Editor’s note (June 16, 2021, 10:20 a.m.): Chris Paul has been placed in the NBA’s COVID-19 protocols, and his status for the Western Conference finals is uncertain.
This run to the Western Conference finals for the Phoenix Suns has been a collective effort. Each of their five starters is averaging double-figure points per game during the playoffs, along with their backup point guard. The team’s 22-year-old center, Deandre Ayton, has done battle with both Anthony Davis and Nikola Jokić and not only lived to tell about it but thrived as a two-way presence. Free-agent signing Jae Crowder has rebounded from a horrendous start.1 Third-year wing Mikal Bridges defended LeBron James in the first round and Michael Porter Jr. in the second, forcing each of them into tougher shots than they’re used to. The bench forwards have all proven valuable at one time or another.
But in the end, the Suns are where they are largely because of the play of their star backcourt.
Devin Booker averaged 27.9 points, 6.8 rebounds and 4.8 assists per game through those first two rounds, connecting on 53.7 percent of his 2-point shots, 37.7 percent of his threes and 91.7 percent of his 7.2 free-throw attempts per game. Those shooting figures have been matched by a 20-point-per-game playoff scorer only four times in league history:2 Larry Bird in 1986, Kawhi Leonard in 2017, Steve Nash in 2005 … and Booker’s back-court mate, Chris Paul, back in 2015.
Paul has put together a vintage CP3 playoff run so far, rebounding from the scary-looking shoulder injury he sustained during Game 1 of the Lakers series to average 15.7 points, 4.1 rebounds, 8.7 assists and 1.2 steals in 31.2 minutes a night, with 51-44-91 shooting splits. He had two separate performances against the Nuggets that could best be described as masterpieces: His 17-point, 15-assist, zero-turnover Game 2, which gave him as many playoff games with 15-plus points, 15-plus assists and zero turnovers (three) as every other player in the history of the league combined; and his 37-point, seven-assist, 70-plus-percent shooting (14 of 19) display in Game 4, something that has been done only 18 times in playoff history.
Star backcourts propelling their teams in the playoffs are nothing new. One doesn’t have to look much further than the Golden State Warriors of recent vintage to see that. But star backcourts with an age gap as large as that of Paul and Booker’s are exceedingly rare. Paul turned 36 in May but is in his age-35 season,3 which makes him 11 years older than the 24-year-old Booker.
The 2020-21 Suns are now the 85th team to make the conference finals this century. Among those 85 teams, the Suns’ 11-year age difference in their starting backcourt is tied for the fifth-largest. Typically, teams with such a wide age disparity in their backcourt have had either a young star and a caretaker, or an older star and a precocious neophyte. That’s not the case for the Suns. Among the 11 conference finals teams with double-digit age differences in their starting backcourts, the 2020-21 Suns are the only one with All-Stars at both positions in the season the team made the conference finals.
Phoenix has a huge backcourt age gap
NBA conference finals teams since 2000 with the largest age gaps between their starting guards
|Older guard||Younger guard|
|2000||Lakers*||Ron Harper||36||Kobe Bryant||21||15|
|2004||Pacers||Reggie Miller||38||Jamaal Tinsley||25||13|
|2015||Rockets||Jason Terry||37||James Harden||25||12|
|2001||Spurs||Terry Porter||37||Antonio Daniels||25||12|
|2021||Suns||Chris Paul||35||Devin Booker||24||11|
|2008||Celtics*||Ray Allen||32||Rajon Rondo||21||11|
|2010||Celtics||Ray Allen||34||Rajon Rondo||23||11|
|2012||Celtics||Ray Allen||36||Rajon Rondo||25||11|
|2004||Lakers||Gary Payton||35||Kobe Bryant||25||10|
|2004||Wolves||Sam Cassell||34||Trenton Hassell||24||10|
|2007||Jazz||Derek Fisher||32||Deron Williams||22||10|
Given how well Booker has played, it’s easy to forget that this is actually his maiden postseason voyage. The 10 playoff games he’s played so far this year are the only 10 he’s played in his career. The 279 points he scored, meanwhile, are 12th-most in NBA history for players in their first 10 postseason games, sandwiched between Earl Monroe’s 277 and Allen Iverson’s 281. The only other players to score 275 or more are either already in the Hall of Fame (Michael Jordan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, Bob McAdoo, Rick Barry, Oscar Robertson, George Mikan, Iverson, Monroe and Bernard King), definitely going there (LeBron James) or well on their way (Luka Dončić and Anthony Davis).
And it’s not like Booker has only been scoring: He has at least six rebounds in seven of 10 games, and at least four assists in seven of 10 as well. He’s become only the 13th player to average at least 27 points, six rebounds and four assists across at least 10 playoff games at age-24 or younger, and he’s done it in style: 34-7-8 in his playoff debut; 47 points, 11 rebounds and eight threes in the Game 6 first-round clincher; 34 more points and 11 more boards in Game 4 against the Nuggets. Even during the three-game stretch in the first round when he didn’t shoot well (he went 18 of 50 from the field in Games 2 through 4), Booker still managed to collect 12 boards and dish 14 assists.
He’s come a long way from the player many derided as an empty-stats guy earlier in his career. Booker has also willingly ceded primary control of the offense to Paul, while still finding ways to impact the game at a similar level. His counting numbers might be down, but he’s been as good or better than ever.
Paul, meanwhile, looks no worse for the wear despite his advancing age. He’s about to become just the 11th guard since 2000 to start in the conference finals at 35 or older, and he’s putting together one of the best 35-or-older postseason runs on record. His 8.7 assists per game ranks seventh among that group of players, despite being held down by the injury-reduced minute load he carried in Round 1 as well as multiple blowout victories that limited his playing time. Had Paul been on the court for his career-playoff-average 37.3 minutes per game, he’d likely be averaging double-digit assists at the moment.
Just as Booker is not merely scoring, Paul is not merely diming. The 37 points he scored in Game 4 against the Nuggets were the second-most of his playoff career, and his 25.5 points per game made it the highest-scoring series of his career.
Paul dominated the Nuggets by torching them from what for most players is the most inefficient area of the floor, but for Paul is his sweet spot: the midrange. As Paul noted in his post-Game 4 interview with TNT’s Chris Haynes, the popularization of the “drop” style of pick-and-roll defense in recent seasons led him to perfecting the shot. And perfect it he has, especially from the right elbow and off the dribble. Paul nailed — count ’em — 23 midrange shots off of three or more dribbles in the second round, per Second Spectrum, tied for the most any player has made in a single series during the player-tracking era.4
Paul had previously made 22 such shots in a single series, back in 2017 against the Utah Jazz. Among the four other instances of a player hitting 22 or more such shots in a given series is Dončić against the Clippers in the first round of this year’s playoffs. That gives you an idea of just how valuable this weapon could potentially be in the next round, given that those same Jazz are one of two potential conference finals opponents for these Suns, and the Clippers are the other.
Paul also isn’t the only midrange maestro in the backcourt. His 2020-21 season ranked fifth among the 93 player-seasons with 400 or more midrange shots in Second Spectrum’s quantified Shooter Impact metric,5 while Booker’s 2020-21 campaign ranked seventh on the same list.
Even if the Suns’ future opponent wanted to take away Paul’s midrange game, it likely wouldn’t be advisable. There have been few players in league history better at manipulating every inch of the court, or at using what the defense wants him to do against it. Even at his age, CP3 is still a masterful orchestrator, pulling defenders this way and that with a shoulder-shrug here, a head nod there or a momentary flick of his eyes in one direction or another. In Booker, after all these years, Paul has finally found his ideal backcourt partner: a sweet-shooting off-guard with great size, high-level movement skills, a feathery touch, lead-ball-handler-level vision and both the awareness and willingness to know when to take the reins of the offense and when to let them go.
CORRECTION (June 16, 2021, 11:35 a.m.): The table in an earlier version of this article listed incorrect ages for Rajon Rondo and Ray Allen in 2008 and 2012. Rondo was 21 in 2008 and 25 in 2012; Allen was 32 in 2008 and 36 in 2012.
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