LOS ANGELES — With the building he called home for six seasons of his 16-year career going berserk after a 10-0 run by the LA Clippers, Phoenix Suns point guard Chris Paul went on an 8-0 run of his own to simultaneously silence the crowd and begin to cast off the playoff demons that have haunted his postseason past.
Paul’s third-quarter spurt gave way to a fourth-quarter coronation on Wednesday at Staples Center. The future Hall of Famer poured in 19 more of his playoff career-high 41 points as the visiting Suns won 130-103 in Game 6 of the Western Conference finals to advance to the NBA Finals.
Paul and the Suns found a way to outlast the never-say-die Clippers, earning Paul the first Finals berth of his career and Phoenix its first appearance in nearly three decades.
“I just kept thinking, if we do what we’re supposed to do, I get the last laugh,” Paul said afterward. “So you stay the course long enough, you break ’em, and that’s what we did.”
In many ways, Paul was the most accomplished player in NBA history to have never appeared on the Finals stage, as he’d earned the most All-Star appearances and All-NBA selections, started the most playoff games and scored the most career points of anyone without a Finals appearance on his résumé.
After missing the first two games of the series while sidelined because of the league’s health and safety protocols and then struggling in Games 3 and 4 — combining to shoot just 11-for-41 — he found his game on Wednesday, going 16-for-24 from the field (7-for-8 from 3) while dishing out eight assists.
“There were questions about his production before tonight, and in my heart I felt like it was a matter of time,” Suns coach Monty Williams said of Paul after the game. “I didn’t know it was going to be like that, but that’s who Chris is. He was tired and he was still making those kinds of plays — getting to the basket, the 3s, orchestrating everything.”
Paul, fighting back tears during the postgame trophy presentation ceremony at center court, revealed that he received an MRI prior to Game 6 that revealed partially torn ligaments in his right hand. This after playing through a nerve issue in his shoulder during the first round and later contracting COVID-19 in between the second round and conference finals.
“Hell, man, I experienced COVID. Just a week ago, I was here [in L.A. while quarantining] at home. Couldn’t be there with my teammates,” Paul said. “It’s been a lot, and I want it not just for myself but for everybody in that locker room.”
Led by young stars Devin Booker (22 points) and Deandre Ayton (16 points, 17 rebounds), Phoenix pushed ahead by as many as eight points in the first quarter, shooting 14-for-22 from the field (63.6%).
The Suns’ lead grew to double digits early in the second quarter, then was cut all the way to one before Phoenix brought it back to nine by halftime, with Jae Crowder scoring 13 of his 19 points in the period.
The Suns’ advantage swelled to 17 in the third as Phoenix — held to an average of 91 points in Games 4 and 5 of the series — pushed the pace and put 97 points on the board by the start of the fourth.
The Clippers, led by Marcus Morris Sr.’s second strong game of the series, went on a 10-0 run in the third to stay within striking distance before Paul hit a 3 as part of a flurry when he scored eight straight on his own to give the Suns back a 15-point cushion.
“It was a shot that helped me loosen up in a certain area of my body, you know what I mean?” Williams quipped.
Paul, 36, who scored 37 points in the Suns’ series clincher in Game 4 of the second round against the Denver Nuggets and 41 on Wednesday, became the oldest player in league history to score 35-plus points in consecutive closeout games within a postseason, according to research by ESPN Stats & Information. The previous oldest? Michael Jordan, who did so at the age of 33 in 1996.
The Suns’ rapid rise from a team that won just 19 games three seasons ago to the Finals can be attributed, in large part, to three key characters: Paul, who finished fifth in MVP voting; general manager James Jones, who was named NBA Executive of the Year; and Williams, who finished second for Coach of the Year.
But the Suns’ young stars in Booker — who played through a broken nose to average 25.5 points in the series — and Ayton — no slouch himself, averaging 17.8 points and 13.7 rebounds against the Clippers — gave that brain trust talent to mesh with.
“I think he thought when we played against each other the first time that it was going to be a love, but, no, I started talking s— to him right away,” Booker said when asked about his first memories of playing with Paul. “It’s just, those type of competitors, the players that you like, I don’t like playing against that guy but I love him on my team.”
It is just the third time in franchise history that Phoenix has reached the Finals. Charles Barkley’s Suns lost in six games to Jordan and the Chicago Bulls in 1993 and also lost in six games to the Boston Celtics in 1976 — the series that featured a 128-126 triple-overtime loss for Phoenix in Game 5.
“You never know if you’re going to be in these positions and you watch guys get there three, four, five times,” said Williams, who said he broke down crying a few hours before tipoff after longtime assistant Randy Ayers shared his thoughts about him. “Some people get there more than that, and you’re like, ‘Man, I worked my tail off.’ Then you just realize it’s a blessing, because everybody works at it. So if you get a chance to be a part of it, you realize you’ve been unbelievably blessed.”
To get there this time, they took out the defending-champion Los Angeles Lakers in the first round in six games; swept league MVP Nikola Jokic and the Nuggets in the second round; and ended the Clippers’ season on their home court.
“Obviously you take out the champs, that does definitely get you going a little bit, with your team morale, confidence-wise, our younger players confident knowing that we took down a great team, defending champs,” said Crowder, who lost to the Lakers in the Finals last year as a member of the Miami Heat.
The run has ignited a dormant fan base that hasn’t seen its team in the postseason since 2010. The Suns will have those fans behind them in the Finals, too, as they will have home-court advantage against whichever team comes out of the Eastern Conference by virtue of a better regular-season record than both of them. The Atlanta Hawks and Milwaukee Bucks are tied 2-2 in the East finals.
“I do feel it when we go out to the floor,” Williams said earlier in the series. “That environment, I don’t know of any other environment that can touch it. There may be some just as loud, but nobody is louder than our fans on game night.”
It was a full-circle kind of night for Paul, who was asked about the conference championship T-shirt he was wearing and recalled how he envisioned wearing the celebratory garb three years ago when his Houston Rockets were up 3-2 on the Golden State Warriors before he hurt his hamstring and the Warriors stormed back to win the series.
“The equipment guy in Houston … [he] had the T-shirt and hat, and I never got a chance to get it,” Paul said. “I never forget that. Never forget that.
“Jay [Gaspar], our equipment guy here, texted me a couple days ago and said, ‘C, I got the T-shirt and the hat. All you got to do is do your part.’ So that’s the only thing that I was thinking about, is the process. This is just getting us one step closer to where we’re going to be.”
Paul also looked back beyond his Houston stint to his time spent in L.A.
“To do it here in L.A., with the Clippers, this is my family too,” Paul told ESPN’s Rachel Nichols during the trophy ceremony. “I gave six hard years to the Clippers. We fought hard. A lot of these fans, Billy Crystal, that’s my family. So to do it here, against a team that I got the utmost respect for, I’ll always be a Clipper. I love these fans.”
Crystal, the actor and comedian known for his Clippers allegiance, was touched by Paul’s acknowledgement.
“If it couldn’t be us, I’m happy that it’s him,” Crystal told ESPN. “It’s very bittersweet that it happened in this building where he was so great for us for so many years, and we just couldn’t get past him. At this point in his career, he’s playing as well as ever.”
Paul’s history with his coach goes back even further than his ties to the Clippers. Williams’ maiden season as an NBA head coach came in 2010-11 when Paul was his point guard in New Orleans. Now the pair will head to the championship round together.
“I’ve known Chris for 11 years now. … We would be here all day talking about our friendship,” Williams said before Game 6. “It’s bigger than basketball. There’s a connection and kinship there from the tough talks, the coaching, the texts, FaceTime, watching games. That probably sticks out to me, along with a few other things.”
And the Suns will need four more wins to take home the first title in their 53 years of existence.
“We still have work to do,” Booker said. “This is nice and all, but we’re going for the Larry [O’Brien Trophy], for sure.”