There are many things Chris Paul is good at, but one of his most crucial skills is sensing a moment. It’s never about how he starts; it’s how he finishes.
And in Game 1 of the Phoenix Suns’ Western Conference semifinal series against the visiting Denver Nuggets, Paul began slowly, hitting just two of his eight shots through three quarters. But as the Suns grabbed hold of the contest, so did Paul, going 6-for-6 in the fourth quarter as Phoenix cruised to a 122-105 win.
“It’s in his hands, man,” Suns center Deandre Ayton said. “He’s made us comfortable … just knowing that he’s got it.”
Paul’s command of the game was on full display, with him methodically asserting himself early in the fourth quarter, scoring 10 consecutive points for the Suns as they widened their lead. He finished with 21 points, 11 assists and 6 rebounds in 36 minutes, and while his grip on the fourth quarter separated Phoenix, the team showcased its impressive balance and depth throughout.
All five starters finished in double figures, scoring at least 14 points. The Suns are the first team since the 2013 Golden State Warriors (Game 2 in Round 1) with four 20-point scorers on 55% shooting from the floor in a playoff game.
“That’s what I’ve said all season long: We have a team,” Paul said. “If you try to take one of us out or whatnot, we make the right play. Who you gonna leave open? Mikal [Bridges] is cash. Jae [Crowder] is cash. Cam [Johnson]. I could keep going on and on, and that’s the benefits of having a team.”
For Paul, better health was part of his fourth-quarter output, as he is now two weeks past his initial shoulder injury sustained in Game 1 against the Los Angeles Lakers. It’s something he is still dealing with, but as Paul already gets better the longer the game goes on, his shoulder also does.
“It definitely loosens up,” Paul said. “One thing about it is you don’t get no practice time. The only way you get a chance to see how it is is during the game. It was good. It was fun to get out there and be involved. That last series was, that was tough. I’m glad to be back helping the team.”
Paul scored or assisted on 20 of the Suns’ final 34 points. It’s his ninth career playoff game with 20 points, 10 assists and one or fewer turnovers, passing LeBron James for the most in the league with that line since turnovers were first tracked in 1977-78.
“He just made plays,” Suns guard Devin Booker said of Paul. “Not only his scoring ability but getting everybody else involved. That’s been the story of the season for us, following him in that regard.”
The Suns don’t necessarily have a template to lean on Paul late in games the way the Oklahoma City Thunder did when Paul led the league in clutch-time scoring a season ago. The Suns have the scoring of Booker and the well-rounded depth sprinkled throughout. But Paul is assertive when he needs to be, playing a cerebral game and picking his moments to take over.
“His ability to read the game, clock management, shot-making. He’s done it for a long time,” Phoenix coach Monty Williams said. “Right now, he’s probably critiquing himself and picking at some things he could do a lot better. He makes a lot of our stuff look better because he’s been in these situations before and understands the moment.”
At 36 years old, Paul is the oldest player in NBA history with 20 points, 10 assists and five rebounds in a playoff game; only four other players — James (six times), Elgin Baylor, John Stockton and Dennis Johnson — have put up that stat line at age 35 or older.
“Man, it’s a different game for him these days from when I was watching him play,” Nuggets forward Aaron Gordon said of Paul. “He was a lot more explosive back in the day, getting to the cup. He’s always been really smart, and he just keeps getting smarter. He’s a maestro out there orchestrating them. He really has uplifted that whole Phoenix team.
“Just how he talks, how he communicates with them out on the floor; you can tell that he just gives the entire team confidence.”