A great deal of praise was heaped on Chris Paul this season for his influence on the Phoenix Suns, who finished the regular season with the second-best record in the West, kicked the crap out of the Lakers in the first round of the playoffs, and then kicked even more crap out of the Nuggets in the second round. The Suns are having their best season in more than a decade, and they can thank Paul for it.
And yet despite all of the credit Paul has received for helping to turn a team that went 34-39 last season into a Western Conference finalist, last night’s series-clinching win over the Nuggets called for even more glasses raised in his honor. Paul spent the regular season and most of the playoffs acting as a sort of guiding hand for the rest of the roster. That’s exactly how you’d expect a 36-year-old genius point guard to conduct himself at this stage in his career, and what Paul helped create in Phoenix was a whirring and highly efficient offense that got the best out of all five players on the floor. Paul averaged 16 points and eight assists during the regular season, but more importantly he made it possible for the Suns to run one of the most devastating and complicated pick-and-roll offenses in the league.
Last night was a little bit different, though. The Suns played with their usual ferociousness on both offense and defense, but Paul’s usual steady hand was more of a fist. He finished the game with 37 points (the most he’s scored in any game in the last three seasons), and he racked up most of those points through an identical set of shots. Paul attempted 19 shots in the game, and took all but six of them from the exact same spot on the right elbow. If you have even a passing familiarity with Paul, you know exactly what that shot looks like, because it’s the same one he’s been torturing defenses with his entire career.
What separated last night’s barrage of pull-up elbow jumpers from what we saw previously in this series is just how forcefully Paul was hunting for his own shots. Age and a partially bum shoulder had previously made it seem like Paul could only pull that particular weapon out of his arsenal for short, calibrated bursts. You’d have to go back to, what, Paul’s last playoff run with the Hornets to find a similarly sustained sequence of jumpers from the Point God? He was 25 damn years old back then!
Maybe Paul kept shooting just because the Nuggets kept giving him space to do so—Denver was either too terrified or too dumb to switch on any high screen involving Paul, which gave him an open runway to the elbow over and over again—or maybe he saw and took an opportunity to not only kill the series off, but remind everyone that he is still the kind of NBA superstar who can swing a game or a series all on his own.
Even for a Nuggets fan like me, it was cool to see Paul zooming around the court and draining jumpers like a much younger man. It was a reminder of what a beautiful basketball player Paul always has been, and still is. I remember making appointment viewing of every playoff game Paul played when he was a member of the Hornets, because I never wanted to miss whatever magic trick he was certain to perform on the court that night. The glow started to come off as his Clippers tenure soured, and it disappeared completely when he landed in Houston to serve as James Harden’s sidekick and occasional stand-in. But there it was last night, shining just as bright as it ever did, and when Paul was feeling himself enough to hit Nikola Jokic with his patented yo-yo dribble—the very same move that used to have be pumping my fist more than 10 years ago—and pull up for a jumper in front of the scrambling big man, well, even I had to smile at that.