As the clock wound down on the Los Angeles Lakers’ playoff hopes, Phoenix Suns point guard Chris Paul, glistening in sweat, crouched with the ball in the crook of his arm and pumped his fist.
“I just kept telling the guys, stay focused,” Paul said last week after the Game 6 victory. “There’s no better feeling than the last 30 seconds when you’re dribbling the clock out in a close-out game.”
The Suns still have to win three more games against the Denver Nuggets just to get to the Western Conference finals, the farthest Paul has ever gone in his 16-year career. But you can understand why the 36-year-old would close his eyes and savor a rare moment when time was on his side.
He’s been doing that since day one this season. “Today was our first day in the gym,” he said in his opening press conference with the Suns, months removed from the Orlando bubble. “And I could just hear the ball bounce, and I was like, man this feels good. Just to be around the game. To be around the guys. Guys that have played in the league and retired, they say the biggest thing they miss is the locker room, the camaraderie, being around the guys.”
Phoenix is Paul’s fifth stop in a long, storied, and somewhat controversial career. He has been stubborn and intense, and worn down teammates with his devotion to structure. But Paul’s careful timekeeping has mixed perfectly with Devin Booker’s audacious shot-making, with Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges’s aggressiveness. Talented young teams have a tendency to be energetic, bold—even a touch irrational. Paul learned that last season with the Oklahoma City Thunder, a young upstart that miraculously snuck into the playoffs. “People always say, ‘It’s a young team, it’s a young team,’” he said in December. “Sometimes, it’s nice to have a young team because they don’t know nothing else but to hoop and to play hard. They’re not thinking about what can happen here, or what can happen there.”
The Suns went 8-0 in the bubble last year, but it wasn’t enough to dig them out of the hole they were in before the season stopped in March. In the locker room as the team awaited word on its playoff fate, coach Monty Williams made an impassioned speech, telling the team that no matter what happened next, they had the respect of the league. Then he threw in something else for the guys to chew on: “You want to be the kind of team that controls your own destiny.”
You can imagine a more veteran team being grated by Paul’s impulse to look for a lesson in every moment. In Los Angeles, he butted heads with Doc Rivers and Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. In Houston, it was James Harden. But the Suns have soaked Paul in with the enthusiasm of beginners, and the discipline and humility of a team that has failed before.
“Everything the dude does is contagious,” Ayton said after Phoenix’s Game 1 win over Denver on Monday. “The way I even approach the game. Seeing C be in the league for so many years, in the weight room before you—you’re gonna have to pick it up in some way. So yeah, I be in the weight room because of C, just seeing he’s always doing something.”
When Paul was acclimating himself to the Rockets’ switch-happy defense, he learned the intricacies of defending centers. Blocky with a strong base and the eyes of a hawk, he felt he could hold up. When the Suns were implementing switching principles earlier this season, Paul’s backup, 183-pound Cameron Payne, decided that if Paul was going to defend centers, he was going to try as well, successfully (and hilariously) fronting the likes of Zion Williamson in the post.
Booker watched Paul in New Orleans, and was invited to his camp as a kid. He has a reverence for the game’s history, a craving for the lessons his predecessors can teach him. You can see Paul’s influence in how Booker has slowed down as a pick-and-roll practitioner and learned to find the right teammate when he’s under duress. Booker spent the first month of the season spraying crosscourt rainbow passes out of bounds, leading the NBA in turnovers. Now, he’s finding weak-side shooters, managing games like a vet, and acting as a communicative hub for the Suns’ defense.
Paul, who injured his shoulder in Game 1 against the Lakers, could hardly shoot for the first half of the series. While he was limited, it was Payne who drew charges, nailed timely 3s, and poked and prodded at Lakers bigs on switches. Ayton crashed the boards, creating extra possession after extra possession, and Booker revealed himself as the big-game player he always saw himself as, closing the Lakers out to the tune of 47 points.
If there is a tension in the age dynamic, it’s in what they need from each other. Booker, Bridges, Ayton, Cameron Johnson, and Co. could afford to come out of these playoffs with nothing but lessons, but this might be Paul’s last, best chance at winning a title. Paul talks about his teammates and these performances like he’s stopping to smell the flowers. And why not? He’s watered them, been their sunlight, watched them bloom. Maybe they can grow up fast enough to help him get to the promised land. Maybe this is the promised land.