PHOENIX — He manipulates everything, from the clock to the opponent’s defensive coverages to the officials with some well-timed chicanery.
It’s fair to say the Dallas Mavericks fell apart in the final 12 minutes of a winnable Game 2 that would’ve given a young team so much momentum before heading home for a couple games.
But it’s more apt to say Chris Paul tore them apart every which way with yet another sterling fourth-quarter performance, his last as a 36-year-old.
A six-point lead turned to 10, then 15, then infinity as Paul used all his stones to power the Suns to a 2-0 Western Conference semifinal lead with a 129-109 win at Footprint Center. Fourteen of Paul’s 28 points came in the final quarter — all of them coming in the first six minutes.
He kept looking to the Dallas sideline, motioning to coach Jason Kidd, to others as his destruction almost appeared in slow motion. Faster defenders flew by him, but he out-quicked the leapers in rising up to his sweet spots for devastating twos.
Paul knew he had Dallas on the ropes, motioning for the “timeout” sign at the 8:05 mark of the fourth. Scoring or assisting on the first 19 points of the quarter, he closed the door — and let everyone know about it.
Backcourt mate Devin Booker called it a “Revenge Tour” for the Suns, who seem on a mission to avenge their Finals loss last summer to the Milwaukee Bucks.
And Paul is the unflinching, ornery general.
“Just into the game. Techs don’t need to be called or what not,” Paul said. “When you’re in the playoffs, both teams at it, getting into it and saying stuff. It’s all in the game.”
Of the four remaining point guards in the West, Paul is the most traditional — the one who can take the game plan from the whiteboard and implement it in real time, the one who can make adjustments on the fly and to this point, the one who can shift gears and morph into a different being when the time calls for it.
It’s also the perfect dichotomy to his former teammate, James Harden, who looks like a shell of himself, struggling through the discomfort of his body and new circumstances, seemingly unable to adjust.
When Paul split from Harden and Houston following the 2018-19 season, Harden was considered the safer bet by far in terms of longevity. Paul’s days as the premier speedy, athletic and quick-twitched floor leader were in question.
But time has proven Paul is better at figuring things out — first in Oklahoma City for a stretch and now in Phoenix as a quick-change artist. No longer the physical marvel, he dominates through preparation and a maniacal competitiveness that isn’t often seen for someone his age.
In a way, he’s taken a cue from Kidd. Kidd went from a one-man pressure cooker in his prime to uber-cerebral, pick-your-spots point guard during his later years. He hit key shots in the 2011 playoff run for Dallas, even though he wasn’t the best version of himself.
It can be argued Paul is close enough to his best self, even though he’ll turn 37 on Friday — the day of Game 3. In the clincher of the Suns’ first-round series against New Orleans last Friday night, Paul shot a record 14 for 14.
“He has a matchup he likes and you can hear the [opposing bench] yell, ‘Send him left.’ You can try whatever you want to do, but he has a rebuttal move for you at every turn,” Booker said. “Tough matchup.”
Playing with an edge often can manifest itself in ways that can’t be excused but at least understood in the way of ruthless competitiveness, while knowing chances at that gold ball dwindle with every passing June.
“I’d love to sit here and tell you I knew why or how he does it,” Suns coach Monty Williams said. “I just think, I don’t know if our guys expect it, but I know they’re grateful for it. And you can kind of see when he starts going. Everybody else does follow suit.”
When the Suns are at their most dangerous, Paul is the big joker. Booker jokes about watching Paul when he was barely past toddlerhood, but he’s enveloped Paul’s sense of timing and made it his own.
“Just the way he manipulates it [the game], honestly,” Booker said. “I just always admired the way he does that. He’s in control at all times, he’s two, three steps ahead of whatever the other team is doing. And the leadership, that can never go unnoticed when you’re talking about this man. The way he holds people accountable, the will to win.”
Booker scored a quick eight points in less than two minutes when the Suns trailed by two at the half, a portion of his team-high 30 points along with four rebounds and four assists. To a man, they keep coy on their strategy concerning Luka Doncic, who had another big game with 35 points on 15 of 22 shooting.
But it’s clear they want to wear him down with multiple defenders, and in a way, have removed ego from the equation.
“Just win the game,” Williams said, referencing that his team doesn’t care how much Doncic scores so long as the result is to their satisfaction.
Paul and Booker shared a podium in the postgame, only looking at each other and smiling when a question came their way about Doncic and targeting him defensively.
“They’re trying to go at matchups they like, and we’re doing the same thing,” Booker said. “Tough matchup to guard, but he deserves it.”
Doncic almost has no options, with only Reggie Bullock a productive teammate. Some suffer from lack of opportunity while other times, Doncic can be his own worst enemy with seven turnovers.
Jalen Brunson again struggled with Phoenix’s length (3 of 12 shooting) and was a late victim of Paul hounding him to draw an offensive foul during the fourth-quarter run.
Phoenix is a much more complete team, going to its backup-backup big man Bismack Biyombo when Deandre Ayton and JaVale McGee were in deep foul trouble. The December pickup made all four of his field goals in 18 minutes, helping keep Phoenix afloat until Paul was ready to appear in his comfortable role.
As the closer.