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When the Houston Rockets traded Chris Paul for Russell Westbrook in the summer of 2019, it was a case of perception trumping reality. The perception was that Paul was on the decline, so much so that the Rockets had to include two future first-round draft picks and the rights to two more pick swaps to land Westbrook, who was still perceived as a superstar. The reality was, and has since further proven to be, something very different. 

Turns out, it was Westbrook who was on the sharp decline, while Paul, at 33 years old, still had arguably his best basketball in front of him. That would've been wild to believe at the time, but look at what this guy is doing. 

  • Second-team All-NBA with the Thunder in 2019-20
  • Second-team again with the Suns, along with his first trip to the Finals, last season 

Whether second- or third-team, he's going to be All-NBA again this season, and now his top-seeded Suns, on the strength of a historic Paul performance, are headed for the second round after dispatching of the Pelicans, 115-109, on Thursday. 

Through the first five games of the series, Paul, who will turn 37 in a week, had scored 20 points a night while registering 60 assists against six turnovers, which was in line to tie his own 2008 mark for the best assist/turnover ratio in a single playoff series in history. For his Game 6 finishing act, Paul went for 33 points while shooting ... get this ... a perfect 14 for 14 from the field. 

That also made history. 

One of the many reasons the Suns are so tough to beat is their late-game dominance; good luck beating them by double digits, and good luck out-executing them in a close affair. By the numbers, Devin Booker -- who returned on Thursday after missing Games 3, 4 and 5 -- and Paul are equally deadly in closing time. 

During the regular season, Booker shot an astounding 56.9 percent from the field during the final five minutes of games that were within five points, while Paul shot an almost identical 56.8 percent in such situations. 

Those were the two highest shooting percentages among all players who attempted at least 40 clutch shots. Having two late-game options like that is why the Suns are perhaps the top title contender, but let's not confuse the pecking order. This whole series, and certainly Game 6, was Paul's show, and it'll continue to be that way for as far as Phoenix goes. The guy is just too darn good, too surgical in getting to his spot and hitting his shot regardless of coverage or circumstance. 

Kyle Kuzma knows.

On Thursday, Paul was plus-17 in his 36 minutes, meaning the Suns were outscored by 11 in the 12 minutes he didn't play, and he was once again brilliant in money time. With four and a half minutes to play, the Suns trailed by one; over the next four minutes Paul scored or assisted on 11 of Phoenix's 13 points, and that was that. 

You can ask yourself what it means that the Suns had to fight this hard to get past the No. 8 seed, but I'll say this: The Pelicans were not your typical 8-seed. After the trade deadline, they boasted a top-10 point differential with the second-best offense in the league, and again, Booker missed three games. Paul is the reason the Suns aren't headed for a Game 7, and its not the first time in recent history that he has absolutely turned the lights out in an elimination game. 

Again, there are many reasons why the Suns are among the title favorites, but Paul is at the top of the list. He might not be quite as great as he once was, but he's pretty close, and he's never had a team this great around him. Phoenix can beat you on both ends of the court, and with so many of the playoff games coming down to the final five minutes, there's not a player in the league you'd rather have down the stretch over Paul, who is on a mission for his first title and just took the first step toward getting it.