If Phoenix has proven anything so far, it’s that it isn’t going to back down from any challenge.
For the second time in his career, Chris Paul is headed to the conference finals. CP3 and the Suns eliminated the Nuggets on Sunday, completing a second-round sweep with a 125–118 win in Game 4. Paul led the Suns with 37 points, hitting more than 70% of his shots from the field in a vintage performance. Meanwhile, MVP Nikola Jokić scored 22 points in only 28 minutes, leaving the game in the third quarter due to an ejection after a flagrant foul on Cam Payne. Phoenix will now await the winner of the Jazz-Clippers series in the next round. Here are three thoughts on the Suns’ win.
Chris Paul Can Sense the Moment
With a chance to send home the Nuggets, Paul was ruthless in Game 4. He continuously abused Denver’s drop coverage in the pick-and-roll, midrange shooting his opponent out of the gym and into vacation. It was a dominant performance from a player who typically isn’t in attack mode as a scorer. Sunday was different. CP3 smelled blood in the water, and the 36-year-old played worthy of his top-five finish in MVP voting. He took over on the right elbow, hitting pull-up jumper after pull-up jumper like it was a practice drill, with the Nuggets unable to find an answer.
Paul has a checkered postseason history. He has to own some of his losses—the inexplicable collapse in OKC, the blown 3–1 lead against the Rockets—but CP has also been snakebitten in the past. Ill-timed injuries have sunk him on more than one occasion. For seemingly the first time in his career, things are breaking the right way for Paul. He’s one of the all-time greats, and Sunday’s performance was one of his best ever in a playoff game. While this postseason has been marred by injuries, Paul is looking as good as ever in his 16th season. With a title perhaps the closest it’s ever been to his grasp. CP3 is living up to the moment and then some.
Nikola Jokić Has Only Himself to Blame
It was an ignominious end to the season for the Joker. The MVP wound up and swung at Payne in an attempt to take an ill-advised frustration foul late in the third quarter. While Jokić knocked the ball out of Payne’s hands, he also landed a significant blow to his face. Whether or not Jokić deserved to be ejected is beside the point—he simply can’t put himself in that position in the first place. Every NBA player, and particularly the bigs who take a pounding down low, get frustrated. And Jokić was carrying an immense burden this postseason with Jamal Murray hurt. None of those things is an excuse for him to put himself in jeopardy with a foul like that. Jokić has to be on top of his emotions; that’s part of being the team’s leader.
With all that said, don’t let the downer ending take away from what Jokić did this season. The bad-faith chatter that will inevitably come as the result of the sweep and his ejection is nonsense. Jokić was the runaway MVP for a reason. And he carried a depleted Nuggets team that maybe had no business making it out of the first round. Jokić is only 26 years old. There are certainly no guarantees in this game. Still, I wouldn’t bet against Joker moving forward. He remains a supremely talented player. And if Denver gets back to full strength in 2021, the Nuggets should be a problem for years to come.
We Still Don’t Know How Good the Suns Are
Is Phoenix the title favorite? The Suns are almost certainly the healthiest team left in the playoffs. And Paul hasn’t been alone in his brilliance. Devin Booker scored 34 in his second career closeout game Sunday, and Deandre Ayton was stellar for the second straight round. Yet it’s still hard to get a proper read on the Suns because of the injury issues of their first two opponents in the playoffs.
Phoenix is obviously a top-tier team. The Suns are well-balanced, well-coached, and stacked with both solid role players and legitimate stars. It‘s not at all crazy to pick them to win the Finals. It’s also going to be fascinating to see how Phoenix performs against a presumably healthier team in the next round. If the Suns have proven anything so far, it’s that they aren’t going to back down from any challenge.
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