NEW ORLEANS – Chris Paul’s historic day began with news that he had received a flagrant foul for kicking Jose Alvarado in the groin.
It ended with Paul kicking the rest of the Pelicans in the backside.
Exhale, Planet Orange. The Suns have survived and advanced. At this time of year, nothing else matters.
“This was a big-time battle,” Suns head coach Monty Williams said. “You would expect a series like this later on in the playoffs.”
A series-clinching 115-109 victory on Friday was both riveting and bizarre. The return of Devin Booker for Game 6 seemed to lull the Suns into a false sense of security. They seemed strangely resigned and benign in the second quarter, where the Pelicans dominated in every facet of the game, including heart.
But Paul simply willed his team to victory, turning out the lights on a thorny, pesky opponent. He finished with 33 points. He made all 14 shots he attempted. He returned to the city where he started his NBA career, only to hear chants of “F*** Chris Paul!”
He left with a performance unrivaled in NBA history, setting a record for most field goals made without a miss in a postseason game.
The victory was deeply personal to Paul, who feels a deep connection with New Orleans. Every time he arrived at Smoothie King Center during the series, he fist-bumped and hugged a never-ending line of stadium employees that he knew from back in the day. On Friday, he wore an expensive chain given to him by rap star Lil Wayne during his playing days in the Big Easy. Everywhere he looked he seemed to see more of his New Orleans family.
To finish with a perfect performance was a perfect ending for the Point God.
“It’s unbelievably special,” Paul said.
There was great mirth after the game. Jae Crowder showed up to the postgame press conference wearing a “F*** Jae Crowder” T-shirt that Booker had commandeered from Pelicans fans. Booker referred to the vulgar chants directed at Crowder as “really a beautiful thing. It’s respect at its highest level.”
Booker also wore one of the T-shirts. And he marveled at Paul’s performance, unaware he hadn’t missed a shot until eyeing the box score.
“I’ll never have one of these games,” said Booker, admitting he would eventually ruin a perfect game by missing a shot via heat check, something Paul doesn’t believe in.
When the Suns beat LeBron James and the Lakers in the Western Conference quarterfinals a year ago, there was a strong sense of accomplishment. This time, there is only a sense of relief.
At times, the Suns seemed strangely vulnerable in this series. Their rebounding deficiencies resurfaced in an alarming fashion. Paul seemed to struggle with his handle and the audacious defense of Alvarado. Role players struggled dramatically. Too often, Williams seemed to be a step behind his former assistant, Willie Green, outcoached for most of the series.
But the Suns summoned their poise and their pedigree at the perfect time. They solved their third-quarter struggles, roaring back in the game after halftime. And in the closing minutes, there was a defining sequence that vaulted Phoenix to the finish line:
Paul salvaged a haggard possession with a cagey alley-oop to Deandre Ayton. Booker drained a three-point shot. And when Mikal Bridges followed with a steal and breakaway dunk, Williams couldn’t hide his joy on the sideline, running down the sideline in sync with the streaking Bridges.
“In a crowd, in an environment like this, all we have is us,” Williams said. “And I was just out there with them … I was just so happy he made that play. Just one of those deals when you get caught up in the moment. And I’m OK with that.”
Before it was over, Paul had inflicted even more damage on Alvarado, knocking out one of his teeth with an inadvertent elbow. But when the horn finally sounded, it was all love. There were hugs for Green, whose value to the Suns was evident in the job he did as a first-year coach in New Orleans, whom Paul credited for his decision to play in Phoenix. Tears were shed. Time will prove there were no losers in this series.
In the end, the Suns ran out of patience. The Pelicans ran out of answers. The better team prevailed, even if it took longer than expected.
“We talked at halftime about the spirit of our team,” Williams said. “I had a few personal things to say, but personal to the team. (The Pelicans) were playing with their heart, just playing harder than us … it was like, ‘Enough is enough.’”
Indeed. On to the second round.
Reach Bickley at email@example.com. Listen to Bickley & Marotta weekdays from 6 a.m. – 10 a.m. on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station.