EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Chris Paul’s masterpiece leads Suns to Western Conference Finals past Denver

Jun 13, 2021, 10:36 PM | Updated: Jun 14, 2021, 8:39 am
Chris Paul #3 of the Phoenix Suns celebrates towards Will Barton #5 of the Denver Nuggets after sco...
Chris Paul #3 of the Phoenix Suns celebrates towards Will Barton #5 of the Denver Nuggets after scoring off a turnover in Game Four of the Western Conference second-round playoff series at Ball Arena on June 13, 2021 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images)
(Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images)

DENVER — “There was 18 seconds left and I was still on their (expletive).”

Credit is deserved to everyone on the Phoenix Suns for what they’ve accomplished this season, the organization’s 10th Western Conference Finals berth. But it’s hard not to give the most to the head of the snake, the heartbeat of the team and the guy who was on them in the huddle still when Sunday night’s Game 4 against the Denver Nuggets was basically over with already.

Chris Paul’s leadership can never be exaggerated, and in that role for the Suns against the Nuggets, he surgically dismantled them. Paul shot 14-of-19 from the field for 37 points in a 125-118 win for a sweep.

It will be remembered as one of the all-time great playoff performances in franchise history, as it should be.

“What could you say other than he was darn-near perfect all night long,” head coach Monty Williams said of Paul’s outing. “Scoring the ball, managing the clock, he and I had communication throughout the game on what was working.”

Paul added three rebounds, seven assists, two steals and two turnovers.

For the four-game series, he averaged 25.5 points, 5.0 rebounds, 10.3 assists, 1.5 steals and 1.3 turnovers per game while shooting 62.7% from the field and was a perfect 22-of-22 at the foul line.

Suns wing Jae Crowder started shaking his head as he was asked about Paul.

“Closeout game, you could definitely feel the intensity of the game and you could fell our intensity as a group, but he definitely led us in that aspect,” Crowder said.

The flow of the game defined the separation in these two teams, a series that was deservedly a sweep.

The Nuggets had their best offensive half of the series in the first, scoring 33 points in the second quarter, the highest point total for them in any quarter of the series.

But the Suns dropped 35 points of their own in that 12 minutes, the story of the series in Phoenix’s ability to match and counter whatever Denver could muster. That had the Suns leading by eight, 63-55.

Devin Booker had 21 of his 34 points in the first half and Paul contributed 12, a playoff high for him.

Paul usually spends the first half assessing the opposition’s defense and getting his teammates involved, but he had a level of intent to his scoring in this game that he hasn’t shown all season.

After Denver scored on three straight possessions to begin the second half, Paul hit two straight midrange jumpers from his preferred area on the right side.

What Paul had assessed in that first half was that the Nuggets were still letting him get to his spots, particularly the right elbow. Williams said the two noticed the tweaks in the Nuggets’ scheme that were leaving the middle of the floor open a bit more.

So, Paul kept getting there.

Paul converted on two more field goals, making it four straight buckets for him from a nearly identical position.

His onslaught continued with another pair of jumpers that brought him to a perfect 6-of-6 shooting performance in the third quarter.

It was the latest showcase of Paul’s mastery of manipulation, and his greatest yet in a Suns uniform.

“He did what Chris Paul does. Point guard, Point God — whatever you want to call him, he controlled the game the entire game,” Crowder said.

After Paul’s unbelievable stretch ended with Cam Payne checking in at the 4:29 mark of the third quarter, Jokic missed two straight shots, the second of which came with the Suns up eight. After that failure to connect, he connected with Cam Payne’s face when swatting aggressively at the ball after Payne received an outlet pass.

Payne went down, and as immediate as that was, so too was Booker coming over to confront Jokic. The kerfuffle had the two eventually separated, all while Payne remained on the floor.

“It was just an emotional play. I don’t think he meant harm by it after but just a frustration foul,” Booker said of it, noting he knows that Jokic is “not a malicious player.”

The crowd in Denver chanted “MVP!” in support of Jokic and was shown one replay that did not accurately portray the severity of the play. This led to the Nuggets mascot flailing around on the ground to cheers from the Nuggets fans and they loudly booed Payne off the floor after he spent a good two minutes there.

Jokic was given a Flagrant 2 foul and ejected. He went on the floor to apologize to Payne before heading to the locker room.

Given how much the shorthanded Nuggets rely on the MVP, that was pretty much curtains on the game and series.

But there was still going to be a push back from the Nuggets in front of their fans and they showed what has made them such an impressive team all season.

When Jokic exited, the Suns’ lead quickly doubled to 16 late in the third quarter. Denver responded, however, with a 16-5 run to make it a ball game again, a five-point Suns edge with eight minutes to go.

At 5:03 left, the Suns were up six before the two teams combined for seven straight missed shots and one turnover.

Sensing the game’s rhythm spiraling, Williams wisely called a timeout with 3:28 remaining.

He utilized it well, drawing up an absolute beauty for a rare layup and-1 by Paul.

A steal by Mikal Bridges 17 seconds later set up Paul for another lay-in, what had to be the first time all season Paul has done that on two straight possessions, and was effectively the dagger.

Denver’s supporting cast put up one heck of a fight, an expectation for a team coached by Michael Malone.

Will Barton had 21 of his 25 points in the second half and Monte Morris added 19 in their first start of this series. The duo was put in the starting lineup by Malone and it paid off.

Those two guys kept the Nuggets coming all game and the Suns were able to push back every time.

Other teams would have folded to one or two of those surges and it would have cost them the game. These Suns are not like other teams.

“Before every game, you hear us come together as a team and say, ‘They’re gonna go on a run at some point. That’s when we stick together even more. That’s when we bring it together even more. That’s when we communicate even more,'” Booker said. “And that was the name of the game. They came back, they gave us their best shot in the fourth and we just kept playing through. Kept fighting, relied on our defense.

“We understand that we can score with the best of ’em in very different types of ways and we punish teams for different coverages but what we have to rely on is our defense and that when we lock in, that’s where it’s at.”

Booker grabbed 11 rebounds to go with his 34 points while Crowder had 10 boards of his own, plus nine points and four blocks.

The Suns now enter a waiting period before the Western Conference Finals, a timeframe that would be a worry for some teams. But again, the Suns are not like some teams.

The team will continue to work in an attempt to stay focused. If anything can relay that best, it’s what Paul had to say answering a question on what keeps him going at this stage of his career and life at 36 years old.

“Competition,” he said. “I don’t really play for anybody else or whatnot. I play for my team … 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.

“And that’s always been who I’ve been and imma stay that way. If you like it, cool. If you don’t, it’s cool too.”

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