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Despite the Phoenix Suns’ dominance of the regular season, it’s the same result — another year and another legacy-defining playoff exit for Chris Paul.
The Suns were eliminated in humiliating fashion by the Dallas Mavericks, losing by a score of 123-90. The score doesn’t illustrate just how much of a blowout the game really was, as the Mavericks actually led by as many 46 points midway through the fourth quarter before pulling their starters.
On a day where the veteran point guard turned 37 years old, this was supposed to be the game where Paul lifted the Suns into the Western Conference Finals.
He had turned in a masterful type of performance in Game 6 of the Suns’ first-round series versus the New Orleans Pelicans, going a perfect 14-of-14 from the field for 33 points. Paul turned in that performance against a pesky Pelicans squad with Devin Booker returning for the first time after a hamstring injury sidelined him for Games 3, 4 and 5.
Except none of that magic was to be found on Sunday night. Paul didn’t even score his first field goal until midway through the third quarter. In fact, he finished the game with a career-worst minus-39 plus/minus rating and just 10 total points
While the Suns’ loss was a team effort — Devin Booker also didn’t convert his first field goal until the third — Phoenix goes in the direction of where it’s 12-time All-Star leads it to. And Paul’s play since the Suns took a 2-0 series lead over the Mavericks has been nothing short of pedestrian.
Since his 28-point, eight-assist, six-rebound performance in Game 2, Paul has looked every bit of 37 years old. The veteran point guard has averaged just 9.4 points and 5.8 assists per game to go along with 16 turnovers since Game 3.
Head coach Monty Williams tried to diffuse the Suns’ humbling loss, instead attempting to take the blame rather than placing it on the players.
“I probably rode these guys too much this year,” Williams said. “From a minutes standpoint, expectations standpoint. They wanted that. We all just had an off night tonight.”
Meanwhile, Paul pinpointed the blame purely on himself.
“This ain’t tennis, this ain’t golf, we need everybody,” Paul said. “I think Mont said it’s on him. I think that’s on me, the point guard, the leader of the team to get the right shots. It is what it is.”
The Suns’ 2-0 series lead was the fifth-such blown lead of Paul’s career, an NBA record. Making matters even worse is the fact that Phoenix was supposed to be on a redemption tour this year after blowing a 2-0 series lead over the Milwaukee Bucks in the NBA Finals.
As if those numbers weren’t bad enough, the fact is that Paul has now lost four straight Game 7’s.
In a culture where fans and observers define players’ legacies based upon their performances and win-loss records in the biggest of games, Paul falls drastically short on the all-time pecking order.
Coming into this game, Paul was a top five point guard all time. This game — as bad as it was — doesn’t change that. However, it puts a huge dent in Paul’s quest in moving up among all-time great NBA players.
Unlike many other greats, Paul has had many opportunities to truly cement his legacy with just one NBA title. He’s had opportunities on a great squad in the Houston Rockets, a flawed, but talent-rich team in the Los Angeles Clippers, and now the Suns in the latter stages of his career.
And while Paul deserves a lot of credit for lifting teams such as the Clippers and Suns to heights they hadn’t experienced prior to his arrival, he also deserves blame for being unable to give the closing dagger for those teams when they’ve had opportunities to close it out.
To top it all off, Paul is the only player in NBA history to lose five consecutive postseason series with his team leading at some point.
That doesn’t exactly scream the notion of being a “closer.”
We can search for reasons why Paul hasn’t been able to lift his teams up when they need it most. We can start blaming his teammates, injuries or the fact that maybe it’s a bit harder for a six-foot point guard to take over a winner-take-all playoff game than it is during a regular season game.
Whatever the reasons may be, the one indisputable fact is that Paul’s teams have failed in the biggest moments of them all.
With an opportunity to wipe away the sting of last year’s NBA Finals collapse and all of the previous playoff shortcomings, Paul didn’t show up at all.
Until he actually wins a title, that will forever put a stain on Paul’s legacy as a player.