Chris Paul can’t change the past, but present might be in his hands

Suns guard Chris Paul is closely defended by Clippers forward Paul George during Game 3.
Suns guard Chris Paul is carefully safeguarded by Clippers forward Paul George throughout Video Game 3 of the Western Conference finals Thursday night at Staples Center. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

The white in Chris Paul’s big, brown eyes had reddened, tears resting in the corners. Basketball had broken his heart — a loss so inconceivable that he struggled to explain how it just happened.

He slumped forward and his voice cracked.

The Clippers had just blown an unthinkable lead — up seven points with 50 seconds left in a crucial Video Game 5 against Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder. Had they won, the Clippers probably were headed to the Western Conference finals. Maybe even to the NBA Finals. After they lost, they crumbled, the weight from the stunning defeat coupled with the stress from the early days of Donald Sterling scandal way too much to handle.

In the collapse, Paul committed an almost unbelievable backcourt turnover, fouled a three-point shooter and failed to attempt a game-tying shot. It was a combination of bad luck, an unfriendly whistle and just enough panic that left him in ruins inside that Oklahoma City interview room while the cameras snapped and the reporters scribbled on their notepads.

“It’s me,” Paul said that day. “Everything that happened at the end is on me.”

It’s been more than seven years since then, and Paul’s relationship with “the end” is every bit as rocky. Injuries have ended multiple playoff rounds. A huge contract and the constant addition of mileage have seen him play for three teams over the last three seasons.

When things have gone well, like this season in Phoenix, some sort of calamity always seems ready to pounce, whether it was a shoulder injury minutes into the first round of the playoffs or a positive COVID test right after the Suns swept their way into the Western Conference finals.

Progress isn’t always measured by championship rings, though, and Thursday night at Staples Center, Paul’s eyes and voice were both clear after his first night back when he simply brushed off what he had actually simply experienced.

“S— happens. And it did,” he said of testing positive. “I’m here now. So I’m cool.”

That’s a long way from shouldering all the blame after a loss to Oklahoma City in 2014. Or from the collapse after a hamstring injury in the 2015 playoffs. Or from a broken hand in the 2016 postseason. Or a hamstring injury in the 2018 Western Conference finals.

The Suns' Chris Paul drives past the Clippers' Terance Mann after getting a screen from Deandre Ayton in Game 3.

The Suns’ Chris Paul drives past the Clippers’ Terance Mann after getting a screen from Deandre Ayton in Game 3 on Thursday night. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

It’s a career that’s been defined as much by the late-season twists as much as it has been by the on-court play, where Paul is still a master at controlling the pace and rhythm of a game, simply like he’s an expert at side-stepping to the right elbow for a jumper that’s been, and is, the signature shot in his bag.

But those strains and breaks, those meltdowns and disappointments, they force perspective into your life whether you want it or not. And it’s helped Paul deal with this latest bout of concern.

“Absolutely, absolutely. Things could be a lot worse,” he stated after playing nearly 39 minutes in the Suns’ loss Thursday. “Like I said, I’m here now, got an unbelievable team in Phoenix, and I’ve got the best support system you could absolutely have. So ain’t nobody over here feeling sorry. Whatever happened is in the past, and you move on.”

That’s one of the things most interesting about Paul’s season with the Suns — one in which he finished fifth in MVP voting after leading Phoenix to a 51-21 regular-season record before getting the Suns back to the conference finals for the first time since 2010 — is how much of it is tied to the past.

No player legitimized the Clippers around the NBA more than Paul, a superstar who chose to re-sign with the team in free agency, assuring the organization a place as a credible threat to land top free agents.

There’s the growth from past heartbreak and proper perspective. And there’s familiarity surrounding him as he tries to reach his very first NBA Finals.

Remember that bleary-eyed Paul after losing to Oklahoma City? Current Clippers coach Tyronn Lue was on the bench as one of Doc Rivers’ assistants.

“His will to win and to do whatever it takes to win, his competitive nature,” Lue said when asked about working with Paul. “I mean, every single play, no plays off for him, and that’s just who he is. He’s a complete winner. He was that way when I met him. When I first came here, I just knew he was a winner right away.”

Paul’s work with young players last season in Oklahoma City, where he made the most of being surprisingly dealt from the Rockets by leading the Thunder to the postseason, has certainly carried over in how he has influenced Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges with the Suns.

Then there’s Monty Williams, the man who coached Paul in his last season in New Orleans before he was traded to the Clippers. Paul has been a longtime admirer, with so much transpiring in the decade between partnerships.

Williams dealt with unthinkable tragedy, his wife Ingrid killed in a car accident in 2016. Paul attended her funeral, where Williams’ eulogy inspired attendees with his strength and poise in the face of sadness.

“The man knows how to encounter adversity,” Ayton said of Williams earlier this series. “I don’t know how, but he just knows.”

Reunited with Paul this season after the Suns landed him in a trade with the Thunder, the duo have actually shepherded the Suns’ rebirth, putting them two wins away from the team’s first NBA Finals since 1993.

“I mean, he’s had so many experiences. He’s had gratification, he’s had hurt, he’s had a lot of stuff happen since — I’ve had the same thing,” Williams said. “I think when you have those kinds of experiences and as you get older, you relish it more. As much as he lifts and changed his diet and all that, you know your window is closing every second, and you relish all of it.”

That doesn’t mean Paul is comfortable with losing — that’ll never be the case. He also is willing to do whatever it takes physically or mentally to give himself and his team a better chance to win.

Clippers-Suns finals schedule

Clippers-Suns finals schedule (Tim Hubbard / Los Angeles Times)

But time and experience have actually put him in the right spot at the right time — his past surrounding him — as he tries to push ahead into new territory.

“It’s just pretty cool to be with him again,” Williams stated. “And hopefully we can continue this thing.”

This story initially appeared in Los Angeles Times.

Jobber Wiki author Frank Long contributed to this report.