Chris Paul plans.
He planned when he forced a trade out of New Orleans a decade ago. He planned when he creatively leveraged a contract option to get himself to Houston. He planned when he helped change an arcane age rule in the collective bargaining agreement that enabled him the chance to earn tens of millions of dollars in extra salary.
Even in the moments after Paul’s Phoenix Suns finished a 123-98 thrashing of the visiting Denver Nuggets on Wednesday to take a 2-0 lead in their Western Conference second-round series, Paul was planning. In the locker room, knowing the Nuggets twice came back last season from 3-1 deficits, he was getting his teammates to think about Game 3 on Friday night in Denver. Paul told stories of going up 2-0 against the San Antonio Spurs in 2008 while with New Orleans, only to eventually lose in seven games.
But even on his most rosy drawing board, he probably couldn’t have seen the situation that is unfolding.
The Suns have won five straight playoff games and, with each victory, appear to be getting stronger. His longtime adversaries are falling off the board. Stephen Curry is home. LeBron James is home. Injuries are mounting across the league, and this time the one Paul had in the playoffs — his shoulder stinger that almost wrecked this run before it started — seems to be healed.
The Suns are healthy and playing brilliantly as a group. In both games of the second round, five players have scored in double figures.
People around the league are starting to talk about how this might be Paul’s best shot ever at an NBA Finals. It might be premature to say that considering his Rockets team was up 3-2 on the Golden State Warriors in the conference finals before a hamstring pull sidelined him three years ago.
But after the routine disappointments with the LA Clippers and the letdowns and near misses in Houston, this rising Suns’ streak feels like the most unexpected playoff situation of Paul’s career.
“I’m telling you,” Paul said after scoring 17 points with 15 assists and no turnovers in Game 2. “I really haven’t been on a team quite like this one.”
Working with the Oklahoma City Thunder, Paul had several hopes when picking a trade destination last offseason. He wanted to be close to his family in Los Angeles, be in good weather and have a shot at playing next to a star; he would have that in Devin Booker. Represented by the same agency, Booker was desperate to get some help.
“I’m done with not making the playoffs,” Booker said three years ago, after a 21-61 season with Phoenix. “I’m serious.”
After going a perfect 8-0 in the bubble in Orlando, Florida, to narrowly miss the playoffs in 2020, the Suns were upwardly mobile — but they were not seen as real contenders. Different people in their fan base and organization might have jumped to that conclusion as this special season unfolded, but now that it’s actually happening, Paul is basking in the position he has found himself in.
Booker has been the star he believed in, with his 47-point closeout game to knock out the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers being the gem so far. Paul can’t believe how effective his teammates are at shooting, with Jae Crowder, Mikal Bridges, Dario Saric, Cameron Johnson and Cameron Payne lighting up the opposition from outside.
Paul, who was the centerpiece of Lob City with the Clippers and on an offensive juggernaut in Houston, said he has never seen anything like it.
“Everybody shoots,” Paul said. “You don’t have to try to find a certain guy. Everybody (on our team) are knockdown shooters.”
Chris Paul connects with Deandre Ayton for a roaring two-handed slam.
During this five-game postseason winning streak, Paul has 53 assists and four turnovers. That’s 53-4. With his shoulder better — he couldn’t even attempt long shots for several games in the previous round — he has made 14 of 24 shots and 4 of 5 3-pointers in this series. His two 3s on Wednesday were fourth-quarter daggers.
“He manages games better than anybody I’ve ever been around,” Suns coach Monty Williams said. “It’s not something I take for granted; it’s not something our team takes for granted.”
It is dangerous to think this fairy tale will continue; Paul’s playoff career is one long string of unexpected setbacks. But it’s also human nature to watch him, at age 36, and wonder whether there is some bit of karma heading his direction.
Outwardly, Paul will not allow it; he has literally done dozens of commercials about insurance covering unexpected disasters. But inwardly, he probably can see the road ahead and start to feel some warmth.
“We’re cool,” Paul said. “We have guys who understand the moment.”