The Phoenix Suns were gutted by Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks in Game 7 on Sunday, trailing by as many as 46 points in a 123-90 beating that somehow wasn’t even as close as a 33-point margin would indicate. Chris Paul didn’t make his first basket until the Suns were down by 40 at the 7:26 mark of the third quarter. He had one point at halftime. Finished with a completely useless 10 and a minus-39 for the game, the worst single-game point differential of his career.
I don’t want to make this about Paul’s legacy. The Suns didn’t lose because of Paul, though he surely didn’t do anything to help them win. He was one of the five best point guards to ever play before this game tipped, and no, one game didn’t change that. Paul’s late-career surge has been a masterful chapter in a Hall of Fame career, and many of the playoff collapses to which he’s been connected have been, at least to a degree, a product of some of the cruelest injury luck imaginable.
Still, the results are hard to turn away from, or perhaps more accurately, they’re easy to latch onto. After the Suns won the opening two games of this series vs. Dallas, this now becomes the fifth time in Paul’s career that his team has blown a 2-0 postseason lead. That, unfortunately, is an NBA record.
It gets worse. In five of those blown 2-0 leads, Paul’s team didn’t even make it to a Game 7, meaning they lost four straight, as was the case in last year’s Finals against the Bucks. The only other player to have lost even three 2-0 leads is Blake Griffin, who, as we know, was Paul’s teammate with the Los Angeles Clippers, who, with Paul as the leader, became the first team in history to lose a series in five consecutive postseasons that they led at some point.
Paul is 3-5 in elimination games in his career.
He’s lost his last four Game 7s.
Also, the list of meltdowns you see above doesn’t even include the 3-1 lead Paul’s Clippers blew to the Rockets in 2015, or the 3-2 lead his Rockets lost to the Warriors in 2018. Paul, of course, didn’t play in the final two games of that Golden State series after he ripped his hamstring in Game 5. It really shouldn’t count on his ledger. But it does. These conversations aren’t here for context.
But again, facts are facts. If we’re going to bow at the alter of Luka Doncic for his rise-to-the-occasion gene, then the reverse has to be at least somewhat true, too. Paul has delivered in plenty of big games and moments over the course of his career, but it cannot be disputed that he has, quite often, completely disappeared when it mattered most. Some people just have it in the biggest moments. Doncic has it. Good heavens does he have it.
Exceptions notwithstanding, maybe Paul just doesn’t quite have the big-game it factor. It pains me to say that. But James Harden just got put through a wood chipper for his latest elimination-game dud, and while I don’t think that Paul deserves the same kind of heckling, if only because you can never question Paul’s effort or commitment to winning or even staying in shape, I suppose fair is fair.
After Phoenix went up 2-0 against Dallas, Paul averaged, 9.4 points, 5.8 assists and 3.6 turnovers over the final five games of the series. The Suns, of course, lost four of those games, and not once did Paul attempt more than nine shots. Passivity? The defense he was facing? It almost always comes out as a little of both, but Harden didn’t get that benefit of the doubt, and for the people bent on taking this position, Paul isn’t going to either.
I’m not usually one to abstain from giving an opinion. But I just don’t know which way to go on this one. I find Paul to be not only an all-time great player but a pretty damn clutch player, too. The latter obviously doesn’t square with these playoff collapses, but all I’ll say is it’s a team sport, and besides that, to attribute Paul’s losses solely to his own choke jobs is to discredit the teams and players that beat him. The guy has run into Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo and now Luka Doncic the last three times he’s had a legit shot at a title.
Paul is great, but he’s not as great as any one of those guys. Hardly anybody who’s ever played the game is as great as those guys. So let’s credit them, first. Then, after that, if you want to slander Paul as a playoff choker, go for it. I’m not going to do that, but I can’t deny the facts are there to support such a stance.