Chris Paul and the Phoenix Suns are taking each other to new heights

NBA Playoffs, Phoenix Suns

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Chris Paul has been instrumental for the Phoenix Suns all season, but his return to form as the Point God has them looking dangerous in the playoffs.

Nobody is playing better basketball than the Phoenix Suns right now. Nobody’s playoff bandwagon is fuller at the moment, and perhaps nobody’s gotten Chris Paul closer to that elusive first NBA championship than this surprising group in the Valley.

Imagine reading those words even two years ago.

Two years ago, Phoenix went 19-63 for the second-worst season in franchise history. Meanwhile, Paul’s friction with the Houston Rockets — coming off two straight defeats against a Golden State Warriors juggernaut, including that 2018 Western Conference Finals collapse where CP3 injured his hamstring in a masterful Game 5 performance that put his team up 3-2 — convinced management to trade the 34-year-old floor general and multiple first-round picks for Russell Westbrook.

The Suns were mired in obscurity as they approached a decade without playoff basketball, while Paul was banished to a young Oklahoma City Thunder team that he wasn’t expected to finish his season with. Neither CP3 nor Phoenix could’ve known how close their paths were to converging.

But then James Jones and Monty Williams happened. Actual, NBA-caliber players happened. Ricky Rubio, Kelly Oubre Jr. and Aron Baynes happened. And even as the Suns found themselves with a 26-39 record when the 2019-20 season shut down due to COVID-19, they were fortunate enough to get an invite to the NBA bubble.

In OKC, instead of pouting or going through the motions as his title window shrunk by one more year, Paul led the Thunder to the 5-seed in the West. They lost that first round series to James Harden and the Rockets, but CP3 mentored the youngsters, put in an All-NBA Second Team season and completely reinvigorated his trade value.

While the Suns were busy going 8-0 to become the story of the bubble, they saw what CP3 was doing with young, less prepared talent. Paul, in turn, couldn’t help but notice what Devin Booker and the kids down in Phoenix were doing too.

So when it came time for the Thunder to trade Paul, who had say in where he wanted to go, the stars aligned.

“I say it all the time man, if I don’t know nothing else, I know basketball,” Paul said. “So when I saw that Phoenix was an opportunity to come play here, I knew what we’d be capable of, ‘cause I know Book and I know how he competes and the energy that he plays with. It’s just dope to see everything that’s come together since the trade happened.”

So what is Phoenix capable of? After Sunday’s Game 4 win over the Denver Nuggets, we can add to the tally:

  • A 51-win season for a top-two record, complete with a top-10 offense and defense
  • The franchise’s long-awaited return to the playoffs for the first time since 2010
  • Phoenix’s first trip to the Western Conference Finals since 2010
  • Possibly the first-ever championship that’s eluded both Paul and the Suns for far too long

This will be the second conference finals appearance of Paul’s illustrious career, and for a guy who’s taken so much heat over the years for never winning a ring or for taking too long to reach the conference finals in the first place, he sure didn’t look like the mediocre playoff performer he’s often miscast to be.

In Sunday’s closeout win, the 36-year-old led Phoenix in scoring with 37 points — his most in a playoff game since that 41-point Game 5 masterpiece with the Rockets three years ago. He hit 14 of his 19 shots, chipped in 7 assists and made all 9 of his free throws in a win that secured the first sweep of his career, routinely bullying Denver’s defenders with his mid-range prowess.

“What could you say, other than he was darn near perfect all night long?” head coach Monty Williams said.

Jae Crowder added more elaboration.

“He just did a good job of calming us down when we got sped up a little bit, and I think he managed the game the entirety of the game,” Crowder said. “He did what Chris Paul does, and that’s point guard, Point God, whatever you want to call him, he controlled the game the entire game.”

Chris Paul and the Phoenix Suns are peaking at the right time

This type of dominant performance in a closeout game to reach another conference finals was never guaranteed from Paul — not only in the eyes of people who claimed his contract was among the worst in the NBA two years ago when Houston dumped him on OKC, but even as recently as Phoenix’s last series.

When Chris Paul suffered a shoulder stinger in Game 1 of the team’s first-round matchup against the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers, doubt started to creep in. CP3 could barely use his right arm, he was ineffective when he was on the court, and the Lakers’ No. 1 defense swarmed Devin Booker without his backcourt mate being able to make them pay. It felt inevitable that LeBron James and Anthony Davis would take over, leaving both Suns fans and CP3 with yet another playoff “what-if.”

But then the Suns and Paul got a rare bit of injury fortune, as the future Hall-of-Famer steadily got healthier. Phoenix rattled off three straight wins after going down 2-1, and it was the Lakers’ bodies who failed them in the end. After the series was over, Paul expressed gratitude and relief that his younger teammates had stepped up while he couldn’t be as effective as he wanted.

You’d better believe that was on his mind as the Nuggets series began, because the Point God made his return to form emphatically clear.

In four straight wins, CP3 was nothing short of a schoolyard bully. When he wasn’t directing offense Michael Porter Jr.’s way to routinely force him into defensive mistakes, Paul was busy snaking around picks, dancing on big men and making the Nuggets pay for their drop coverage.

He finished the series averaging a team-high 25.5 points, 10.3 assists and 5.0 rebounds per game while shooting a blistering 62.7 percent from the field, 75 percent from 3-point range and 100 percent from the free-throw line.

Through those four games, he racked up 41 assists while committing only 5 turnovers. In the closeout Game 4, he made history alongside Booker, who added 34 points of his own:

While each and every game in this series was close by halftime, Paul’s otherworldly feel and control of the game took over every single time the Suns needed a timely bucket.

There aren’t many players living or dead who are so tapped into the flow of the game they can just take over like this:

Even against a Nuggets team that was missing Jamal Murray, that’s not too shabby for a guy who was one of the “worst contracts in basketball” just a few years ago.

“I’m happy that the people did [write him off], because it fueled an already highly competitive, strong-willed, maestro of a point guard and basketball player,” Williams said. “You never want to count out a guy like Chris. And what he’s been able to do for our program, I’d be here all day talking to you about the things that he’s brought to the staff, to the players.”

From the on-court brilliance and actual basketball production to off-court habits like proper dieting, hydration and workout methods, CP3 has been instrumental in accelerating Phoenix’s incredible turnaround. The culture and foundational pieces were already in place last year, but Paul has helped them rise to new and unexpected heights sooner than anyone could’ve predicted.

“It’s hard to narrow it down on how he’s helped me,” Booker said. “You can go on the court, off the court, but what most comes to my mind at first is just how he carries himself as a true veteran in this league and as a true professional. I said it after last game, just his approach to the game, the way he trains, the way he takes care of his body, his diet, his sleep regimen.

“There’s many bits and pieces that he’ll come to me and talk about a lot, but I just sit back and observe him at the same time, and learn that way. I’m not the only person that’ll be saying this, I’m sure. You could ask anybody on this team, ‘How has Chris developed your game?’ and everybody’s gonna have a lengthy answer because he cares. He cares about each and every individual and he’ll let you know when he sees something that can better you.”

Booker and the Suns have been singing Paul’s praises all year, and while he’s not the only reason this team is looking dangerous, he’s been the catalyst in the eye of this perfect storm. The Suns are not only talented, smart and well-balanced on both ends of the floor, but they’re just fun. As the bandwagon fills up with people rooting for CP3 to get his first ring on such a young, exciting team, the story coming full circle with Paul and Williams reuniting is impossible to ignore.

“For me personally, I’ve had the most success as a coach when I’ve had Chris, and I’m not ashamed to admit that,” Williams said. “He’s an unreal basketball player, a great dude and I’m just glad he’s our point guard.”

The admiration and respect there is striking, but it’s deeper than a coach heaping praise on an All-Star. Williams, whose wife was killed in a tragic car accident in 2016, has repeatedly brought up how important Paul is in his life and how their relationship extends far beyond that of a normal coach-player dynamic.

“For me to coach him my first year and then he went on to a different team, for us to be together again and be in that moment and know that we can accomplish more is pretty cool,” Williams said. “Chris has meant so much to my career, he’s meant so much to my life. I’ve shared it with a few people, but at the darkest moment of my life, Chris was right there. And one of the highlights of my career, he’s right there.”

Paul’s camaraderie with his coach and his younger teammates, his return to Point God form as the shoulder’s gotten healthier and the Suns’ incredible depth and playoff readiness have turned them into the best story of the 2021 NBA Playoffs. That’s no small feat for a 36-year-old point guard in a league brimming with young talent, and Paul says that competition is what keeps him going.

“I don’t really play for anybody else or whatnot, I play for my team,” he said. “I wasn’t this phenom. I wasn’t necessarily supposed to be here. I played two years of JV basketball. It ain’t always been sweet for me, I’ve always had to grind. And I like that mentality. That’s always been who I’ve been, and I’m gonna stay that way.”

The Suns are following suit, and even if they’re not necessarily supposed to be here either, the grind has provided a winning mentality so far.

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