Analysis: Chris Paul, like it or not, is the favorite now

It seems like Chris Paul relishes the notion of being the underdog.

That’s why, when the Western Conference semifinals were over and the Phoenix Suns had swept their way into the NBA’s final four, he talked about how he felt written off a couple of seasons ago. Why he talked about spending two years on his high school’s junior varsity team. How he wasn’t, in his words, “necessarily supposed to be here.”

It’s a neat narrative. But it’s not reality.

Fact is, this is exactly where Paul and the Suns are supposed to be. He’s still elite at what he does. He’s helped take the Suns to levels few thought they could reach in Year 1 of his tenure in the valley. They’re headed to the West finals against the Utah Jazz or the Los Angeles Clippers, a matchup that’ll start early next week, and there will be no shortage of experts picking the Suns to go from there to the NBA Finals.

“I’ve always had to grind, and I like that mentality, and that’s always been who I’ve been, and I’m going to stay that way,” Paul said. “If you like it, cool. If you don’t, it’s cool too.”

He’s a grinder, yes, but make no mistake — he’s a wildly successful grinder.

It is true that Paul spent two years on the JV team at West Forsyth High in Clemmons, North Carolina. It’s also true that he became a McDonald’s All-American and a five-star recruit there before signing with Wake Forest, was a top-five draft pick and then ultimately an NBA rookie of the year.

His is not exactly an out-of-nowhere success story.

And again, to be fair, there were questions whether Paul’s realistic window for winning a championship had closed after his hamstring betrayed him and the Houston Rockets couldn’t win Games 6 or 7 of the 2018 West finals against Golden State. He was also in Year 1 of a four-year, $159.7 million contract — the third max deal of his career — at that time, so it’s not like everyone had given up on him. He’s earned more in NBA salary than anyone other than LeBron James, Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant.

Consider this line from Denver coach Michael Malone, offered up Sunday night after Paul scored 37 points to help Phoenix finish off its sweep of the Nuggets, the first 4-0 series win of Paul’s career: “Chris Paul could arguably be the greatest point guard of all time.”

Paul is no underdog.

The Suns, now they’re the underdog story.

Phoenix hadn’t made the playoffs in 11 years before this run. Monty Williams hadn’t won a playoff series as a head coach until this season. They have exactly one player on the roster — Jae Crowder — who has been to the NBA Finals, after he got there last season with Miami. They’re four wins from the finals, eight wins from winning the whole thing, and needed just 10 games to eliminate both the 2020 champion Los Angeles Lakers and a Denver team that lost to those Lakers in the West finals last season.

Paul got traded to Phoenix in November. The Suns have not been the same since.

Devin Booker — who says he often sits and just listens to Paul talk, soaking up every word of whatever that day’s lesson is — finally has reached the big stage and is thriving, averaging 27.9 points in his first 10 postseason games. Deandre Ayton — a chiseled 22-year-old who stands about a foot taller and is about 60 pounds heavier than Paul, though he credits the 36-year-old guard for changing up his weightlifting regimen — is shooting 72% in his first postseason run.

At 8-2, the Suns have the best record so far in these playoffs. The two games they lost were two games that Paul tried to play with one arm, after injuring a shoulder in Round 1.

“You can ask anybody on this team — ‘How has Chris developed your game?’ — and everybody’s going to have a lengthy answer because he cares,” Booker said. “He cares about each and every individual. And he’ll let you know when he sees something that can better you.”

Williams believes Paul did have his doubters. He had a message for them after the second-round sweep.

“I’m happy that the people did do that because it fueled an already highly competitive, strong-willed, Maestro of a point guard and basketball player,” Williams said. “Never want to count out a guy like Chris.”

Paul’s high school teams never won a state championship. His Wake Forest teams didn’t make a Final Four. And he’s still never been to an NBA Finals. If that led some to count him out, whatever that means, maybe it’s understandable.

But nobody should count him out now.

He has the $300 million in NBA salary and who-knows-how-much more from endorsement deals. He’s flirted with perfect games in bowling, has sat on panels with President Barack Obama, already has a successful production company. He helps run the National Basketball Players Association. He’s got two Olympic gold medals.

Paul has just about everything, except an NBA title.

The underdog, whether he likes it or not, might now be favored to change that.

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Tim Reynolds is a national basketball writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at treynolds(at)ap.org

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