Suns point guard Chris Paul has played in 127 playoff games in 16 seasons. It’s unfortunate Paul may have played his worst one Wednesday in Milwaukee.
The Suns were two minutes away from taking a commanding 3-1 lead in the NBA Finals. Paul has dealt with enough playoff heartache across the years and never has won a ring or even been to the NBA Finals before this year.
If the Suns don’t win the series, he may only have himself to blame after a five-turnover performance in the Bucks’ come-from-behind 109-103 victory that knotted the NBA Finals at 2-2.
Usually, it has been injuries that have foiled Paul’s bid. In 2016, he broke his hand in the playoffs against Portland when the Clippers looked to be the Western Conference’s most talented squad.
In 2018 with Houston, Paul strained his hamstring in Game 5 of the Western Conference finals against Golden State. Paul missed the final two games and the Rockets blew a 3-2 lead in losing to the Warriors.
Now comes the disaster in Game 4. Hounded by Bucks point guard Jrue Holiday, Paul scored just 10 points, shot just 5-for-13 and missed both of his 3-pointers. Paul was especially needed as the stabilizing force he has been all season because of Devin Booker’s second-half foul trouble.
Paul has been a basketball magician all season, stunning the NBA universe at age 36. But he finally looked all of his age at Fiserv Forum as the Bucks captured both contests.
Holiday’s pressure that starts in the backcourt could be the difference in the series. Backup point guard Jeff Teague, too, has harassed CP3.
“I think it’s just making him uncomfortable,’’ Holiday said. “Always keeping bodies behind him, two, three people, and not really just giving him a clear view of what he wants to do.’’
For the player known for having the best IQ in basketball, Paul was sloppy on Wednesday.
His biggest miscue came with 35 seconds left and the Suns down two. Milwaukee didn’t score off Giannis Antetokounmpo’s epic block on Deandre Ayton, so the Suns were right there.
Until Paul, attempting a dangerous crossover move, slipped and fell on his rump. The turnover created the clinching fast-break bucket by Khris Middleton.
In the first half, Jae Crowder and Mikal Bridges looked perplexed when Paul’s back-pass to the perimeter skipped between them.
Down the stretch, as the Bucks’ dynamic duo of Antetokounmpo and Middleton delivered, Paul-Booker disintegrated. Booker finished with 42 points despite having to sit out five minutes of the fourth quarter with five fouls.
“It’s hard, because he could have gone for 50-plus tonight,’’ Suns coach Monty Williams said.
Paul said afterward “it’s me” while citing his turnover-laced game. And now it is on the leader extraordinaire to regain control of the NBA Finals on Saturday in Game 5 in Phoenix or, like Patrick Ewing, he will likely retire without a ring.
“At this point both teams know each other,’’ Paul said. “You know the sets. They can call out our plays, we can call out their plays. It’s about execution. So down the stretch we got to box out, I got to box out. We’re a team that’s closed out games like that all season long.’’
Each team has won on its home floor. It’s a best-of-three with two of the contests in “The Valley of The Sun.”
“You can’t just bank on the fact that you got home court, you got to go out there and play the game’’ Paul said. “We tend to respond well [to losses]. We know what we got to do. Be better.’’
Paul still has to deal with Holiday, who was named to the NBA all-defensive first team. Holiday had a poor shooting night in Game 4 (4-for-20) but his defense made up for it and he grabbed a key offensive rebound down the stretch. Holiday, 31, is five years younger than Paul, who reportedly is ready to opt out of the $44 million final year of his pact.
“I know my game is more than just scoring,’’ Holiday said. “It’s part of the reason that they brought me here. We know Chris Paul can go off at any time. So really just staying on high alert when he gets the ball.’’
Holiday admitted after Game 4 that pressuring Paul before half-court requires stamina.
“I’m tired,” Holiday said. “That’s kind of the point of us doing it, right? I think to be able to not give Chris just some easy baskets, we know that he can control the game and put it in the palm of his hand. But I think being able to have his back turned most of the game, always thinking that me or Teague are going to be there, I think it could be frustrating. And then doing it 94 feet for 48 minutes, it can be tiring. I think we’ve been doing a pretty good job of it.”
If it continues, Paul and the Suns will still be without their first-ever championship as CP3 decides on his future.