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No One Closes Like the Point God

Chris Paul looked like he smelled blood in the water in Game 6, relentlessly attacking the Pelicans until the final horn offered mercy. After being pestered all series, the Suns star responded with perfection to put New Orleans away.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

All series long, Pelicans spark plug Jose Alvarado did his damnedest to press up on Chris Paul. To make the Suns’ table-setter feel him, to make a 17-year veteran mere days away from his 37th birthday expend as much energy as possible, especially after Devin Booker went down in Game 2, and to make sure the Point God knew that if he didn’t maintain supreme focus on every dribble, Alvarado would pounce and catch him slipping:

Ever the master strategist, Paul devised a truly cunning counter for Thursday’s Game 6: Never slip up.

Instead, the future Hall of Famer would do what he’s been doing since Alvarado was in grade school—slalom around ball screens, skitter gracefully around the half court with a perpetual panoramic view of his offensive options, and eventually slide over to set up shop in his office at the elbow—with one key adjustment. Instead of occasionally missing the shots he took once he got to his spots, he’d simply make all of them. It just seemed … neater.

The Suns came back to New Orleans with a 3-2 lead, knowing that one more win would buy three days of rest before Round 2, which meant it was time for Paul to bring out the sharp knives. He ran Alvarado, defensive ace Herb Jones, and first-round pick Trey Murphy III through screen after screen, sometimes setting himself up to create a favorable matchup, sometimes contorting the defense until he got the look or passing angle he wanted. When the Pelicans played conservative drop coverage in the pick-and-roll, he terrorized their bigs with pull-ups and floaters. When they switched, he torched them off the bounce … and then terrorized them with pull-ups and floaters.

Time and again, Paul toyed with a Pelicans defense that ranked just outside the top 10 in points allowed per possession after the All-Star break—one that had held him to 10-for-26 shooting over the previous two games. With Booker clearly limited in his (surprisingly quick) return from a Game 2 hamstring strain, the Suns needed CP3 to shoulder the shot-making load, and man, did he ever oblige: 33 points on perfect 14-for-14 shooting from the field, plus 4-for-4 from the foul line, in 36 pristine minutes to lead Phoenix to a 115-109 win, slamming the door on the upstart Pelicans and sending the Suns on to a second-round matchup with Luka Doncic and the fourth-seeded Mavericks, who eliminated the Jazz in Game 6 of their first-round series on Thursday.

Paul made history with his perfect shooting night, setting a new high-water mark for most made shots without a miss in a playoff game. The only player who’d ever racked up more makes without a miss in any game was Wilt Chamberlain. The Dipper didn’t cash all of his free throws, though; Paul did, and even threw in a 3-pointer to boot.

Paul put his stamp on the game early in the second half, scoring or assisting on 17 of the 22 points Phoenix scored in the first six minutes of the third quarter to turn a 10-point halftime deficit into a Suns lead. (You can bump that up to 20 of 22, if you’re inclined to include the and-1 free throw that Jae Crowder got after Paul set him up on the first possession of the half, and Paul’s hockey assist for hitting Deandre Ayton on the short roll to find Crowder cutting baseline for a layup with 8:45 to go.) New Orleans would shake off that haymaker, returning fire after replacing Jonas Valanciunas and Jaxson Hayes, who’d been sitting ducks for CP3’s pick-and-roll manipulation, with the quicker Murphy and Larry Nance Jr.—and, more importantly, exploiting Cameron Payne in the few minutes Paul sat to rest. They wouldn’t get many more of those chances, though: Paul played 20 minutes in the second half, including the entire fourth quarter, an indication of how much Phoenix wanted to take care of business and avoid the unpleasant uncertainty of a Game 7.

CP3’s control extended beyond all the made baskets, too. On Phoenix’s final play of the third quarter, he engaged in a game of cat-and-mouse with his former teammate, coach, and longtime friend Willie Green, who had his Pelicans playing small: Nance at center, with Murphy, Brandon Ingram, and Naji Marshall on the wings, and Alvarado on the ball. Paul waved Ayton up to set a screen, wanting to involve Nance in the action; Green, though, had his charges ready to jump-switch, with Ingram leaving his man (Game 5 hero Mikal Bridges) in the corner so that he could sprint up with Ayton and be ready to switch onto Paul after the pick.

As soon as Paul saw that, though, he waved for Bridges to come up, knowing it would drag Nance into the fray, as Ayton vacated back to the paint. Alvarado got skinny, avoiding Bridges’s screen and staying attached to Paul; Bridges calmly flipped the angle of his screen, took a reset pass from Paul, and then triggered a dribble handoff. With the strong-side corner now empty, there was nobody in help position to clog up the passing lane when Paul led Bridges into space on his roll; with Nance up to the level of the screen on Paul, the Pelicans’ only rim protection was Ingram, who blocked all of 26 shots this season and was also responsible for Ayton under the basket. Two waves, one reset, one bullet pass, and a layup cut the deficit to three heading into the fourth:

And when the game was in the balance in the final frame, Paul—as he was last season, as he was this season, and as he’s been for the bulk of his career—was the steady hand at the wheel in the clutch, steering the Suns across the finish line. Phoenix trailed by one at the five-minute mark of the fourth; Paul scored or assisted on 11 of the 16 points the Suns scored the rest of the way, finding Booker for a go-ahead triple with 1:42 remaining and drilling a game-sealing midrange jumper with 27.9 seconds to go after roasting CJ McCollum in isolation:

The crunch-time closing kick capped not only a perfect shooting night, but a brilliant series overall for Paul: 22.3 points, 11.3 assists, and 4.3 rebounds per game; shooting an absurd 67.2 percent on 2s and 24-for-25 from the foul line; a 7.6-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio, with more steals (11) than cough-ups (nine). It also continued the trend that Paul began last postseason of authoring unbelievable performances in closeout games: 12 assists with one turnover in 29 minutes of playing with one arm against the Lakers; 37 points and seven dimes on 14-for-19 shooting to finish the sweep of the Nuggets; 41 and eight on 16-for-24 shooting to put away the Clippers; and, now, this. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say that this is a man who not only knows how to close, but really enjoys it.

In a series in which Phoenix’s no. 3-ranked regular-season defense struggled to stop Ingram (27 points, 6.2 rebounds, and 6.2 assists per game on 48/41/83 shooting splits) and keep Valanciunas and Nance off the offensive glass, efficiently generating points was the Suns’ pathway to victory. Losing Booker for more than half the series should’ve impeded that, but it didn’t; with Paul on the floor, they scored nearly 123 points per 100 possessions against the Pels, more than the Warriors even managed in their five-game blitz of the Nuggets.

The Pelicans put up a hell of a fight, but Phoenix will be stepping up a weight class for Round 2. The Suns have won all six meetings with Dallas since Paul joined the team, but dealing with All-NBA nightmare Doncic for seven games isn’t anybody’s idea of fun—especially not when very-rich-man-to-be Jalen Brunson is playing some of the best basketball of his life alongside him, bellwether big man Maxi Kleber’s shot has come back online, and Dorian Finney-Smith and Reggie Bullock give head coach Jason Kidd a pair of tough and versatile perimeter defenders to battle Phoenix’s skilled wings. To outlast the Mavericks, the Suns will need to be at their sharpest; perhaps, then, Paul will wind up owing a debt to the ever-revving pest he spent the past two weeks swatting (and, ahem, elbowing and kicking) away.

“He’s going to be in the Hall of Fame,” Alvarado told reporters after the game. “But he knows my name now, too.”

Well … sort of.

That’s Paul’s secret, the one that’s driven him to become one of the greatest point guards in the history of basketball: There’s not an opponent in creation who could push him to pursue perfection any harder than he already pushes himself.