Chris Paul destroyed the most condemning narrative of his career with one of his best playoff performances.
The veteran point guard had a sizzling night with 41 points, 10 assists, seven rebounds and no turnovers in a 112-102 victory to finally advance to the first conference finals of his career.
It’s been a long time coming for Paul, who has played 86 playoff games without ever appearing in the third round, the most in NBA history.
That fact has been a dark cloud hanging over Paul’s Hall of Fame-worthy career, in which he’s been one of the best point guards to ever play.
Now that he’s broken through the one barrier that had for so long eluded him, Paul isn’t ready to celebrate. His previous inability to reach the conference finals will no longer be used against him, but if he ends his career without a title, that will be more than enough ammunition for some to downplay his impact.
“I don’t know, is that what you play for?” Paul said of advancing. “For us, like we said before the game and every game, they’re in our way.”
Paul, alongside Harden, will now face the defending champion Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Finals.
It will be the second trip to third round for Harden, but if not for Paul’s presence, it may not have happened – or been delayed at the very least.
On a night Harden was under the weather and struggling to score, finishing with 18 points on 7-of-22 shooting, the value of Paul was on full display.
The 33-year-old grabbed the reins of the offence and dominated, especially in the fourth quarter when he had 20 points – the highest-scoring quarter of his career, regular season or playoffs, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
According to @EliasSports, Chris Paul's performance on Tuesday is just the 2nd 40-10 game in a series-clincher in NBA playoff history.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) May 9, 2018
The only other guy to do it had a pretty decent career pic.twitter.com/lbeSvI8kXs
Paul was a killer off the dribble and delivered dagger after dagger by shooting 13-of-18 on jump shots, including a hyper-efficient 8-of-10 on 3-pointers.
The veteran has hardly been needed to do it all this season due to Harden’s brilliance, but the win was a reminder of the luxuries Houston are equipped with.
“Unbelievable,” Harden said of Paul. “He took over the game. He put us on his back and said, ‘listen, I got us.’ That’s big time, a big time performance.
“He got in his bag and he called everybody off. He said, ‘you get out the way.’ He had that look in his eyes. I don’t care what you say, if he has that look in his eyes every single night, he’s a problem.”
Paul is now as close as he’s ever been to a championship, but a monumental obstacle awaits.
While the Houston Rockets have made it known all season long they’re consumed with taking down the Golden State Warriors, the defending champions don’t share a similar “obsession” according to Draymond Green.
The teams will meet in the Western Conference Finals after storming through the playoffs, setting up what was an inevitable clash of the titans.
Whereas Golden State have been here before, having reached three straight Finals and coming away with two titles, Houston have shown an eagerness to dethrone the champions to blaze their own path.
“They have made it known that their team is built to beat us,” Green said after the Warriors eliminated the New Orleans Pelicans in Game 5 of the second round. “Their ‘obsession’ or whatever you want to call it, it is what it is.”
Though the Rockets claimed two of the three regular-season meetings and won an NBA-best 65 games to keep Golden State from grabbing the one seed for the first time since 2014, Green claimed his side aren’t fixated on proving anything to their challengers.
“Man, we won two championships in three years. We’re not about to run off talking about how bad we want to play somebody,” Green said.
“We want to win another championship, and it don’t matter who’s in the way of that. If you’re in the way of that, then you happen to be in the way. But we’re not about to run around like, ‘Yeah, we want to play them in the conference finals.’ For what? It doesn’t matter to us who we play. However, we got them. All right, now let’s get it. We get to it now.
“We’ve got a goal. Whoever is in the way of that goal, then we got to see you. You got to see us. All right now, they’re in the way. Perfect. But we’re not running around talking about, ‘Man, we want them bad.’ Nah, we want a championship bad. Another one.”
Often, the best series in the NBA playoffs come before the Finals.
It certainly looks like that will be the case in this year’s postseason as the clash between the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets in the Western Conference Finals has the potential to be epic.
The Warriors are attempting to reach the Finals for the fourth straight year and snatch a third title, while the Rockets had an NBA-best 65 wins this season and are led by their own superstar core of James Harden and Chris Paul.
That got us thinking, what have been the best conference finals we’ve seen in playoff history?
Check out our list below, which features some all-time battles.
You can’t get a closer series than the one this rivalry produced in 1981, which saw five of the seven games decided by two points or less, including the final four. Trailing 89-82 late in the fourth quarter of Game 7, Boston fought back to win the series after falling into a 3-1 hole.
While Lakers fans will remember this for being a thrilling series in 2002, it’s a sore spot for Kings fans who rightly took umbrage with what seemed like one-sided officiating. Nevertheless, it was highly entertaining as LA came back from 3-2 down to win in overtime of Game 7 en route to a three-peat.
Los Angeles Lakers vs Portland Trail Blazers, 2000 Western Conference Finals
Before they claimed their first title of this century, the Lakers were on the ropes in 2000, down 15 points in Game 7 to a Portland team that had erased a 3-1 series lead. Just when it seemed like LA were going to blow it, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal responded with a monster fourth quarter to advance.
Reggie Miller and the Pacers nearly ended Michael Jordan’s second three-peat bid in 1998 during a back-and-forth series. After the Bulls won the first two at home, Miller was spectacular in Game 3 and 4, hitting a game-winner in the latter. When it got to Game 7, however, Jordan wouldn’t be denied.
Boston Celtics vs Detroit Pistons, 1987 Eastern Conference Finals
Physical doesn’t begin to describe how much of a slugfest this series was in 1987. Boston would go on to win in seven games, but one of the most iconic moments in playoffs history came in Game 5 when Larry Bird stole Isiah Thomas’ inbound pass and found Dennis Johnson for the game-winner.