“At the end of the day, I always say, nobody cares about your story unless you win it.”
That’s what Suns star Chris Paul told ESPN’s Rachel Nichols ahead of Game 5 of the NBA Finals. That statement, frankly, just isn’t true. With all due respect to seven-time champion Robert Horry, Allen Iverson’s influence on the league far exceeds that of “Big Shot Bob.”
It does provide a window into Paul’s mind, however, and explains why the Suns’ Game 6 loss to the Bucks is one that he won’t soon forget. After Phoenix went up 2-0 to start the series, Milwaukee won four consecutive games to capture the 2021 NBA championship. Tuesday night marked the fourth time a Paul-led team has blown a 2-0 advantage in a best-of-seven series.
Those previous playoff failures require context, of course, especially when it comes to series in which Paul or another key teammate missed time with an injury. But that’s also what makes the end of this particular postseason run so painful.
Paul and the Suns got some lucky breaks as they navigated through the Western Conference playoff bracket. Each of Phoenix’s opponents lost a key player either before or during the postseason: the Lakers and Anthony Davis, the Nuggets and Jamal Murray and the Clippers and Kawhi Leonard. Yes, Paul dealt with some health issues, including a COVID-19 diagnosis that took him out of the first two games of the Western Conference finals, but the Suns entered the NBA Finals relatively unscathed.
With Phoenix in the driver’s seat through two games, the series appeared to be turning into a Paul coronation. He was two wins away from taking his place among the legends of the sport and elevating himself in the greatest point guards of all time discussion.
But then Giannis Antetokounmpo happened. And Khris Middleton happened. And Jrue Holiday happened. And Paul looked like a shell of himself in Game 4. Suddenly the dream turned into a nightmare, leaving Paul blankly staring at reporters after yet another heartbreaker.
“I mean, I’ll take some time to think about [my first season in Phoenix], but right now you’re just trying to figure out what you could have did more. It’s tough,” Paul said. “Great group of guys, hell of a season, but this one is going to hurt for a while.”
In case there were any doubts, Paul, at age 36, has no plans to retire. He didn’t have any direct answers about how he will handle his $44.2 million player option this summer, but it would be surprising if he leaves the Suns in free agency considering they can offer him a lucrative contract and a chance to compete for that elusive ring. His shortcomings in the NBA Finals shouldn’t overshadow how much he meant to Phoenix this season. Reaching an agreement is in the best interest of both sides.
“Everywhere he’s gone, the team has won. They have improved,” Suns coach Monty Williams said. “He’s been close. He was an injury away from getting here before, but he along with [Devin Booker], to lead a team that’s never been there to this point says a lot about their talent, their dedication, the will to win.”
And yet, somewhere deep down, Paul must be wondering if his best opportunity to win a title just flew right by him. The West will be loaded again next season, and the Bucks and Nets will be looming large in the East. Paul knows better than most just how quickly a team can be shoved out of the championship picture.
Ultimately, Paul’s place in basketball history won’t be erased if he never ends a season with a victory, despite what he may tell you. As Williams said, he is an “all-time great” and a future Hall of Famer.
But Paul is well aware that he only has so many years left in his career, and he’s still chasing his storybook ending.
“Everybody in that locker room knows we had enough, but it wasn’t enough,” Paul said. “So, we got to figure it out. I think for me I just look at myself and figure out how can I get better, what I could have done more and make sure I come back next season ready to do it again.”
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