Chris Paul seems to enjoy the idea of being an underdog.
That’s why, when the Western Conference semifinals ended and the Phoenix Suns made their way to the last four in the NBA, he talked about how he felt scrapped two seasons ago. Why did he talk about spending two years on his high school junior team. How he wasn’t, in his words, “necessarily supposed to be here.”
It’s an elegant combo. But it is not a fact.
The truth is that this is exactly where Paul and the Sun are supposed to be. Still an elite at what he does. He helped take the Suns to levels he never thought they could reach in his first year in the valley. They’re headed to the Western Finals against the Utah Jazz or the Los Angeles Clippers, a game starting early next week, and there will be no shortage of experts picking the Suns to go from there to the NBA Finals.
“I’ve always had to grind, and I love that mindset, and that’s what I’ve always been, and I always will be,” Paul said. “If you like it, great. If you don’t, great too.”
It’s a mill, yes, but make no mistake – it’s a very successful mill.
True, Paul spent two years on the JV team at West Forsyth High in Clemons, North Carolina. It’s also true that he became a McDonald’s All-American and a five-star recruit there before signing with Wake Forest, was among the top five draft picks and eventually one of the NBA starters of the year.
His success story is not exactly a success story out of nowhere.
And again, to be fair, there were questions about whether Paul’s realistic window to winning a championship closed after his hamstrings betrayed him, and the Houston Rockets were unable to win games six or seven of the 2018 West Finals against Golden State. He was also in the first year of a four-year $159.7 million contract – the third max deal in his career – at the time, so it wasn’t as if everyone had given up on him. He’s made more NBA salary than anyone other than LeBron James, Kevin Garnett, and Kobe Bryant.
Consider this line from Denver coach Michael Malone, who offered Sunday night after Paul scored 37 points to help Phoenix finish his sweep of the Nuggets, Paul’s first 4-0 win in Paul’s career: “Chris Paul is arguably the greatest goalkeeper. All times.”
Paul is not weak.
The Suns, now they are the underdog story.
Phoenix had not been in qualifying for 11 years prior to this race. Monty Williams has not won a playoff streak as head coach until this season. They have exactly one player on the list – Jay Crowder – who made the NBA Finals, having got there last season with Miami. They had four Finals wins, eight win-wins in all, and needed just 10 games to eliminate both the 2020 champion Los Angeles Lakers and the Denver team that lost to the Lakers in the West Finals last season.
Paul traded with Phoenix in November. The sun hasn’t been the same since then.
Devin Booker — who says he often just sits and listens to Paul talking, enjoying every word whatever the day’s lesson — finally hit the big stage and is thriving, averaging 27.9 points in his first 10 games after the season ended. Deandre Ayton — a 22-year-old chiseled man who is nearly a foot tall and weighs about 60 pounds from Paul, though he credits the 36-year-old goalkeeper for changing his weightlifting regimen — shoots 72% in his first season for him. running around.
At 8-2, the Suns have the best record to date in these playoffs. The two games they lost were two that Paul tried to play with one arm after injuring his shoulder in the first round.
“You could ask anyone on this team — ‘How did Chris develop your game? — and everyone will get a lengthy answer because he’s interested,” Booker said. “He cares about everyone. He will tell you when he sees something that can improve you.”
Williams thinks Paul has his doubts. He had a message for them after the second round sweep.
“I’m glad people did it because it really fueled a highly competitive, strong-willed, basketball maestro and basketball player,” Williams said. “I would never want to count a guy like Chris.”
Bull High School teams have not won the state championship. His Wake Forest teams did not reach Final Four. And he still didn’t attend the NBA Finals. If that prompted some to dismiss him, whatever that might mean, that would be understandable.
But no one should count on him now.
He has $300 million in his salary from the NBA and who knows how much more than endorsement deals. He flirted with perfect bowling games, sat on boards with President Barack Obama, and already has a successful production company. He helps run the National Basketball Players Association. He has won two Olympic gold medals.
Paul has just about everything, except for the NBA title.
The underdog may now, whether he likes it or not, prefer to change that.
Tim Reynolds is a national basketball writer for the Associated Press. Write to him at treynolds (at) ap.org
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