For someone who makes the game look so easy, it's remarkable how difficult Chris Paul's career has been. "Difficult" is relative, of course; Paul has made hundreds of millions of dollars, found success with every team he's joined, and risen in the all-time ranks to earn the label of one of the best pure point guards to ever play the game. But no matter how many perfect pocket passes he's thrown, no matter how smoothly he hits that free throw line jumper that has become his signature shot, Paul has never accomplished the highest of all basketball accolades: winning a championship.
This isn't new to anybody who has followed basketball at any point over his 16-year career. Paul's fruitless quest to even reach the NBA Finals, much less emerge victorious, has been a dominant storyline for nearly a decade at this point. The thing is, most of those failures have not been due to poor play from Paul as much as it was bad luck. Close your eyes, pick a year, and you'll find something that played a large role in preventing the superstar from an NBA Finals appearance. A bum hamstring. A nixed trade to the Lakers that would have teamed him up with Kobe Bryant. Twenty-seven consecutive missed 3-point shots from one of the greatest three-point shooting teams in NBA history. Josh Smith turning from role player to superstar for three games and three games only. The formulation of arguably the greatest team ever in the Bay Area.
That isn't to say it isn't Paul's fault. He couldn't will his team to a single win when the Clippers were up 3-1 on the Rockets in the Western Conference semis, something one of the best players of this generation should be able to do. Even with all those missed 3-pointers and his hamstring, an argument can be made that Paul's legacy was on the line when the Rockets just barely lost to Golden State in 2018 and he fell short. It wasn't that Paul came up small in those moments. He just couldn't come up big enough. An easy fault to criticize, but also an easy one to empathize with.
It has never been easy for CP3. He didn't have the luxury of playing in a weak Eastern Conference at any point in his career. He turned his teammates into superstars rather than joining up with already-established ones until he joined James Harden in Houston. Even then, he fell barely, painfully short of the promised land.
That's on the verge of changing. Paul teamed up with a star in Devin Booker and a budding stud in Deandre Ayton in Phoenix last fall. On Monday night, Paul found himself on the precipice of that evasive NBA Finals appearance with the best opportunity to earn it to date, up 3-1 while playing at home.
And of course his team lost. Paul George had the best playoff game of his life after crucial mistake after crucial mistake cost his team multiple games this series. What's more, Reggie Jackson and Marcus Morris had 45 points combined on 17-of-30 shooting. Even the corpse of DeMarcus Cousins, forced into action after Ivan Zubac's MCL injury, played uncharacteristically excellent defense and scored 15 points on 7-of-12 from the floor.
It's the story of Paul's career. Role players blow up. Struggling stars suddenly can't miss. All in a huge game, a game that, if it had ended differently, would change Paul's legacy forever.
Nothing is set in stone yet, of course. Should CP3 show out and the Suns eliminate the Clippers in Game 6, that Game 5 will simply go down as a footnote in George's career and nothing more. But lucky breaks and an easy path to victory are not what has defined Paul's career to this point, and last night showed that isn't going to change. If Paul really is going to do this, if he wants to reach the pinnacle of basketball, he'll have to earn it. Like he always has.