If you looked close enough, you could see actually see Chris Paul embrace the moment. Sixteen years he’d waited for a stage like this. Sixteen years he’d bided his time, watched other star basketball players take their turn in the floodlights, drink champagne, ride in parades. Sixteen years he’d waited his turn.
Now there was no need to wait any longer.
The game was there for the taking for the Phoenix Suns, and Chris Paul took it. An opportunity was there for Paul, after 16 years of disappointment, 16 years of frustration, and he said, “Yes, please.”
“He’s ready,” Suns forward Mikal Bridges would say after this 118-105 victory over the Bucks in Game 1 of the NBA Finals. “He’s prepared his whole life for this moment and it shows. CP3, man … we know he can do this every game.”
For days, Paul has had to read about how this was the first Finals in — what, 25 years? Forty? — that didn’t feature an all-time star. And you have to believe there was at least one moment when Paul asked to no one and to everyone: “Says who?”
When he said: “Did I just show up?”
Paul electrified Phoenix Suns Arena with 32 points and nine assists. Back that up with the 41 he scored in the West clincher against the Clippers, and it’s the first time he’s ever scored as many as 73 points in back-to-back games. After 16 years, it was like floodwaters bursting through a dam.
“I was just so locked into the game, trying to stay in the moment,” Paul said. “It’s exciting but it’s just one win. I’m focused on the task at hand.”
It was a quintessential Paul game in so many ways: he didn’t score a point in the first quarter. He didn’t scratch until there were 3 ½ minutes gone in the second. He helped ease his teammates into the Finals, helped the building percolate to maximum boil. The Suns took an eight-point lead at the half.
And then exploded in the third quarter.
“When it’s going like that we want to space the floor well and let him orchestrate,” Suns coach Monty Williams said. “He was making the right plays and they were switching a ton. He was making shots. When he’s in that mode we just feed off that.”
The coach smiled.
“And I try my best to stay out of his way.”
Paul lit the fuse. He scored 16 third-quarter points. He was everywhere, doing everything: playing defense, penetrating, shooting 3s, hitting layups, hitting midrange jumpers, finding teammates, looking like the most essential player on the floor. Because he was the most essential player on the floor.
The Bucks had gotten an emotional lift when Giannis Antetokounmpo was cleared to play, and he played well. But they were sprinting straight into a buzz saw Tuesday night. Paul had waited a long time for this moment, and so had the Suns. They’d waited just over 52 years to exact their revenge when the ball was tipped just past 9 o’clock EDT, a rematch the Suns have coveted since March 19, 1969.
That, too, involved the Bucks as a foil. There were no basketballs in play that day, just a four-way conference call At stake was the most important sweepstakes in the sport’s history. Both the Suns and Bucks had been awful in their maiden NBA voyages of 1968-69. The Bucks, playing in the East, were 27-55, five games clear of the next-worst team in the conference (Detroit).
The Suns were even worse, at 16-66, some 14 games worse than Seattle. There was no questions of tanking. These were expansion teams who’d earned their record on merit (or lack thereof). Of course, the prize in question would’ve been worth a full-blown tank.
That was Lew Alcindor, UCLA All-American, who in a few days would lead the Bruins to their third straight NCAA championship in his three-year stay in Westwood. There had never been a bigger prize in an NBA draft, ever. The winner got the rights to Alcindor, and all the tantalizing promise that went along with that.
Commissioner Walter Kennedy flipped a coin inside the NBA’s offices in Manhattan. He carefully explained the kind of coin they would be using — a 1964 JFK half-dollar. The Suns had the call; their fans, by acclimation, had directed them to call “heads.”
“Tails,” Kennedy said.
Alcindor changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and led the Bucks to the 1971 title. The Suns are still waiting for their first. Their star player is still waiting for his first. That wait may well be on its final legs. Chris Paul will see to that.