Paul, Suns one step closer to writing new chapter after sweeping Nuggets

Chris Paul leads the Phoenix Suns in their Game 4 victory and sweep of the Denver Nuggets with a massive 37 point night.

And after the fourth game, he rested.

Chris Paul is nicknamed ‘Point God’ for good reason: he’s one the best to ever do it. But most importantly for the 36-year-old, willing his young Phoenix team to a 125-118 win over the Denver Nuggets in Game 4 means Paul and his Suns teammates can rest and watch the Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Clippers fight it out for the right to face them in the Western Conference Finals.

Paul was brilliant – he led all scorers with 37 points on 14-of-19 shooting, with seven assists – and now he can rest, recover and get ready to do it again in the Conference Finals.

Here are five takeaways from Sunday’s series-clinching game.

Suns are nothing but serious title contenders

Denver Nuggets head coach Michael Malone had modest goals for team heading into Game 4, down 3-0 to the Suns and faced with becoming the first team in the NBA history to win a best-of-seven series after losing the first three games.

"My only hope is that we haven't let go of the rope because of what history tells us," Malone said after Game 3. "My only hope is that come Sunday afternoon/evening, whenever that game is, our guys show up and fight. I think they deserve it, their teammates deserve that, and our fans deserve that, to go out there and leave it all on the line and you can walk off the floor with your head held high."

How they should hold their head now that their season is done is for them to decide after the Suns swept the Nuggets to move to the Western Conference Finals for the first time since 2009-10 when Steve Nash was running the point for them.

But I suggest they can feel reasonably good about themselves, mainly because of who sent them home.

The Suns have been overlooked all season, their rise to the second place in the Western Conference attributable to the vagaries of a compressed, injury-riddled season where they remained healthier than the competition.

But only a fool would look at the Suns as anything other than a serious candidate to bring a title to the desert for the first time since the NBA expanded to Phoenix for the 1968-69 campaign.

Heading into Game 4, the Suns ranked second on defence, third in field goal percentage, first in ratio of assisted field goals and – not surprisingly -- first in winning percentage. The Suns have knocked out LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers and swept aside the league MVP, Nikola Jokic.

Look past the Suns at your peril.

It can’t feel good for the Nuggets to have been swept, but getting overwhelmed by the potential NBA champions might ease the sting over time.

Chris Paul’s domination continues

What a moment for Chris Paul this has been. The man has been an all-star 11 times – including the past two seasons – and has been all-NBA or all-defence 18 times, so it’s not like he’s been overlooked over the course of his career. He’ll be in the Hall-of-Fame the first minute he’s eligible after he retires and will be in the mix for any serious discussion about who is the best point guard in NBA history.

But the 16-year veteran has not only failed to capture a title, in some quarters he’s taken on a reputation as a post-season underachiever, in part because he’s previously only made the conference finals once in 12 tries and has been knocked out in the first round six times.

It’s ridiculous. Injuries to Paul or teammates at the worst times – his own hamstring pull at the end of Game 5 that kept him out Game 6 and 7 when his Rockets were up 3-2 against the juggernaut Golden State Warriors in 2018 most glaringly – have been the primary culprit.

Having to find his way out of the loaded Western Conference where he’s played his whole career has been another. But what he’s done the past two seasons is all anyone should need to see to understand his greatness, be it taking the surprising OKC Thunder to the playoffs last season and now guiding the Suns from the play-in tournament in 2019-20 to the Western Conference Finals, Paul has shown himself the type of player that affects winning at the highest levels of the sport.

Against the Nuggets, Paul did whatever he wanted, using his dribble to orchestrate pick-and-roll offence for the Suns, or simply to get to the elbows for his patented pull-up jumper. He was 12-of-13 in the fourth quarter with eight assists and no turnovers through the first three games.

He didn’t wait in Game 4 as Paul hit all six of his shots of the third quarter as Suns grinded to put the Nuggets away. He finished with 25 points in the second half and has a chance to write the only chapter his epic career doesn’t have yet.

No more MVP, and that's a shame

It will be disappointing to not see Nikola Jokic again this post-season. The Nuggets star won the MVP award in a runaway and proved himself to be not only brilliant, but durably so, as he appeared in every regular-season game and finished third in the minutes played.

Even so, Jokic had plenty of juice left in the playoffs. He was averaging 30.7 points and 11.7 rebounds and 5.1 assists in the playoffs while shooting 51 per cent from the floor and 39 per cent from three before he put up 22-11-4 prior to being ejected controversially at the end of the third quarter after he wound up and swiped at the ball and inadvertently hitting the Suns’ Cam Payne in the face with his bicep in the process.

It was a reckless play made in frustration, but he hit the ball first and only got Payne by accident (Jokic quickly apologized to Payne). It was a ridiculous ejection and an unceremonious end to a fantastic season for a richly deserving MVP.

It would have been great to see Jokic running a two-man game with co-star Jamal Murray, potentially all the way to the NBA Finals. But the Nuggets were in deep when Murray tore his ACL back in April, and even a fantastic post-season showing from Jokic couldn’t keep them above water long enough.

Raptors can take page out of Suns’ book

There can’t be a better advertisement for Kyle Lowry as a mid-30s free-agent point guard than Paul. Lowry provides many of the same qualities to the game and to his team as the Suns star and has similarly defied the aging curve.

There must be teams believing that they are the right veteran away from being competitive, from making the playoffs, from making a run at a title. It’s hard to imagine the Suns won’t extend Paul, who could otherwise hit free agency. And if they do, Lowry would be the next likely target.

There aren’t a lot of teams that could afford Lowry, who will likely be looking for a two-year deal in the $50-million range, but things can change quickly.

However, the team that should be paying the most attention is the Raptors who can win any bidding war and who should be watching the Suns and thinking that -- presuming a healthy season and an off-season addition or two -- “if they can make the Conference Finals, why can’t we?”

The Raptors are a better team with Lowry on it and Paul is showing how important a veteran leader who can still ball out can be.

Ayton proving his worth

Popular discussion around the 2018 draft almost exclusively orbits around Luka Doncic and Trae Young, who were taken third and fifth, respectively, and then traded for each other, with Doncic ending up in Dallas and Young in Atlanta.

They have emerged as brilliant NBA players that can carry teams and can win post-season games by themselves, but the No.1 overall pick has proven himself worthy as well. DeAndre Ayton wouldn’t be taken first again in a re-draft – even in the three years since the Suns made the Arizona star the top pick, the value of bigs that can’t stretch the floor has been diminished.

But Ayton is proving that if the mix is right, he can be part of a very good – and maybe even great – NBA team.

One of the sources of the Suns’ success was Ayton’s ability to credibly guard Jokic in single coverage and even take the game to the big Nuggets centre on offence, either by sprinting the floor and getting found on the break or by showing his high-skill, soft-touch, low-post game. He finished with 12 points and seven rebounds in Game 4 and 14.3 points and 11.5 rebounds for the series, while shooting 61.5 per cent from the floor. Not quite the fireworks Young or Doncic provide, but it’s what the Suns need, and it just might help get them to an NBA championship.

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