NBA Playoffs: Chris Paul finally reaches conference finals, but that's not good enough for this year's Rockets

HOUSTON -- The clock was stopped with 26.4 seconds left, but the game was already over when Chris Paul stepped up to the free-throw line. As the home crowd chanted his nickname – "CP3! CP3!" – he calmly tossed in his 40th and 41st point, two off his career high and the finishing touches on the Houston Rockets 112-102 victory. The Rockets polished off the Utah Jazz in five tough games. Fans courtside were hugging ushers, and iPhones recorded the moment as the clock then ticked down to zero.

The 33-year-old point guard pulled up his jersey to reveal his abs, then the red and white confetti fell and the congratulations came: From Jazz head coach Quin Snyder, who held Paul in a hug for several seconds. From Jazz rookie sensation Donovan Mitchell, who was in the middle of a resplendent second half when he collided with James Harden, injured his left foot and headed to the locker room. Mitchell wore an Adidas flip flop on his bare left foot and he hugged Paul. Then the TNT cameras surrounded Paul. A security guard handed him a towel to wipe off the sweat. Paul said he didn't want it.

Two nights before, Paul had lamented to this same television reporter that he has learned how you can never take anything for granted in the NBA playoffs. "I've been here before, 3-1," Paul had told Kristen Ledlow. "Shit went bad real quick."

On this night, though, things went well -- as well as things had ever gone in Paul's Hall of Fame career, in fact. On a night when Harden, the presumptive league MVP, was battling through an illness and was thoroughly off his game, Paul turned in one of his finest performances ever: 41 points on an otherworldly 8-of-10 from three, seven rebounds, 10 assists and zero turnovers. He tied Magic Johnson's record of playoff games with 10 or more assists and zero turnovers.

"Unbelievable," Harden said. "He went out there and took over the game. Especially for an opportunity he's never had before, he went to go get it. He put us all on his back and said, 'Listen: I got us.' That's big time right there. He said, 'You get out of the way.' He had that look in his eyes."

Of course, the opportunity that Paul has never had before, and that has been a monkey on his back for the latter half of his 13-year career, was this: As great of a player as he's been, CP3 has been a massive playoff failure. Some of it was circumstances, some of it bad luck, but the truth of it was that until Tuesday night, Chris Paul had never made it past the second round of the playoffs. If there was a single-defining fact of his career, that was it.

And then he walked off the court, his arm slung over Harden's back, and a weight had lifted from Paul. Rockets fans shouted congratulations. When he walked into the Rockets locker room, the door closed behind him, and the team erupted in applause. Chris Paul had made it to a place he'd never made it before.

Yet for an all-time great player like Paul, is making a conference finals really "making it"?

No. No, it's not. If a conference finals appearance is the furthest Paul makes it in his career, that will become the new single-defining fact of his career: A great player who got close, so close, but couldn't get all the way.

Now the Rockets will face the Golden State Warriors, the juggernaut of this era, and a team that's different in every way from the Jazz team that gave the Rockets fits. 

As celebratory as the mood was after the Rockets' victory to close out the series in five games, the truth was they did not dominate the Jazz. And this was a Utah team that was missing starting point guard Ricky Rubio the entire series. Derrick Favors was hobbled by the end of the series. Dante Exum, who briefly stole the spotlight as a defensive stopper, was sitting on the sidelines in a suit for Game 5 with an injured hamstring. And then, with seven minutes left in a one-possession game, Mitchell collided with Harden and fell to the floor with a foot injury. He was helped to the locker room. His game was over, and so was the Jazz's season. But if Mitchell, who was putting on an insane second half -- his 22-point third quarter outscored the entire Rockets team -- had stayed in the game, there's a very good change the two teams would be heading back to Salt Lake City for a Game 6.

The playoffs are about big-time clutch performances, but the playoffs are also about staying healthy and having luck on your side, and for once, Paul and his team were on the right side of both of those equations. He was ready for his first conference finals, and he finally accomplished that elusive feat with a historic performance.

"He just wills us to win," Rockets head coach Mike D'Antoni said. "Even the bank shot [on a three-pointer] -- I mean, give me a break. That's just people trying to find a way. I had to keep him out there. I usually give him a rest for a couple of minutes. I didn't do that because we couldn't afford to do that with [Harden] being sick a little bit. His performance tonight was off the charts."

Now on to the Warriors. Can the Rockets beat a Warriors team that, after a rollercoaster season, appears to be clicking in a scary, scary way? Yes -- they certainly can. Remember, the Rockets have won the past two playoff series on the back of excellent defense. It's been Clint Capela more than Harden or Paul who has been the Rockets MVP for these playoffs. We haven't seen this fearsome Rockets offense playing at its highest level in these playoffs (with the exception of one 50-point quarter in the first round). But it's one thing beating the Jazz, or the Minnesota Timberwolves; it's quite another beating the Warriors.

After the game, Rockets wing Gerald Green was soaking in the moment. "I'm still living the dream," he said. "But like I said, I still got a goal, and I haven't achieved it yet."

The same could be said for Chris Paul. Yes, on Tuesday night, he broke through to a place that he's never been to before, to the conference finals. But if the Rockets come out and get smoked in four or five games, are we going to call this season a success for Paul and his Rockets? I don't think so. This team has been intentionally built to compete with these Warriors. Lose to them in seven? Fine -- that's a helluva series, and most NBA teams couldn't even take the Warriors to seven. I know we don't count moral victories. But that one would count, sort of.

But get smoked by the Warriors and a new and different monkey will climb right back onto Paul's back. And that one would be even more difficult to remove.

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