Chris Paul is finally understood
Phoenix Suns guard Chris Paul Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Chris Paul has always had a mental edge on his peers and enemies. He is smarter than most and, perhaps more importantly, much more obsessed. At times, the latter quality has been to his detriment, as his drive to achieve the platonic ideal of basketball execution is not always shared by the people he plays with. Some of his teammates have been too good at improvisation, too fluid or simply too athletic to want to fit themselves into Paul’s meticulously constructed blueprints. Their advantages come from something he can’t quite account for, they have believed — or, less generously, they may not have wanted to do the same amount of work that he does.

Paul wears on people, his reputation suggests. The level of strategic preparation and the ornery temperament he takes to making sure that all his hardwood designs are made real can produce a friction that, over time, curdles into rancor. Nothing like that is visible in his time with the Phoenix Suns, though. Maybe this is because it’s still early. But it’s possible that, this time, his beautiful basketball genius brain has finally been placed within the perfect context. Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges, head coach Monty Williams and the rest of the Suns seem to be in basically perfect harmony with Paul. 

Rarely has a team ever wrung as much from their collective strengths as Phoenix is. This has been more than evident in their recent 17-game winning streak. After going to the 2021 NBA Finals, the Suns just went undefeated for an entire month. They are not far from reaching the zenith of historical winning streaks — two more victories, and they’re in the all-time top 10. And their latest tally in the W column is their most impressive yet: a homecourt, 104-96 statement conquest over the Golden State Warriors.

The Suns’ level of scouting was apparent in the contest. The familiar Warriors’ actions that have been steamrolling through the league were suddenly met with walls upon walls, with Golden State’s offense mostly stuck in a brick maze that only Jordan Poole’s timely chucking could find its way through — minus Poole’s efficient, the Warriors scored just 68 points on 38% shooting. Poole’s looks seemed to given by design, as Phoenix stuck early Defensive Player of the Year candidate Bridges on Steph Curry, who played in a shoebox the whole evening, shooting 4-of-21 for his worst game of the season.

It was the only time the Warriors have been held under 100 points this season, with Paul and Bridges combining for nine steals and Ayton occasionally guarding Curry on the perimeter as well as any seven-footer ever has. More key to the Suns’ effort was what Ayton did on the other end, breaking the Warriors’ scheme and exposing their lack of size as the Suns’ methodical passing algorithms led inexorably to his hands, near the rim. All the stuff that Paul gratingly yelled at a center with the same name (capitalized differently) back with the Los Angeles Clippers seems to be music to Ayton’s ears, as he has become an optimized, machine-like play finisher for his point guard’s frequent pick-and-roll moments.

This was all done with just 15 minutes of play from the Suns’ top scorer, Booker, who left the game early with a hamstring issue. The Suns showed they can survive without him for now, because their ball movement and defensive fundamentals are just that strong. After the win, the Suns passed the Warriors for the No. 1 spot in the league, but skeptics still have plenty to hold onto. Paul’s teams often peak in the regular season, then fall apart physically in the postseason. This is a big exhibit in the counter-argument to the increasingly strong claim that the Suns are the best team in their conference, if not their sport. But the only truly adequate rebuttal to the haters cannot occur until 2022, summertime.

For now, though, a potentially unseen basketball phenomenon moves forward in the desert — Paul, at age 36, is in a way the best that he has ever been. This is because he’s never been surrounded by people as freakishly fixated on the details of the game he is, never had co-workers who have allowed his will toward perfect basketball to extend as far as it currently is. Paul is now somewhere where he is never cast as a buzzkill, and seems instead to be fully understood. On his fifth team, in his 17th season, the man who may be his sport’s greatest commander of all time has fatefully found his greatest love: a potent battleship crew that is willing to do everything just his way.

This article first appeared on RealGM and was syndicated with permission.

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