The Milwaukee Bucks tied the 2021 NBA Finals at 2-2 with two consecutive wins at the Fiserv Forum. Giannis Antetokounmpo has been dominant throughout the series and Khris Middleton was phenomenal for the Bucks in Game 4 with a timely 40-point explosion.
Devin Booker, despite being hampered by foul trouble, dueled Middleton all night long and almost single-handedly won the game for them with his 42 points. The two-time All-Star carried Phoenix and put his full offensive arsenal on display in a scintillating 18-point third quarter, but when he needed help from his veteran backcourt partner, Chris Paul was unable to answer the call.
Paul was largely ineffective and uncharacteristically sloppy in his 36 minutes for the Suns in Game 4, coming up with just 10 points and seven assists while turning it over five times.
Phoenix led by six points when Booker retreated to the bench after picking up his fifth foul early in the fourth quarter. It was the perfect opportunity for Paul to salvage his evening. Instead, the Suns’ offense stalled with Booker on the sidelines as Paul made just one of three shots he attempted in that span while failing to get the team into a consistent rhythm.
Milwaukee slowly built momentum and though they still trailed by five when Booker returned with about six minutes remaining in the game, they had already picked up enough steam. Phoenix slowly lost their grasp on the lead and the Bucks continued to inch closer before finally stealing the lead with less than two minutes left off a Middleton jumper.
Paul had one last chance to redeem himself with the Suns down by just two points with slightly over 30 seconds to go. He engaged in a pick-and-roll with DeAndre Ayton which freed him from the cudgels of Jrue Holiday, but Antetokounmpo switched on to him and Paul lost control of the ball. The Bucks quickly raced out in transition and Middleton made a lay-up that gave them a four-point lead to seal the game.
That costly mistake was Paul’s fifth and final one of the evening. The 16-year veteran has now committed 15 turnovers over the past three NBA Finals games versus the Bucks. Over the first three rounds of these playoffs, he exceeded three or more turnovers in a game just twice and even had three games with zero. Paul is averaging just 2.6 turnovers in his 127 career playoff appearances while his per game numbers in this year’s postseason are even lower at 2.2.
He is still averaging 8.3 assists per game in the NBA Finals, but his scoring has markedly declined by the game. Paul was a force in the series opener, dropping 32 points on 19 shots coupled with nine assists, then he followed it up with 23 in Game 2 as the Suns took a 2-0 lead.
The downward trend continued in Game 3, albeit slightly, when his total dipped to 19 points in the Bucks’ 20-point victory. He then hit a new low with his 10-point Game 4 dud which was padded by a meaningless lay-up before the final buzzer.
Paul’s signature midrange jumpers and floaters were coming up short which made some wonder if it was more than Holiday’s defense that was bothering him in Game 4.
Back in Game 1, Paul hurt his left hand after it got caught up in Bucks forward Bobby Portis’ shorts while driving to the basket in the third quarter.
After the incident, the Suns’ trainers wrapped it up and Paul finished the contest, even denying that the injury even existed in the postgame interview. However, the decline in his quality of play since then is enough of a hint that it may be bothering him more than he would like to admit.
Paul has already had an eventful postseason with regards to injuries even prior to the NBA Finals.
He hurt his shoulder in the first round against the Los Angeles Lakers then after winning the Western Conference Finals versus the Los Angeles Clippers, he declared that he had been playing with partially torn ligaments in his right hand. A few days before that announcement, Paul also had to enter the league’s COVID-19 protocols which forced him to miss the first two games with the Clippers.
Now just two wins away from his first-ever NBA championship, Paul has understandably tried his best to remain on the floor for the Suns. He, more than anyone else on the court, knows how rare this opportunity to win a title is.
Beyond his typical on-court production, Paul gives this youthful Suns team invaluable leadership and wisdom that has helped elevate them from playoff outsiders to an NBA Finalist in just one season. If his injuries are catching up to his ageing body though, him playing heavy minutes might be hurting more than helping the Suns now.
Back-up point guard Cameron Payne excelled in the two games that Paul missed versus the Clippers, highlighted by a 29-point Game 2 in the Western Conference Finals. His numbers since returning to the bench have been unspectacular yet solid, but giving the quick-footed guard more responsibilities in lieu of the struggling Paul may give the Suns the boost that they need to close in on the championship.
The Suns would not have made it to this point without Paul, but if he continues to play the way that he did in Game 4, head coach Monty Williams might want to rethink his approach with his grizzled floor general. After all, an opportunity to win the NBA Championship only comes so often.