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Commentary: Chris Paul’s legacy is close to complete with trip to NBA Finals

Suns Coach Monty Williams hugs Suns guard Devin Booker (1) as Suns guard Chris Paul watches the final seconds of Game 6.
Suns Coach Monty Williams hugs Suns guard Devin Booker as guard Chris Paul watches the final seconds of Phoenix’s Game 6 defeat of the Clippers on Wednesday night.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Basketball has been good to Chris Paul, but it’s been cruel. Really cruel.

It made him rich. It gave him rich, famous friends. After sending the Clippers off the court on Wednesday, he brought rapper Lil Wayne onto it. It’s given Paul power and a platform.

It’s built him a legacy.

But the thing Paul has wanted most, the thing he’s wanted forever has always eluded him, not so much slipping through his hands as it’s crumbled under his strangling grip.

At the core of everything that is Chris Paul, he wants to win. It’s why he flops. It’s why he knows all the footnotes of the rule book. It’s why he exploits those margins.

It’s why he’s traveled from New Orleans to Los Angeles to Houston to Oklahoma City and to Phoenix. He’s been searching for this.

The Comeback Clippers’ magical run in the NBA playoffs ended in ugly fashion with 130-103 loss that reminded everyone of the franchise’s past.

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Wednesday, he finally got there when the Suns eliminated the Clippers to advance to the NBA Finals.

It wasn’t the big goal — that is still four more wins away. But something about Paul hoisting a trophy, about seeing him celebrate a Western Conference championship, about seeing him slide the commemorative T-shirt over his jersey felt momentous.

Once Paul left the court Wednesday, he bounced on the sidelines while a storm built inside of him — adrenaline mixing with accomplishment. He bumped chests and yelled at each of his teammates, who yelled back.

He hugged coach Monty Williams once. Then, he hugged him again — burying his head into his coach’s chest after looking to the suite where his family celebrated.

“All the stuff that had to happen in order for us to get here, right?” Paul said, that emotion almost spilling over again. “It’s just part of the process.”

Paul’s process has been unlike any of his peers, his greatness unquestioned but his ability to avoid calamity unavoidable.

Video highlights from the Phoenix Suns’ 130-103 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers in Game 6 of the Western Conference finals on June 30, 2021, at Staples Center.

Eyes around the NBA rolled when Paul talked about himself as an underdog after the Suns eliminated the lower-seeded Denver Nuggets. He was, after all, a McDonald’s High School All-American who quickly looked every bit the part of a generational point guard in college and the pros.

Yet when you think about everything that’s gone wrong since Paul hit the league — and really since he forced his way to Los Angeles — it’s understandable why he thought the odds might not be in his favor.

An overruled trade to the Lakers opened the door for Paul to instantly become one of the best Clippers ever. He picked the franchise again in free agency, starting the erasure of the organization’s ugly past by giving the present and the future some hope.

While winning the West isn’t usually cause for deep reflection, this time it’s impossible. Landmarks from Paul’s past were everywhere on Wednesday.

He’s playing for Williams, the coach he left behind in New Orleans to go legitimize the Clippers. Chauncey Billups, one of the reasons Paul wanted to be a Clipper, was on the opposite bench. Willie Green, who ended up in the backcourt with Paul after Billups got hurt, is an assistant in Phoenix and gave Paul multiple lengthy embraces.

Tyronn Lue coached Paul on Doc Rivers’ first Clippers staff. He, like all those other people from Paul’s past, acknowledged what the 36-year-old point guard accomplished.

“It took him 16 years,” Jae Crowder said. “That tells you how hard it is to get to this moment.”

Clippers forward tries to steal the ball from Suns guard Chris Paul.
Clippers forward Paul George tries to steal the ball from Suns guard Chris Paul during Game 6 on Wednesday night at Staples Center.
(Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times)

Paul had the moment ruined by bad luck. He had it ruined by injuries during the playoffs. He nearly had it ruined by COVID (and by injuries again) this postseason.

But with the Clippers putting together another comeback, Paul swished an open three-pointer to put the Suns back up 10. The Clippers never got close again.

“It was a shot that helped me loosen up in a certain area of my body, you know what I mean? That was the deal,” Williams said with a laugh. “… For whatever reason they didn’t guard him on the right wing. Just kind of stared at him and it was a moment.

“Chris loves those moments, but when he hit that shot it was almost like symbolically, he was like, ‘Coach, I got it.’ ”

Except he’s never had this before.

Chris Paul has experienced failures in the past with the Clippers and others. Now he draws on that experience in helping the Suns advance in playoffs.

He’s been on the court for blown leads. He’s let the pressure get to him in huge moments. This time, with the goal so close, Paul was at his very best. There weren’t any forced turnovers and there weren’t any signs of panic.

Paul just dominated.

He tied his postseason career high with 41 points — 31 coming in the second half with the Suns on the doorstep of their first trip to the Finals since 1993.

“He’s one of the best point guards to ever play the game and that’s a fact,” Devin Booker said. “And everybody knows that.”

And for the first time, they’ll be able to see it in the NBA Finals.

Clippers series vs. Suns
(Tim Hubbard / Los Angeles Times)


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