For a moment, when he burst onto the open court alone, it looked like Chris Paul was thinking of dumping it. It would have been an emphatic closing statement on the series, the play to crown the complete dominance displayed by his Phoenix Suns throughout.
But there were still 3 three minutes to go, and even with an 11-point lead, Paul still wasn’t thinking about the future.
“Try to stay in the moment,” he said. “My teammates will tell you, there were 18 seconds on the clock and I was still in control. That’s right.”
Even with the league’s MVP Nikola Jokic sent off in the third quarter, Paul extended that calm until the end of the game, in which the Suns completed their sweep over the Denver Nuggets 125-118 on Sunday night to advance to the Western Conference finals.
“The emotions are happy, grateful, tired, relieved,” Suns coach Monty Williams said. “It’s one of those moments for me that, frankly, I never thought I’d have a chance to experience. For me, I have a level of gratitude that I can’t even explain.”
It is the first time in Paul’s career that he has completed a sweep in a playoff series, something he had in mind and something he let his teammates know before the game.
“We were excited,” Suns guard Devin Booker said of the postgame atmosphere. “Chris said before the game that he had never swept anyone, that he had never beaten anyone 4-0. I don’t know when the last time the Suns were in the Western Conference finals, but tonight is one of the Nights to celebrate at home and then wake up tomorrow, we’re in the Clippers or Utah. “
To answer Booker’s question, the last time the Suns were in the conference finals: the 2009-10 season, when Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers defeated Steve Nash and the Suns in six games. They advanced for the first time in more than a decade in style, dominating the series from start to finish, with an average margin of victory of 15.7 points.
It’s the second time Paul has been to the conference finals, the last time being in 2018 when he was a member of the Rockets and he missed Games 6 and 7 due to a hamstring injury when Houston fell in seven games. against the Golden State Warriors.
Now, he is four wins away from his first appearance in the Finals.
“A lot of things, I haven’t had a lot of time to process them yet,” Paul said. “But I am going to get on the bus and, first of all, I will call my children.”
Paul scored 37 points on 14 of 19 shots at the close of Game 4, culminating a series nothing short of magnificent. For the 36-year-old future Hall of Famer, he finished the series averaging 25.5 points on 61.8% shooting, 58% from 3, 100% from the free throw line, plus an absurd assist ratio to Turnover from 41 to 5.
“A couple of years ago, I was ruled out. ‘You can’t do this.’ It’s not about me, it’s about us,” Paul said on the court after the game. “It shows what you can do when you join as a team. We have a great team there and it’s a lot of fun to be a part of it.”
Throughout the season, Paul’s control of the game was on display and his influence on the young Suns was clear as he prevailed at key moments to provoke touchdowns. He was particularly brilliant in the mid-range, taking advantage of the inefficiency of NBA marking to split the Nuggets’ coverage scheme. In Game 4, he made 10 long range shots, the most in his career (playoffs or regular season).
After dispatching the defending champion Lakers in six games, the Nuggets posed a new challenge with the league MVP and a contrasting style. But with young big man Deandre Ayton and a promising cast of supporting actors around Paul and Booker, the Suns always seemed up to the task.
Paul shared a long and emotional hug with Williams after the game on the court. Their relationship dates back a decade, with Williams coaching Paul in New Orleans for a season in 2010-11. Paul and Williams stuck together even as they went their separate ways, and after tragedy struck Williams in 2016 when his wife Ingrid died in a car accident, Paul offered support.
“The darkest moment of my life, Chris was there,” Williams said. “In one of the highlights of my career, he is there.”
Paul said: “It’s emotional. Mont has been through things in his life that a lot of people don’t necessarily come back from.”
Since their career more than a decade ago under Mike D’Antoni and the Seven Seconds or Less revolution, the Suns have largely disappeared from the West feud. They were a constant staple in the lottery, but they finally found some momentum in the NBA bubble last summer, going 8-0 and almost managing to make an unlikely run to the play-in game.
He established a new identity for Phoenix to build on and then, with the addition of Paul, the Suns have only continued to climb.
“It’s a feeling that’s kind of hard to put into words,” Booker said. “You always reflect after a game like this, after closing a series, you sit down and reflect a bit and think about it. What we’ve been through as an organization and as a team.”