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With almost 1,300 career games played, Chris Paul’s fourth-quarter motor is still reaching peak performance. Nearly 45,000 minutes spent on the floor, he’s still rendering every defensive coverage useless when it really matters.
Despite the gradual decline in footspeed and lateral movements since his Lob City departure five years ago, Paul’s internal processor is working better than ever. His ability to scan the floor, pinpoint every available window, and toggle between elite playmaker and dynamic scorer in late-game moments has to be demoralizing for any opponent.
The rarity of a player to look this productive, with this many miles on his legs, and standing at just 6-foot with shoes on is something we have to account for when determining his place in the NBA’s pantheon. Nobody at this stage of their career should be inevitable when the fourth quarter arrives. It just doesn’t happen.
Next week, Paul will be 37 years old. And with his co-star Devin Booker sidelined with a hamstring strain, Paul could be leading the NBA’s No. 1 overall seed into the second round of the playoffs due to his heroics.
In Game 3 of the Phoenix Suns’ first-round matchup versus the New Orleans Pelicans, Paul found himself in familiar territory. Having played 448 total games in New Orleans during the first chapter of his career, he knew it was time to channel his inner-2008 self – giving the fans a reminder of what they used to witness every night.
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But, it wasn’t the priority for him until it became winning time. Throughout Game 3, it wasn’t his focus to be the main character. Paul was simply taking what the defense was choosing to surrender, which was mostly short-roll opportunities for centers Deandre Ayton and JaVale McGee, mismatches in the post once the Pelicans switched a pick-and-roll, and open three-pointers once Ayton drew in the defense.
For the first three quarters of Game 3, Paul’s individual scoring wasn’t much of a factor. He entered the final 12 minutes with only nine points on eight shot attempts.
Then, with 7:40 left in the fourth, he immediately became a different player. Paul’s ability to switch personas at any point during a game is unlike anything we see across the NBA.
In the fourth quarter, he scored 19 points on 7-of-10 shooting, with six trips to the foul line. After dishing 12 assists in the first three quarters, he only had two in the fourth.
His clutch shot-making and surgical execution in ball-screen action propelled the Suns to a vital Game 3 victory. Without him finding his groove as a scorer, especially on the road against a hungry and talented offensive team, Phoenix may have lost its grip on the series. Without Booker’s aggression and three-level scoring to bail them out, there had to be an answer for every monumental bucket by Brandon Ingram and CJ McCollum.
“He did his job in the first (three) quarters to really get everybody going,” Ayton said after the game when reflecting on Paul. “The court started opening up. Then, I started hearing different terminology out there on the floor. I’m telling Chris, I’m like, ‘they’re back to normal coverage, I need you to shoot the ball. I’m going to get a clean (screen), and I just need you to come off and do your thing.’ And he did it. It felt normal.”
Ayton expounded that if a similar situation happened last year, he doesn’t know if he’d able to tell Paul when to take over. For Ayton, his knowledge of defensive schemes and overall feel for the game leaped to another level this season, which makes him more comfortable from a strategy perspective.
Suns head coach Monty Williams, who had the opportunity to coach Paul in New Orleans during the 2011 season, is well aware of how the veteran point guard won’t jeopardize the flow of a game.
“He’s just one of those players that plays the right way,” Williams said. “He understands the ‘when’ and ‘how’ to create for himself and others. The leadership qualities that you guys don’t see in the timeouts, is probably just as impressive as what he does on the floor.”
Was Paul instructed to look for his own offense down the stretch? Or does it just come naturally to him?
“I wish I could tell you there was some orchestration going on, but that’s just Chris,” Williams explained. “His ability to see the floor … obviously, he can score the ball, but he’s still making the right plays (when trapped).”
With the Pelicans reverting back to traditional drop coverage midway through the fourth quarter, you could tell it was music to the Suns’ ears.
After Paul tries to attack the middle of the floor, he’s forced to reset. Then, with Larry Nance guarding Ayton, he simply calls for a side pick-and-roll, knowing this will put the Pelicans in a compromising position. Paul had been cooking Nance throughout the series, and McCollum would certainly be a step behind if he’s screened effectively. As Nance drops back to contain Ayton’s roll, there is a small window along the baseline:
Shortly after that possession, the Suns try to run their “Snap” action, with Cam Johnson coming up to back-screen Ayton’s defender and then popping open for a three. However, the Pelicans switch everything.
It ultimately leads to Ingram guarding Paul 28 feet from the basket, so the Point God calls for another Ayton ball-screen with seven on the shot clock. He goes into his classic scoring move: Come off the screen on his left side, immediately snake to the middle of the floor, and pull-up at the nail once he notices the center dropped too low:
The very next trip down the floor, the Suns try to trick New Orleans with the double high ball-screen, as Crowder and Ayton set up on opposite sides of Herb Jones. With Ingram and Valanciunas shading to his left, Paul takes advantage of the open space on his right and gets directly to the elbow.
Although Jones does a great job of getting back into the play, this is the problem with late-game drop coverage against Paul – he’s still getting the ball in the air:
Next possession? Why not go back to the same setup? If it’s not broken, don’t fix it.
This time (shown below), New Orleans shuts off the right side of the floor in the beginning. Jones fights through the initial screens and sticks on Paul. In that case, it’s an easy call. Phoenix goes back to the Paul-Ayton pick-and-roll, and Paul is – once again – snaking to his right.
Notice how Valanciunas makes an effort to touch Paul as he glides through the lane, giving Jones enough time to recover. And this is exactly why Paul is an absurd mid-range creator. Despite Jones having a 7-foot wingspan and a much higher bounce than any defender Paul is used to … it doesn’t matter:
What happens when the Pelicans swap out Valanciunas for Nance? The Suns know it’s back to the switching scheme. For good measure, Paul decides to hunt Nance and force the perimeter switch. If New Orleans is willing to give this to Paul so easily, they have to know their fate.
Although Paul mishandles it at first, he rebalances himself and creates space with his between-the-legs crossover. You can say it’s a decent contest, but it’s actually not. Paul doesn’t even see Nance’s hand:
In Game 3 alone, it was brutal for Nance and the Pelicans any time Paul sensed him near the play:
This goes for the entire series thus far. If Nance gives him space for the pull-up, it’s cash. If he plays up into his jersey and takes that away, it’s a blow-by to the rim:
This puts Willie Green in an extremely tough position as the Pelicans head coach, mostly because they’ve needed Nance as a difference-maker on the offensive glass.
Paul’s fourth quarter performance can’t even be considered unbelievable. At this point, given everything that’s happened in Phoenix since his arrival, it’s just the norm. In Game 3, he shot 9-of-12 on two-pointers outside of the paint, including 7-of-8 in the fourth quarter alone.
Strictly on long twos (15-feet extended), Paul is now 55-of-97 in fourth quarters this season. That’s 59.1%, the highest mark in the NBA – by far – with a minimum of 70 attempts.
As a playoff performer, Paul is arguably the best mid-range shooter of the last 25-plus years. He has shot 48.9% on long twos and exactly 50.0% in the floater range during his playoff career:
Compare that to Kevin Durant’s playoff shooting numbers from the same area – standing 12 inches taller! – and it’s even more impressive that CP3 is able to finish at such a ridiculous rate:
Lost in the conversation of his 28 points and 14 assists on Friday was the unreal ball security and how much he values each possession. Paul had zero turnovers in his 40 minutes of action, giving him his seventh career playoff game with 10-plus assists and no giveaways. It’s the most in NBA history, with Magic Johnson (4) and Larry Bird (3) behind him.
Inching close to two decades in the business, Paul’s odometer says he should be a role player in these moments. Or, thinking back to Jason Kidd’s run with the 2011 Mavericks, a low-usage starter that didn’t have to bear much responsibility in the clutch. In theory, point guards at this age shouldn’t have the amount gears that Paul seemingly does when the bright lights are shining.
What makes him special is how patient and smart he is to save his superpowers for when they’re absolutely necessary. He can fool you for three quarters and cut your heart out in an instant.
Even if this type of production is unparalleled for a 37-year-old point guard, Paul isn’t settling for anything less. Not until he’s finally reached the pinnacle. Under his guidance and some much-needed luck with Booker’s rehab, the Suns just might get him there.