The Phoenix Suns Need the Chris Paul of Old, Not an Old Chris Paul, to Avoid a Crushing NBA Finals Loss

The Phoenix Suns laid the groundwork for their renaissance in 2020–21 at the Orlando bubble last year. When play stopped in March 2020 because of the global pandemic, the Suns were 26–39 and six games behind the eighth-place Memphis Grizzlies. Phoenix didn’t complete a remarkable comeback in Orlando, but an 8–0 record turned some heads just the same. The offseason addition of veterans such as Chris Paul and Jae Crowder brought a steadying influence.

The result was a 51–21 record and the Suns’ first playoff appearance since 2010. They rolled through both LA teams and the Denver Nuggets to reach the NBA Finals for the first time in 28 years. Phoenix handled the Milwaukee Bucks efficiently in the first two games and headed to Wisconsin, looking for control of the series. Instead, they return home in a 2–2 dogfight, a best-of-three series in which Milwaukee has the momentum.

The warning signs were there in the Game 2 win. Chris Paul was uncharacteristically sloppy with the basketball. But the 10-point victory by Phoenix obscured those signs. That is until the series went north. The Suns didn’t lose Game 3 because of Paul; it was a 20-point blowout. But Game 4 lands squarely on the Point God’s shoulders.

Chris Paul’s history shows a great deal of care for the orange

During Chris Paul’s 16 NBA seasons, he’s averaged more than three turnovers per game just once. In 2008–09 with the New Orleans Hornets, Paul averaged exactly 3.0 giveaways against an NBA-best 11.0 assists. You’ll live with a 3.7-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio.

Paul had a 4.0-to-1 ratio during the 2020–21 regular season while also leading the league in free-throw shooting. He only narrowly missed joining the rare 50/40/90 club as a shooter, hitting 49.9% overall and 39.5% from deep to go with a 93.4% mark at the line.

In short, Paul was precisely the veteran floor leader the Phoenix Suns needed to maximize their young talent, including big man Deandre Ayton and young sharpshooters Devin Booker and Cameron Johnson. And through the first three rounds of the playoffs, Paul lived up to his lofty expectations.

The Phoenix Suns suffering through Paul’s diminishing returns

Chris Paul of the Phoenix Suns
Jrue Holiday (21) of the Milwaukee Bucks steals the ball from Chris Paul of the Phoenix Suns during the second half in Game 4 of the NBA Finals. | Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Through the first three rounds of the playoffs, Chris Paul was astonishingly good for the Phoenix Suns. He averaged 8.7 assists and 1.6 turnovers over 14 games (he missed Games 1 and 2 against the Los Angeles Clippers in the conference finals while in the COVID-19 protocols).

In raw numbers, Paul committed 22 turnovers in 14 games. But in the NBA Finals, he already has 17 in four games. That includes 15 in the last three contests. His fifth and final turnover in Game 4 was a game-changer. Trailing by two points with 34.8 seconds left, Paul fell and lost control of the ball. Milwaukee converted an uncontested layup, and that was, as they say, that. The Suns committed 17 turnovers on the night, and Paul didn’t flinch when taking responsibility, per USA Today.

“It was me; I had five of them. It was bad decision-making.”

Chris Paul after Game 4 loss

Bad decision-making negated a 42-point explosion by Booker, who bounced back from a poor performance in Game 3 (10 points on 3-of-14 shooting). The Suns squandered a nine-point fourth-quarter lead and headed back to Phoenix for Game 5. The consolation is that the Suns still have the homecourt advantage, but they must be concerned about Paul. Can he turn this slide around?

The Phoenix Suns need Chris Paul to be the steadying force

Through the first three rounds of the playoffs, Chris Paul’s assist-to-turnover ratio was 5.5-to-1. It’s no surprise the Phoenix Suns were 10–4 in those games.

Paul has been making plays in the NBA Finals, with 33 assists in the first four games (8.3 a game). But his ratio is 1.9-to-1. Over the last three games, it has shrunk to 1.7-to-1. Rookie point guards find themselves grabbing some bench with numbers like that.

Meanwhile, Paul’s scoring has declined each game. He scored 32 points in Game 1, followed by 23 in the Game 2 win (with six turnovers). The two games in Milwaukee have not represented his finest 96 minutes of basketball. He followed 19 points and four turnovers in Game 3 with just 10 points and five giveaways in Game 4.

For the first time in Chris Paul’s career, he’s playing in the NBA Finals. At age 36 and in his 16th NBA season, it’s not unrealistic to believe this playoff run represents his best chance to get a ring. He’s a Hall of Famer without one. But he would move to a higher stratum with it.

Statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference.

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