MILWAUKEE — The video scoreboard captured the dueling emotions as two NBA stars processed what awaited.
Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo would soon collect his first NBA championship after experiencing playoff shortcomings for the past two years. Phoenix Suns guard Chris Paul would soon lose in his first NBA Finals after experiencing playoff shortcomings for basically his entire 16-year career.
So while Antetokounmpo pranced around the court and waved to the crowd, Paul stood outside of the key with a blank expression on his face. Moments later, the outcome became official. The Bucks cemented a 105-98 win over the Suns in a decisive Game 6 of the NBA Finals on Tuesday at Fiserv Forum. When he walked into the interview room shortly afterwards, Paul bore the same expressionless look.
“This one is going to hurt for a while,” Paul said.
It sure will. The Bucks just won their first NBA title since 1971, but it would be understandable if Paul felt he has waited much longer to collect his.
In stops with New Orleans (2005-2011), the Los Angeles Clippers (2011-2017), the Houston Rockets (2017-19) and the Oklahoma City Thunder (2019-20), Paul experienced plenty of playoff heartbreak. He had five first-round exits. He failed to advance past the second round four times. He fell short in the Western Conference finals two other times. And now he has to add an NBA Finals loss to his playoff history.
“Everybody in that locker room knows we had enough, but it wasn’t enough. So, we got to figure it out,” Paul said. “I just look at myself and figure out how can I get better, what I could have done more and make sure I come back next season ready to do it again.”
CLOSEOUT: Bucks finish off Suns behind Giannis’ epic Game 6 performance
CLASS ACT: Suns’ Williams visits Bucks locker room to offer congratulations
NBA MOCK DRAFT 5.0: Pistons set at No. 1, but what about Rockets at No. 2?
It might be laudable for Paul to take accountability. Though he had 26 points on 11-of-19 shooting and five assists in Game 6, Paul faulted himself for his three turnovers. Paul did the same thing after committing five of the Suns’ 17 turnovers in a Game 4 loss, including a costly one in the final 30 seconds while the Suns trailed by two.
Paul also stressed there “ain’t no moral victories,” conveying he also measures himself by championships. But that does not mean Paul’s basketball résumé should become blemished just because the general public has become obsessed with the rings debate. As Suns teammate Devin Booker said, “that’s complete nonsense to the real hoopers out there.”
After all, Paul is a first ballot Hall-of-Famer and “a generational player,” as Suns coach Monty Williams said. Paul ranks fifth on the league’s all-time assists list (10,334). Paul has landed on 11 NBA All-Star teams, 10 All-NBA teams and nine NBA All-Defensive teams. And just like John Stockton and Steve Nash, Paul consistently played at a high level and made his teammates better.
So what if he doesn’t have a championship trophy to show for it?
“I don’t think any of those guys who are in that category are appreciated enough,” Williams said. “It’s laughable when you talk about guys like Chris who have had these unreal careers, and yet they get penalized because they haven’t won a title.”
That does not mean Paul is above criticism.
Beyond his costly turnover in Game 4, Paul showed stretches in which he did not consistently impose his will as either a scorer or playmaker. Although he said he felt “fine” after previously nursing injuries this postseason to his right shoulder and right hand, the 36-year-old Paul often looked overmatched by Bucks guard Jrue Holiday both when he picked Paul up at halfcourt and when Paul tried to defend Holiday himself.
Yet, Paul does not represent the primary reason why the Suns squandered a 2-0 series.
In fairness to the Bucks, Antetokounmpo’s dominance became the primary factor. Hence his Finals MVP. But when it comes to critiquing the Suns, Paul was nowhere near the top beyond the Game 4 turnover. Point to Booker’s off shooting night and Deandre Ayton’s foul trouble in Game 3. Blame the Suns’ over-reliance on Booker in Game 5 that included a lack of defense and offensive rebounding. For Game 6, critique Booker’s inefficiency (19 points on 8-of-22 shooting), Ayton’s struggles with defending Antetokounmpo and collecting fouls and Jae Crowder missing two wide open 3-pointers in crunch time.
Besides, Paul was a significant reason the Suns appeared in their first Finals since 1993. After the Suns went 8-0 in last year’s bubble, Paul joined Phoenix and immediately bolstered the team well enough to garner regular-season MVP consideration. Not only did Paul remain healthy and mirror his prime, he elevated Booker, Ayton and the team’s role players by holding them accountable, finding them easy baskets and hosting get-togethers at his house.
Chris Paul fell short of a title in his first NBA Finals appearance.
“We supported Chris all the way, he led us this whole entire season and this is our first year together,” Booker said. “So we’re just developing a relationship and developing a trust among each other throughout the whole season. For it to fall short like this, it’s tough on all of us.”
It was tough on Paul during his other playoff shortcomings, too. Aside from his two late turnovers in the Clippers’ Game 5 loss to Oklahoma City in the 2014 conference semifinals, Paul’s other exits were circumstantial.
He navigated front office and ownership dysfunction in New Orleans. Though he played through an injured hamstring before making a game-winning shot in Game 7 of the Clippers’ first-round series against San Antonio in 2015, Paul missed two games the following series before the Clippers squandered a 3-1 series lead to Houston. The next two years, Paul then experienced first-round exits amid injuries to his right hand (Portland, 2016) and Blake Griffin’s left quad (Utah, 2017).
The Clippers traded Paul to Houston the following season, but he injured his right hamstring in the middle of a seven-game West finals series against Golden State. Paul was limited the following season as well in the Rockets’ second-round loss to the Warriors. The Rockets then dealt Paul to Oklahoma City for Russell Westbrook, setting up the young Thunder to challenge the James Harden-led Rockets to seven games in the first round.
During those stops, Paul fielded mixed reviews on his demanding leadership style. But that criticism bodes more of a negative reflection on Griffin, Harden and Deandre Jordan than it does on Paul. Besides, he has since learned to fine-tune his approach while still holding teammates accountable.
“You’re not going to find many point guards ahead of him,” Williams said. “You would be hard-pressed to find a lot of players ahead of him when you talk about all-time greats.”
So where does Paul go from here?
He stressed he “ain’t retiring,” so expect him to play in his 17th NBA season. Will that be with the Suns? Paul said “everything will take care of itself,” but he has 44 million reasons why he would exercise his player option to stay in Phoenix. Although Paul conceded “it will take a while to process this,” he remains determined to overcome the latest postseason heartbreak just as he always has.
“It just means back to work,” Paul said. “Nothing more, nothing less. Ain’t no moral victories or whatnot. We sort of saw what it takes to get there and hopefully we see what it takes to get past that.”
It remains to be seen whether Paul will get past that. He will turn 37 by the middle of next year’s playoffs. Other championship contenders could become more healthy after recharging from the compressed season. As it happens during every free agency, other teams will enter the title picture after making significant roster changes.
But Paul’s latest shortcoming and his uncertain playoff future should not blemish an otherwise impeccable basketball résumé.
Follow USA TODAY NBA writer Mark Medina on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Sign up for USA TODAY’s subscription deals.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Suns: Chris Paul’s legacy shouldn’t be tarnished by NBA Finals loss