 33 percent shooting, including 1 of 7 from 3.
Any attempt to assign Paul's recent struggles to anything other than Holiday -- and a really improved team effort from Milwaukee in support of the ball pressure as everyone is picking up higher, showing bodies in the middle and compressing down on drivers -- is to discredit what has been a dominant defensive performance from Bucks guard.
After Holiday's impact, we need to discuss whether Paul is playing hurt. Actually, he almost certainly is playing hurt, but the question is how much it's affecting him. During Game 1, Paul, who was already dealing with a shoulder contusion vs. the Lakers and admitted to playing with torn ligaments in his right hand coming out of the Clippers series, appeared to injure his left hand on this play below:
Paul was asked about his hand being wrapped after the game, and chose not to acknowledge it. (Wait for the final question from ESPN's Malika Andrews).
Paul doubled down on his denial on Friday.
Chris Paul said the partially torn ligaments in his right hand are not affecting him in this series. Said he's good.— Kellan Olson (@KellanOlson) July 16, 2021
Paul isn't going to admit he's injured in the middle of a series. But if you watch even halfway closely, you can see Paul's handle is looser than normal with his left hand, and he's not dribbling with the same kind of force or confidence at all times. For as great as Holiday is playing, it's not exactly the first time Paul has gone against a tough defender. To see him coughing the ball up with such regularity is a pretty irrefutable indicator that he's not 100 percent.
It reminds me of Stephen Curry in the 2016 playoffs after he sprained his MCL in the first round and missed two weeks. When he came back, he had moments. He was still great for the most part. But there was evidence all along that he just wasn't quite right namely that he couldn't create off-the-dribble space against the likes of Steven Adams or, infamously, Kevin Love.
That's not an excuse; it's just the truth. Curry didn't suddenly stop being able to create space for his jumper against big guys, and Paul didn't suddenly lose his ability to control the basketball. Rather, it's likely a combination of him being defended by Holiday and being hurt.
With that said, Paul was healthy enough to go for 32 points in Game 1 and shoot 3 for 5 from 3 in Game 2. The Suns aren't saying anything about the hand and Paul won't acknowledge it either. So we go with what we know for sure: Holiday, as of now, has Paul's number, and he's not going anywhere. He's going to be invading Paul's space for as long as this series goes.
He may get the better of him. But it won't be because Paul isn't good enough or mentally strong enough or any of that nonsense. It will be because Holiday is as great at what he does as Paul is at what he does. It will be because Giannis continues to make critics like me look foolish as the best player in the series. It will be because Khris Middleton has also been lazily labeled as an unworthy secondary star when in fact he is, on many nights, more than that. This is how championships are supposed to be decided, and this one is far from over. Unlike Paul's legacy, which was, or at least should've been, cemented a long time ago.