When does it not work?
One of the most effective undertakings in sports is an aging star with an opportunity to lead his or her team — or in the case of individual sports, his or herself — to a championship. Or, if not aging, has just fallen short on several occasions despite clearly being championship material.
John Elway united many in the late 1990s. Dirk Nowitzki became a hero in 2011. Candace Parker finally did it in 2016. And Alexander Ovechkin further cemented his greatness in 2018. We can’t resist but to rooting for that as a collective.
Chris Paul has many in his corner, and for better or worse, whatever happens in Games 5, 6, and potentially 7, is what he’ll most be remembered for as it pertains to this particular playoff stretch. And this playoff stretch is the most important of his career, easily, because it’s his best shot at a championship. He’s defying every data point possible with his consistent excellence at running the point guard position despite being 36 years old, in the 16th season of his career, and at, maybe, 6-feet tall. We’re even talking about him getting another nine figures this summer in free agency as a result of his run. Guys of his stature, age, career, and experience are supposed to have broken down by now. His closest historical comparison is Isiah Thomas, who retired at 33 years old after 13 seasons in the league, cut short by a ruptured Achilles tendon.
But to that point, we do associate Thomas, comparatively, with the two championships he helped lead the Detroit “Bad Boy” Pistons to in the late 1980s. Paul famously never even reached an NBA Finals until now, primarily due to circumstance and untimely injuries.
In 2018, the Houston Rockets were the No. 1 seed and had Game 7 against the Golden State Warriors on their home floor, which Paul missed due to a hamstring strain. It was also the infamous 0-for-27 game, where the Rockets were in tatters down the stretch and blew the golden opportunity.
In 2016, while the Los Angeles Clippers were on their best stretch ever, winning 50-games from 2012 to 2017, the team lost four straight after building a 2-0 lead against Damian Lillard and the Portland Trail Blazers, then lost Blake Griffin (quad) and Paul (broken hand), who were inactive in what became the last two games of the series.
People still hold 2015 against Paul, where his No. 3 seed Clippers blew a 3-1 lead to the No. 2 seeded Rockets in Round 2. Paul missed the first two games of the series, which were split, and came back for Games 3 and 4 in Los Angeles, where the Clippers won 124-99, and 128-95, respectively. Paul was limited to 49 total minutes across the two wins, where he dropped a combined 27 points and 19 assists. The Clippers then lost Games 5-7 by an accumulative 46 points, where Paul averaged 26.3 points, 10.3 assists, 4.3 rebounds, and 1.7 steals while shooting 51 / 35 / 94 splits. Even in these 2021 playoffs, Paul had a COVID scare and was in protocol for the first two games of the Western Conference Semifinals; luckily, the Suns defeated the Clippers 4-2.
Paul’s erratic Game 4 will either be magnified or forgiven, there’s no in-between, and it all depends on how he follows that effort from here. He only scored 10 points on 5-for-13 shooting, dishing out seven assists, but also four turnovers, namely this one very late in the fourth quarter.
You may be able to go as far as to say how he finishes this series is how he’ll be remembered. And that’s stupid, but that’s what the casual fan, the talk show host, the hot-take curators, and First Take imitators will take away from whatever’s next. They’ll hijack whatever more extensive nuanced discussion there is to be had regarding Paul’s greatness and, if his Game 4 becomes a trend as opposed to a blip, it’ll define him to a dumber audience. Paul is a legend regardless; however, this is also his best chance at a title. The NBA shifts dramatically seemingly every season now, and there’s no telling amid Lillard’s possible next destination, free agency, and the general climate where roughly half the league changes teams every season, whether or not Paul, who will be 37 next May, will be back.
That said, if he does come through, returning closer to what he displayed earlier in this series, he’s set for life, from everyone to the most nuanced basketball observer to the dumbest people you could think of. Whether he’s a top-five point guard or simply a ‘made man’ after possibly winning it all, he’ll forever be a champion, factually and indisputably, and that’ll be good enough for most people, even in this tumultuous injury-plagued season.
Why? Because it works every time.