Last Wednesday night, Suns point guard Chris Paul and Devin Booker rode atop a convertible at Phoenix’s Sky Harbor Airport mobbed by thousands of delirious Suns fans chanting “MVP.’’
The Suns had just made it to the NBA Finals, eliminating the Clippers in Los Angeles, and were hailed as heroes upon their return. Paul engaged the crowd as the car weaved through the throng.
At 36, Paul was having the time of his life with his first NBA Finals berth in the bag. But the airport ride is over. Tuesday in Game 1 in Phoenix, the Bucks await — the lone obstacle standing between Paul and his first title after 16 NBA seasons.
It’s been a season in which CP3 has made 36 look like 26.
“That night was special,” Paul said. “I wanted to take a second and enjoy the accomplishment we had as a team. And after that, it was OK, cool, we still have work to do. We got a really good team and great leadership. We understand we have to lock back in. That series is over. It’s onto the next.”
Paul had just come off a magical night — 41 points, eight assists, 7-for-8 from the 3-point line. Yes, it’s been his leadership that has the Suns in the NBA Finals for the first time since 1993, but also his point-guard genius.
While many Knicks fans were skeptical last fall about his former agent Leon Rose desiring Paul in a Knicks uniform, the team president looks prescient now. And he’ll be super eager again if Paul opts out of his contract in August.
However injury-prone at the least opportune times Paul has been across his journey, capping his career with a championship would become one of the all-time great NBA stories.
When the final buzzer sounded at Staples Center on Wednesday, Paul, with the celebration raging on, said to his coach Monty Williams, that he had to calm down. Williams retorted, “No you don’t have to calm down,’’ and gave Paul a hug.
“It was a lot excitement, a lot of emotion for myself, coach and the team,’’ Paul recalled. “Real-life stuff.’’
After the Suns traded for Paul, The Post reported CP3 had wanted to be close to his kids in Los Angeles. And it has made this journey even more special. His son Chris Jr. is now 12 and daughter Camryn 8.
“Chris [Jr.] says everything to me — telling me when I’m playing well, playing bad,’’ Paul said. “The most exciting part is my kids, they’re at the age they know everything that’s going on. My daughter who hasn’t been a fan of any of my games my whole career. That’s what touched me after the Western Conference finals to see her with emotions. See her so excited, just enjoying the different moments of it.’’
Even with his storybook season, it has been trying. Paul, during the playoff march, has battled a right-shoulder sprain, a COVID-19 positive test and most recently sprained ligaments in his hand he revealed after the Western Conference finals. Paul said the week of rest has done wonders for his health.
When Booker, the Suns All-Star, talked about Paul’s influence on the eve of the NBA Finals, he spoke of his “attention to detail’’ watching film with Paul across the season.
“It might be a simple play,’’ Booker said. “Somebody might have scored on this possession over here. You rewind it. Hey, look over here, do you see what they did over here? So, it’s just viewing the game a different way, seeing the game a different way and communicating it out loud when you see it. We’re not sitting there watching the game in silence. We’re sitting there, like, they let him do that again? We have to take that away when we play them. It’s just a whole other level of basketball and film study when you’re with Chris.’’
If the Suns are to take out the Bucks, Paul may have to win his battle against Milwaukee point guard Jrue Holiday whom he says is why “the series will be so tough.” But Paul’s leadership might be the deciding factor in keeping the Suns together.
“When C got here, C taught us a lot,’’ backup point guard Cameron Payne said. “So when he gets to talking, everybody feels like, OK, everybody’s holding each other accountable. No one ever takes it the wrong way. That’s one of the biggest things of building a championship team, being able to take criticism from your co-workers.’’