For a moment, as he broke into the open court all alone, it looked like Chris Paul was thinking about dunking it. It would’ve been an emphatic final statement on the series, the play to cap off the complete dominance his Phoenix Suns showed over the Denver Nuggets throughout.
But there were still 3 minutes left in the game, and even with an 11-point lead, Paul wasn’t thinking ahead quite yet.
“You just try to stay in the moment,” he said. “My teammates will tell you, there was 18 seconds on the clock and I was still on they ass. That’s just the way I am.”
Even with league MVP Nikola Jokic ejected in the third quarter, Paul was playing this one to the buzzer, as the visiting Suns completed their sweep of 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, quite frankly, I never thought I’d have a chance to experience. For me I just have a level of gratitude that I can’t even explain.”
It’s the first time in Paul’s career that he has completed a playoff series sweep, something that was on his mind, and something he let his teammates know before the game.
“We were hyped, man,” Suns guard Devin Booker said of the postgame atmosphere. “Chris was saying before the game he’d never swept somebody, he had never beat somebody 4-0. I don’t know when the last time the Suns have been to the Western Conference finals, but tonight is one of the nights we celebrate in-house and then wake up tomorrow, we’re on to either the Clippers or Utah.”
To answer Booker’s question, the last time the Suns were in the conference finals was the 2009-10 season, when Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers defeated Steve Nash and the Suns in six games. They advanced back for the first time in more than a decade in style, dominating the series from start to finish, with an average winning margin 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 missed Games 6 and 7 because of a hamstring injury as Houston fell in seven games to the Golden State Warriors.
Now, he’s four wins away from a first-ever NBA Finals appearance.
“A lot of things, I haven’t had a lot of time to process it yet,” Paul said. “But I’m going to get on the bus, and first and foremost call my kids.”
Paul scored 37 points on 14-for-19 shooting in the Game 4 closeout, capping off a series nothing short of magnificent. The 36-year-old future Hall of Famer finished the series averaging 25.5 points on 61.8% shooting, 58% from 3, 100% from the free throw line, plus an absurd 41-to-5 assist-to-turnover ratio.
“A couple years ago, they were writing me off. ‘You can’t do this.’ This ain’t about me, it’s about us,” Paul said on the court postgame. “Shows what you can do when you come together as a team. We’ve got a great team over 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 clear as he asserted himself at key moments to spark runs. He was particularly brilliant in the midrange, taking advantage of the NBA’s market inefficiency to carve up the Nuggets’ drop coverage scheme. In Game 4, he hit 10 midrange shots, the most ever in his career (playoffs or regular season).
After the Suns dispatched the defending champion Lakers in six games, the Nuggets posed a new challenge with the league’s MVP and a contrasting style. But with young big man Deandre Ayton and an up-and-coming cast of supporting role players around Paul and Booker, the Suns never looked anything but up to the task.
Paul shared a long, emotional embrace with Williams after the game. Their relationship dates back a decade, with Williams coaching Paul in New Orleans for a season in 2010-11. Paul and Williams stayed close even as they went their separate ways, and after tragedy hit Williams in 2016, when his wife Ingrid was killed in a car accident, Paul offered support.
“The darkest moment of my life, Chris was right there,” Williams said. “One of the highlights of my career, he’s right there.”
Said Paul: “It’s emotional. Mont has been through things in his life a lot of people don’t necessarily come back from.”
Since their run more than a decade ago under Mike D’Antoni and the Seven Seconds or Less revolution, the Suns have largely disappeared from Western contention. They were a consistent staple in the draft lottery but finally found some momentum in the NBA’s bubble last summer, going 8-0 and coming just shy of making an improbable run to the play-in game.
It 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 you close a series out, you sit back and reflect a little bit and think about it. What we’ve been through as an organization and as a team.”