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Suns vs. Clippers: Chris Paul is one win from his first NBA Finals, but don’t talk to him about 3-1 leads

Depending on your perspective, or perhaps just your age, the Phoenix Suns‘ 84-80 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers in Game 4 of the Western Conference finals on Saturday was either one of the ugliest basketball games you’ve ever seen, or a delightful return to a more nostalgic brand of 1990s/early 2000s slugfests. 

For the record, this was the lowest-scoring game of the season, regular or post. The Suns and Clippers combined to miss 16 straight shots in the fourth quarter and went 9 for 51 from 3 overall. Without a rewatch, I’m not sure whether that was more about the defense or if guys were just laying bricks. 

What I do know for sure is Chris Paul doesn’t care. Ugly, pretty, 34 total second-half points for the Suns, 36-percent shooting — none of that matters. A win, as they say, is a win. And Paul only needs one more to reach the NBA Finals for the first time in his career. But do the man a favor: Don’t mention the 3-1 lead thing to him. 

“I don’t wanna talk about 3-1,” Paul said, without a hint of humor, in his postgame on-court interview with ESPN’s Rachel Nichols. “I don’t have a good experience with that.”

Paul, of course, is referring to the 3-1 lead he watched evaporate against the Houston Rockets in the 2015 conference semifinals. He was playing for the Clippers then. They had a 19-point lead in the second half of Game 6. It’s already ironic that the team standing in the way of Paul’s first NBA Finals berth is the one he never managed to get that far. Wouldn’t it be the cruelest of twists if Paul, now, were to blow a second 3-1 lead against the Clippers? 

He knows it can happen. The Suns are good, but so were those 2015 Clippers, who had enough to win a title and would’ve gotten a conference-finals shot at the Warriors before they became the Warriors. That would’ve been an all-time series. Paul and the Clippers clearly got caught looking a bit ahead. He won’t let that happen this time. You can bet he’ll be in Phoenix’s collective ear every day until this thing is over. Don’t let up. This is the opportunity of a lifetime. 

And that’s not just for Paul. That goes for all the other Suns, too. Monty Williams. Everyone. It’s easy to say that the younger guys — Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges, Cam Johnson — will get more cracks at a title, but that’s far from guaranteed. This is a weird season. LeBron James wasn’t 100 percent and Anthony Davis couldn’t play by the end of Phoenix’s first-round win over the Lakers. The Nuggets didn’t have Jamal Murray. The Clippers don’t have Kawhi Leonard. Stephen Curry wasn’t even in the playoffs. 

This isn’t to diminish anything Phoenix has done to this point. It’s just facts. The road has opened up for this team in a way it might never again. LeBron will be healthy again next season. The Nuggets will get Murray back at some point. The Warriors will be back in the mix. And that’s just the West. If Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving stay healthy, this might be the only season for the foreseeable future that any team outside of Brooklyn has this clean a shot to win the whole thing. 

And man does Paul deserve this shot. He was written off when Houston traded him to OKC, and again when OKC traded him to Phoenix. He’s been the second-best point guard of the greatest point-guard era in history, trailing only Stephen Curry, and even Curry is less a traditional point guard than Paul, who is a floor general in every sense. The true Point God. 

This is not all about Paul. The Suns are a team in every sense. Booker is an elite player and Ayton — who said after Game 4 that Paul was “the best thing to happen to my career” — has absolutely turned into a star in his role. The Suns, even before everyone started getting hurt, were arguably the most well-rounded unit going. Their defense, which Paul arguably has the least to do with, has been stifling. They do not have a real weakness unless you wanted to question their top-end star power. Paul has ended that debate. He finished fifth in MVP voting for a reason. He remains one of the best players in the league, as he has been for the duration of his 16-year career, even if he’s long lived in the shadow or more his more accomplished postseason piers. 

Now it’s his time. The Suns are in control of the Clippers and staring down a Finals matchup against an imperfect Milwaukee team or a Hawks squad that would probably be the worst NBA Finals team in history. This is right there for the taking. Which makes it all the more nerve-wracking for a guy who’s seen such a story end badly before. 




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