Photo: Mark Rebilas/USA Today Sports
Chris Paul played his first NBA Finals game of his 16-year illustrious career on Tuesday night. He looked relaxed before the game started. He enjoyed the pomp and circumstances of the ceremonies.
On this night, no one had it better than him. Not only was he happy to be there, but he was all business.
The Phoenix Suns point guard finished with 32 points and nine assists in the Suns’ 118-105 Game 1 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks at Phoenix Suns Arena. He joined Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (he scored 30 or more six times) and Tim Duncan as the only third player 36-years-old or older to score 30+ points.
You can talk about the Point God scoring 16 of his 32 points in the third quarter that set the tone for the Suns’ 35-27 third quarter finish, giving them a 95-76 lead over the Bucks at the end of the third quarter.
For me, it was what he did in the fourth quarter. WIth 7:28 to go in the game, Devin Booker turned the ball over to Khris Middleton, who passed to Bryn Forbes. Forbes shot and missed, but Giannis Antetokounmpo grabbed the rebound and made the layup, cutting the Suns’ lead to 101-94 after trailing by 20 at one point. Their seven-point deficit was as close as the Bucks would get to the Suns since their 57-49 deficit at halftime.
The Bucks had hope. Yet, the Suns did not panic. They could count on Paul to make the plays that would stop the bleeding. It started when the Suns star threw a kick-back pass to an open Devin Booker, who hit a 3-pointer to extend the Suns lead to 104-94. Then after a failed Suns possession, the Suns point guard would steal the ball from Middleton and draw a foul. Paul would shoot a floater that would extend the Suns’ lead to 106-94.
It was the little things that defined Paul’s play beside his scoring output. It’s what makes him one of the best to play the point guard position. His attention to detail such as the ability to find the open man on the fly and put him in a position to succeed along with drawing fouls and creating a turnover. He brings memories of Jason Kidd in his time with the then-New Jersey Nets.
It won’t get much attention on highlight reels, but basketball wonks and coaches appreciate those details that lead to winning. The Suns can win a championship because of Paul’s attention to detail. His work rubs off on his teammates, who are doing the same things he is doing.
If anyone wants to know why the Suns transformed from a loser to a championship contender, it starts and ends with Paul. They missed the playoffs for 10 straight seasons until they acquired the point guard from the Oklahoma City Thunder this past offseason. They acquired him to be the finishing piece of a playoff team. They got more than they bargained for from a 36-year-old point guard.
The Suns reflected Paul’s leadership by playing with determination and dominance from the start. They played like the moment was not big for them in a game of this magnitude. They scored from the start, and they took it to another level in the third quarter. When the Bucks made a 7-0 run to cut their deficit to 101-94, it was Paul that kept the team together.
Yes, Paul’s job is easy when he has Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges, Cameron Johnson and Cameron Payne to work with, but here’s what people don’t understand: He makes them even better when he is coaching them and telling them what to do to be in a position to make a play on defense or offense. It’s like playing quarterback and telling his wide receivers to be in a position to be open. He knows how to make the chemistry work.
Paul’s intangibles stand out more than just his playmaking skills. In this game, it showed. In this Suns’ dream season, it showed.
The Suns should beat the Bucks in the NBA Finals because they have too many playmakers for the Bucks to overcome. Here’s another reason why they should be the favorite: Paul is possessed and determined to finally win a championship knowing this is as good as it gets for him. He scored 41 points in the Suns eliminating the Clippers, and now he put on a 32-point show. If that is not possessed and determined, then what is?
When the Suns point guard wants something, he gets what he wants. It’s that drive that made him one of the best players that ever played in the league.
Paul is just three wins away from being in a special pantheon that won a championship.
If there’s an NBA star deserving to be in that great place, it’s him.