When Chris Paul ripped his hamstring in Game 5 of the 2018 Western Conference finals, and had to sit helplessly and watch as the Houston Rockets coughed up a 3-2 lead to the Golden State Warriors, it felt like the beginning of the end.
When the Rockets flamed out the next season to those same Warriors, without Kevin Durant, in the second round, that felt like the actual end. Paul, who laid a 3-for-14 egg in Game 5 with the series tied 2-2, would never be the same player. His best and last shot at an NBA Finals berth had passed him by.
The Rockets traded him to Oklahoma City. Everyone wrote him off. I remember walking into the CBS newsroom the morning after that trade and suggesting to Raja Bell that the Thunder actually got the better end of it, that Paul, though a diminished version of himself, was still better than Russell Westbrook.
Bell laughed at me. Waved me off like a lunatic. It turns out, we were both wrong. There was nothing diminished about Paul when he stunned everyone, including myself, by leading what was assumed to be a pitiful Thunder team to the playoffs. He looked as great as ever. And he still does.
On Sunday night, Paul authored his latest masterpiece as the Suns finished off a second-round sweep of the Denver Nuggets, finishing with a season-high 37 points on 14-of-19 shooting, including 9 for 9 from the free-throw line. He didn’t make, or even take, a single 3-pointer. He didn’t need to. Paul has adjusted his game slightly as the analytical age has tried to faze him out, but not by much. He remains a mid-range master.
This is but one of the many narratives Paul continues to disprove. You don’t have to shoot 3s at a disproportionate clip to win in today’s NBA. You just have to be great at the shots on which you do rely. If you are, then any shot is analytically sound, and Paul, by any reasonable measurement, is still great. He finished fifth in MVP voting, and he has the Suns, a team that had gone a decade without making the playoffs prior to his arrival, in the conference finals. The path to his first NBA Finals, a potentially his first championship, is as open as it has ever been in his career.
I mean look at those numbers. Ridiculous. We talk about what LeBron James is doing at 36 years old, but perhaps you don’t realize that Paul is the same age.
This is not to suggest Paul has done this alone. Far from it. The Suns hardly have a weakness to be found. Deandre Ayton has broken all the way out. Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson are two-way studs. They’re deep. Versatile. Cameron Payne might be the league’s best career-turnaround story. Monte Williams connects with his players in a way few coaches do.
And Devin Booker is a superstar.
After scoring 47 in the Suns’ first-round closeout game vs. the Lakers, Booker put 34 on the Nuggets on Sunday in his second closeout game. Booker and Paul are the third pair of Suns teammates to record at least 34 points in the same playoff game — joining Charles Barkley/Dan Majerle in 1993 and Steve Nash/Shawn Marion in 2005.
Like Paul has done with the narrative that he was, or is, washed up — and frankly the idea that he was never really a winning playoff player in the first place, a media-made storyline based almost entirely on bad injury luck and playing in the Western Conference — Booker has made this good-stats/bad-team reputation with which he was saddled look utterly foolish.
Turns out, when you score 70 points in an NBA game, you’re pretty damn good. We do this a lot with young players, label them as this or that without consideration of context, try to outsmart what our eyes are telling us by indulging in these supposed all-encompassing statistics that infact fail to tell the whole story.
The Suns, from top to bottom, were trash through the first four years of Booker’s career. If you were watching, he was getting better all the time. If you didn’t think he was always a guy who could be a big-time scorer on a big-time team (if only he had a chance to play on such a squad), you didn’t know what you were watching. But the playmaking, the feel for the pick and roll, the commitment to defending, all this evidence that Booker has long been more than just a gunner without a cause had been readily available for some time.
Now we can’t ignore it. Just as you we cant ignore than Trae Young, another young player you could feel the masses wanting to toss in the good-stats/bad-team bucket, is a true-blue star. Young has had to get better over his first three years, and he’s still got the Hawks alive in the second round. But the incredible talent was always there. Same with Booker. The only thing is: Now he’s on a stage where everyone is getting to see it.
Where do the Suns go from here? First up will be a date with either Utah or the Clippers. The Jazz — a team that feels a lot like the Suns in that they are a sum-of-their-parts unit that is a lot better than probably a lot of people realize — lead that series 2-1 with Game 4 set for Monday night.
Phoenix can beat either one of those teams, and now with Kyrie Irving ailing in Brooklyn, and James Harden already out (so far) with an injured hamstring, whoever comes out of the East could be a highly beatable squad as well. If you’re one of the many folks jumping on the Paul bandwagon in hopes of seeing him get his long-awaited first title, or at least his first Final berth, you don’t want to get ahead of yourself. But it’s hard not to get excited. This is right there for Paul and the Suns, just when it was all supposed to be over.