Chris Paul boosts Rockets to West Finals with big night

NBA.com Global on May 09, 2018 04:42 PM
Chris Paul boosts Rockets to West Finals with big night
Houston Rockets guard Chris Paul reacts after a 3-pointer by PJ Tucker during the second half in Game 5 of an NBA basketball second-round playoff series against the Utah Jazz, Tuesday, May 8, 2018, in Houston. (AP Photo/Eric Christian Smith)

By Sekou Smith, NBA.com

HOUSTON -- This is James Harden’s team. There’s no doubt about that.

But on this night, for this moment, the Houston Rockets’ Kia MVP frontrunner had to step aside for Chris Paul.

Those “M-V-P” chants the Toyota Center crowd usually reserve for Harden were chants of “C-P-3” in the final moments of the Rockets’ 112-102 Game 5 win over the Utah Jazz in the Western Conference semifinals.

It was an appropriate end to a career playoff-best night for Paul, the same night he finally erased that black mark on his resume, the night he finally carried his team to the place he’s never been.

The Rockets will play in the Western Conference finals next week and they can thank their wired-up point guard for pushing them over the top Tuesday night (Wednesday, PHL time).

It was obvious early on that Paul was not going to allow things to go any other way.

He’d been here before, up 3-1 and seemingly in total control, only to see his LA Clippers fall to the Rockets in the conference semifinals in 2015. A chance to battle the Golden State Warriors for a right to play for a championship vanished, in an instant.

Not this time.

Not after all he had to do to make it here again.

Not after packing up his life in Los Angeles and relocating here to play alongside Harden and for Mike D’Antoni, all three of them carrying playoff demons with them from their respective pasts.

And not after he scored 41 points, 20 in the fourth quarter, dished out 10 assists and grabbed seven rebounds without committing a single turnover to beat back the Jazz. He’s the first player in NBA history to record a 40-point, 10-assist night without a turnover since turnovers became an official statistic in the 1977-78 season.

“His performance tonight was off the charts,” D’Antoni said. “Couldn’t happen for a better guy. He’s been working all year for this. We’re halfway home and we know we haven't done anything yet, but this was huge for us.”

Huge for the Rockets, but particularly huge for Paul, whose trade request at the end of last season in Los Angeles shocked the basketball world.

He could have stayed with the Clippers and kept trying to break through there. But he recognized that time was up on that group and risked his reputation and gambled everything on he and Harden being an instant hit as the best point guard duo in basketball.

Sacrifices had to be made, comfort zones disrupted, and if it went wrong, there would only be one of two places to point to as the main culprits.

That might explain Paul’s ambivalence while trying to sum up his magical night.

“I don’t know, is that what you play for?” he said after joining Michael Jordan (1998) as the only players in playoff history to record a 40/10 game in a series clincher. “For us, like we said before the game and every game, they’re in our way.”

Jazz rookie Donovan Mitchell was definitely in the way. He did his best to spoil things for Paul and the Rockets with a nuclear performance after halftime. He scored 22 points in the final eight minutes of the third quarter to push the Jazz ahead 80-75 and silence the crowd.

He forced Paul to get up off the baseline, where he was trying to catch a rest, and get back to work to make sure the Rockets delivered on their season-long promise to themselves to have the opportunity to play their way into The Finals.

When Mitchell injured his left foot with 7:09 to play the Rockets were clinging to a five-point lead. Had he returned he might have had something to say about the finish. But he didn’t after being ruled out for the remainder of the game with foot soreness.

Paul made sure that no one else could steal the show from him down the stretch.

“Unbelievable,” Harden said of Paul’s virtuoso performance. “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 was a gigantic problem for the Jazz with the game on the line. He drained a 24-footer for a 97-96 Rockets lead with 4:09 to play, a 19-foot jumper with 3:18 to play, a 28-footer off the glass with 2:30 left and finally a pull-up jumper with 1:57 left for a 107-98 lead that all but put the game away.

He found P.J. Tucker in the corner for a three-pointer with 35 seconds left, pushing the lead to 10 and his two free throws with 26.4 seconds to play were the Rockets’ last. It was a fitting end for the man who chased away at least one ghost on this night.

Anyone crazy enough to question his mettle now need only run back the film of his historic night.

“That’s why for I don’t know how long I’ve been in this league, the thing with him being the best point guard in the league, the things he does,” D’Antoni said, “he just wields us to win. Even the bank shot, I mean, give me a break. That’s just people trying to find a way. I had to keep him out there, I usually give him a rest for a couple of minutes. I didn’t do that with James being sick a little bit.”

Tucker, another member of the newly assembled Rockets, saved some of his best work for this night as well. A defensive stopper by trade, he lit up the Jazz for a career playoff-high 19 points of his own, making seven of his nine shots and going 5-for-7 from beyond the three-point line.

Another newcomer, Luc Mbah a Moute, contributed eight points and Gerald Green, the Houston native who was signed off the street and didn’t play his first game until three days after Christmas, added eight timely points of his own off the bench during that wild second half back and forth.

“It’s just fun,” Paul said of this ride with this group, Tucker in particular, since they’ve known each other since they were 10 and competing on the AAU circuit. “It’s not about the points or anything like that. It’s about how we built it, too.”

It started with a vision last summer, Harden said. Paul was, of course, the first piece. So no, he wasn’t surprised to see Paul do what he did Tuesday night (Wednesday, PHL time), or what Tucker, Mbah a Moute, Trevor Ariza, Eric Gordon, Green or Clint Capela did at times throughout this series or a regular season that saw the Rockets blitz their way to the best record in the league, a franchise-best 65 wins.

“We’re something special,” Tucker said after detailing the way this entire group came together from a summer of seismic moves from Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, who put the pieces into place.

“That’s why we’re called a team,” Harden said. “Each and every individual has a huge role to play in what we’re trying to do and where we are trying to go … that’s why they are here. We have to go out there and give our best every night and live with the results. If we give the effort we know we can, it’s pretty tough to beat us.”

The next stop is the Western Conference finals where the Warriors, the reigning NBA champs, are waiting after closing out the Pelicans late Tuesday (Wednesday, PHL time).

And that’s where Paul gets to size up and stare down that playoff ghost that’s been haunting him since 2015.

Sekou Smith is a veteran NBA reporter and NBA TV analyst. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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