This has been a captivating odyssey for the 35-year-old Paul, who continues to earn all-star choices and defy doubts about his advancing age. He reworked the Clippers into perennial contenders, helped the Rockets obtain their greatest file in franchise historical past and turned the Thunder into final yr’s greatest overachievers. But every cease resulted in a special taste of heartbreak, leaving Paul to maintain transferring in quest of a playoff breakthrough that has eluded him for 16 seasons.
After a sequence of disappointments with the Clippers, Paul lastly reached the convention finals for the first time with the 2018 Rockets, solely to return up injured halfway by way of the sequence. His 2019 playoff run ended early amid rigidity with James Harden, and he fell simply wanting main the Thunder to an upset of the Rockets in the first spherical at the Disney World bubble.
In Phoenix, Paul has a well-balanced, unselfish workforce that will enter the postseason with one in all the league’s greatest information however with comparatively little stress. The Suns’ 140-103 throttling of the Thunder on Friday was their fifth straight victory, and it improved their file to 34-14, good for the West’s second seed. That win helped the Suns match their complete from final season, when they went 34-39, and they will quickly clinch their first successful season since 2014 and their first playoff look since 2010.
Paul, who’s averaging 16 factors, 4.7 rebounds and 8.7 assists per sport, has seemed like a cheerful camper in current weeks, praising his youthful workforce’s “spirit,” dedication and off-court chemistry. Suns Coach Monty Williams has seen an added diploma of maturity this season after an surprising 8-0 run in the bubble.
“One of the things I look for in a group is remorse after a loss,” Williams stated following a bounce-back win earlier this season. “We all feel like … you know what. Food doesn’t taste good. Your sleep isn’t the same. You’re overthinking. To me that’s a great sign that guys really care. We have that kind of team.”
Thanks to glorious well being for his or her key gamers, the Suns are second in level differential, seventh in offensive efficiency and sixth in defensive efficiency. They play regular, deliberate and clever basketball, with Paul orchestrating an offense that will get key contributions from Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges, all of whom are beneath 25 years previous.
Booker, a two-time all-star guard who’s averaging 25.6 factors, 4.1 rebounds and 4.5 assists per sport, has fashioned a mutually useful relationship together with his new backcourt companion. The duo has helped Phoenix enhance throughout the board, together with in late-game conditions. Last yr, the Suns went 16-21 in video games that had been inside 5 factors in the final 5 minutes. This yr, they are 14-11.
“That’s a sign of a team that’s growing,” Paul stated after a good win over the Portland Trail Blazers final month. “The best teams in the league don’t always play great all game long, but when it’s winning time, you lock in and you lock down. We’re doing that.”
In gentle of the Suns’ surge up the standings, TNT commentator Charles Barkley has floated Paul as a darkish horse MVP candidate, and Williams is certain to get loads of Coach of the Year votes. But how this feel-good story ends stays to be seen, and the Suns will probably be a preferred upset decide in the event that they declare home-court benefit in the first spherical.
Paul will must scale up his minutes significantly in the playoffs, and he will be relying on a number of key gamers — together with Booker, Ayton and Bridges — who’ve by no means reached the postseason. What’s extra, Williams is in search of the first playoff sequence victory of his six-year head teaching profession.
In a worst-case state of affairs, the Suns might face the Los Angeles Lakers in the first spherical, ought to the defending champions slip in the standings with LeBron James and Anthony Davis out injured. Even if Phoenix avoids that land mine, its reward for a dreamy season might be Luka Doncic’s Dallas Mavericks, Damian Lillard’s Portland Trail Blazers or Stephen Curry’s Golden State Warriors.
To go deep in the playoffs, Phoenix will want Booker to rise to the second as a better, Ayton to carry up defensively in high-pressure conditions and Bridges to stability the ground with well timed outdoors taking pictures. But make no mistake: the Suns’ destiny stays in Paul’s palms, even in any case these years.