Suns Needing Vintage Chris Paul

Chris Paul has struggled with turnovers in the NBA Finals. For the Suns to regain control of the series, the veteran point guard must regain his handle on the ball.

Chad Smith profile picture
Sports Editor
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Jrue Holiday has been hounding Chris Paul, and it has turned the tide of the NBA Finals. After taking a commanding 2-0 series lead, the Phoenix Suns have come up short in the last two contests in Milwaukee. The sloppy play by Paul in the last three games has played a major role in the outcome. The Bucks have all of the momentum heading into Game 5, where the winner will be just one win away from hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy.

The individual accolades are quite impressive. Paul is an 11-time All-Star that has led the league in assists four times and led the league in steals six times. He was the Rookie of the Year after being selected 4th overall in the 2005 NBA Draft and has been named to an All-Defensive team nine times. His injury history is almost more well-known than his shortcomings in the postseason.

When it comes to game management in the final minutes of a close game, there really aren’t many better options than the savvy 36-year old. He is calm under pressure, calculated in his approach, and one of the smartest players to ever step onto the floor. That is why his recent struggles have been such a surprise.

Though his tenure with the Los Angeles Clippers was defined by his inability to win close games, oftentimes it was his teammates that were not able to execute in the clutch. His supporting cast in Phoenix is younger, better defensively, and he has never had a better offensive weapon alongside him in the backcourt than what he has now with Devin Booker.

Distributing has never been a concern for Paul. His ability to pass his teammates open and find them at precisely the right time has been one of his greatest attributes during his career. What is alarming is the number of turnovers he has had in this series. Credit must be given to Holiday for his tenacious defense, but the decision-making and inability to control the ball in the open court have been particularly odd.

Paul had five turnovers in Game 4 and has turned it over 15 times over the course of the last three games. Just as Holiday and Khris Middleton have had bounce-back games for Milwaukee, the Suns desperately need Paul to have one on Saturday night.

After a dismal Game 3 where he scored just 10 points, Booker had a monster performance in Game 4 but his 42 points were still not enough. Had Paul done a better job of taking care of the ball and being the facilitator that he normally is, the Suns could have easily won that game and took control of the series. Paul admitted as much after the game, taking responsibility for the loss.

Going back home should provide the perfect atmosphere for Paul to shine. He dazzled with 32 points and 9 assists in Game 1 at home, then followed that up with 23 points and 8 assists in Game 2. In the two road games Paul is still averaging 14.5 points and 8 assists on 48 percent shooting but it is the turnovers that have proved to be costly. His three-point shooting has also been much better at home, hitting 7 of his 12 attempts while going just 1 of 6 from deep in Milwaukee.

Paul never averaged more than two turnovers in any series during these playoffs. He is averaging 4.3 heading into Saturday’s pivotal Game 5. Phoenix needs to have their sure-handed floor general at full strength in order to have their offense firing on all cylinders.

Paul’s handle looked messed up from the opening tip, and he could be seen clutching at his left hand throughout the game. Whether or not this is a new injury or a lingering issue, it is concerning. As good as Cameron Payne has been this year, Phoenix simply can’t afford to not have Paul out on the floor.

The Bucks easily won the turnover battle in Game 4 as Phoenix coughed it up 17 times compared to just five for Milwaukee. The Suns have to limit the transition points and force the Bucks to run their half-court offense. They stand a greater chance to limit Giannis Antetokounmpo in a half-court set than trying to stop him in transition. Milwaukee ranked 4th in the league in terms of fast-break points this season.

Perimeter players who handle the ball for most of the game will usually rack up a handful of turnovers but this pattern for Paul is extremely uncharacteristic. Even his efficiency has declined since the series began. His decision-making has been rather unusual as well, almost as though he is trying too hard to force passes that aren’t there.

Look for Paul to not only limit his turnovers going forward but also to be more of a scorer to ease the load on Booker. Phoenix is a much tougher team to defend when they have a well-balanced scoring attack. Paul scored 37 points to close out the Denver Nuggets, 41 points to close out the Clippers, and his 32 points in Game 1 of the Finals are clear indications that he can feast on his midrange game.

One thing that has changed from Game 1 is that Milwaukee is no longer letting Phoenix’s guards dictate the matchups they want. The matchups Paul was getting against Brook Lopez early in the series are no longer there. Without him being able to operate in space, the open passes that have been there in the past are absent now. Those passes are coming later and are somewhat rushed, leading to more steals for the Bucks. When coming off a screen, Paul is also being boxed by two lengthy defenders, giving the rest of their defense time to move and recover.

Paul’s shoulder injury in the first round was worrisome but he eventually got through it. He revealed after the Clippers series that he was playing with torn ligaments in his right hand. He likely will not blame any injuries while the series is still going on, but clearly, something is making him uncomfortable on the court, aside from Holiday’s defense.

It has taken 16 years for Paul to finally get to the big stage. Going out like this is not something that would sit well with him, but he knows what he has to do going forward. It is now a best-of-three series, and all of the pressure of the bright lights will be felt by everyone on the floor. Factoring in his experience and savvy skillset in tight moments, the odds are in his favor.

This is the 30th time in the history of the NBA Finals that the series has been tied 2-2. The winner of Game 5 has gone on to win 72% of the time (21-8) and the good news for Phoenix is that they will be playing at home. The Suns were 27-9 at home during the regular season and the Bucks were 20-16 on the road.

There are several factors that will decide the outcome of this series, but Paul’s ability to take care of the ball is crucial. If he can regain control of the ball, the Suns should be able to regain control of the series on Saturday night, putting them one victory away from their first-ever championship. It will also cement the legacy of the future Hall of Fame point guard.

Chad is a Basketball Insiders contributor based in Indianapolis.

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