NBA Finals 2021

The long, rocky road to Chris Paul's first-ever NBA Finals appearance

16 seasons. 12 playoff runs. Zero trips to the NBA Finals.

How is it that an all-time great point guard, who has done nothing but bring a winning culture to every franchise he's ever played for, could constantly come up short of the ultimate goal of competing for a championship?

It's been a long and bumpy road to this point for Chris Paul.

That road dates all the way back to 2008, when the 22-year-old burst onto the scene as a first-time All-Star and MVP candidate, looking to lead the New Orleans Hornets on a deep playoff run. Paul was unforgettable in his postseason debut, averaging 24.6 points, 12.0 assists, 5.6 rebounds and 2.0 steals per game while shooting 50.0 percent from the field in a Gentleman's Sweep over the Dallas Mavericks for his first-ever playoff series win.

The Hornets advanced to the Western Conference Semifinals, where Paul continued his stellar play to give his team a commanding 3-2 series lead over the San Antonio Spurs. Pinning the defending champions on the ropes, Paul was one win away from the Western Conference Finals in his first-ever playoff appearance. Then, the Spurs showed their championship poise and experience to overcome the series deficit, taking Game 6 in San Antonio before defeating the Hornets on their home floor in Game 7.

But with a coming out party like that from the young superstar point guard, he'd surely be back in that position again soon, this time ready to take the next step in the postseason, right? ... Right?

The very next season, in 2009, the Hornets fell in the first round to the Denver Nuggets. In 2010, Paul only appeared in 45 games because of mid-season knee surgery and New Orleans missed the playoffs. He again returned to the postseason in 2011, but the Hornets faced another first-round exit, this time by the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers.

During the lockout-extended 2011 offseason, it became inevitable that the All-Star guard entering his prime would be on the move, unlikely to re-sign in New Orleans long-term. Just days after the league vetoed a deal that would have sent him to join Kobe Bryant on the Lakers, Paul was traded to the LA Clippers to begin the next chapter in his career.

Joining forces with one of the best young talents in the league in Blake Griffin, that tandem led the Clippers to the playoffs in 2012. They took a 3-1 series lead over the Memphis Grizzlies but nearly surrendered it, needing seven games to advance to the Conference Semifinals. LA got swept by the Spurs in the next round, leaving Paul shy of his first-ever Conference Finals appearance yet again.

Turns out, that became a recurring theme during his stint with the Clippers.

In 2013, the Clippers went up 2-0 on the Grizzlies in the first round but Memphis got revenge for the year prior, winning four straight to bounce LA from the playoffs. In 2014, the Clippers defeated the Golden State Warriors in seven games before falling to the Oklahoma City Thunder in the semis.

2015 was the year that stung the most in LA, as Paul finally got past the Spurs, coming up clutch in Game 7 to advance his team to the next round, but not without suffering a left hamstring injury that caused him to miss the first two games of the next series. The Clippers still split Games 1 and 2 against the Houston Rockets and won the first two games upon Paul's return to the lineup, taking a 3-1 series lead.

One win away from the first Conference Finals appearance of his career, Paul and the Clippers couldn't get the job done, dropping three straight to come up short yet again.

The injury bug bit Paul again in 2016, as the star guard fractured a bone in his right hand during a 2-2 tied series against the Portland Trail Blazers, missing the next two games as the Clippers dropped both without Paul for a first-round exit. In 2017, LA held a 3-2 lead over the Utah Jazz but dropped Games 6 and 7 for another first-round exit.

That offseason, the Clippers sent Paul to the Rockets, where he pursued a title alongside championship-hungry James Harden. 2018 was the infamous playoff run where Houston cruised past the Minnesota Timberwolves and Utah Jazz as Paul finally reached his first Conference Finals. You know how the story goes from there - the Rockets took a 3-2 series lead with a chance to dethrone the Warriors, but Paul tweaked his left hamstring in the waning moments of Game 5.

Houston was forced to play Games 6 and 7 without its star guard, losing both as Golden State went on to win its third title in four seasons.

Certainly Paul's best shot to reach the NBA Finals for the first time in his career, the veteran almost seemed cursed in his quest for a championship.

The Rockets fell to the Warriors again in 2019 and the front office moved on from Paul, sending the injury-riddled star to the Thunder for former MVP Russell Westbrook.

Labeled as damaged goods, Paul proved all doubters wrong, carrying a young, inexperienced and overachieving Oklahoma City team to the postseason, taking his former Houston team to seven games in the first round. Even in a loss, Paul once again proved his ability to lead and make an impact, as the budding Phoenix Suns viewed him as the missing piece to a potentially successful core.

That brings us up to speed on the 2020-21 season, where the 16-year veteran was able to elevate a group of promising young talent and help the Suns snap their 10-year playoff drought. Going from just missing the playoffs in the NBA bubble to the second-best record in the NBA, Paul made all the difference in helping players like Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges maximize their potential.

But when the 36-year-old suffered a shoulder injury in the very first game of the playoffs - against LeBron James and the defending champion Lakers, no less - it seemed like it may be the same old song and dance. Paul was able to play through the injury without missing any other games, looking compromised at times early in the series. Would this be the next dark mark on his list of playoff "what ifs"?

The Suns went on to hand James the first first-round loss of his career, looking like the sharpest team in the league. Sweeping MVP Nikola Jokic and the Nuggets the following round confirmed that, but, of course, more bad luck came Paul's way.

The 11-time All-Star entered the league's health and safety protocols, forcing him to miss the start of his second-ever Conference Finals appearance. But with his opponent also short-handed, with two-time Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard out with a knee injury, the Suns still took care of business in Games 1 and 2 without their trusty floor general. Upon Paul's return, Phoenix dropped the first game with him back in the lineup before winning Game 4 in a rock fight fashion.

Taking a 3-1 lead in the series, Paul was quick to (playfully) opt out of a question from ESPN's Rachel Nichols addressing some of the star's playoff demons. "I don't wanna talk about 3-1 ... I don't have a lot of good experiences with that," he quipped before she could finish the question.

Just one win away from the Finals for the second time in his career, Nichols' question didn't come as a surprise. When he was asked if he could begin to envision the Finals, he candidly responded, "Not until the job is done. Not until the job is done. We can talk about all that then, but right now it's just laser focus."

"Three wins don't win the series, so right now we did what we came here to do, we wanted to get one of these, and now we got to stay focused and be ready to go back to our crowd," he said.

The Suns couldn't close it out at home, leaving the door cracked for the Clippers to potentially force a Game 7 if they could take care of business in Los Angeles, but Paul wasn't going to let another Finals opportunity slip away.

The 36-year-old put together a masterpiece to take Game 6 and punch his first-ever ticket to the NBA Finals, going for 41 points and eight assists with zero (!) turnovers, scoring 31 in the second half to slam the door shut and win the Western Conference.

Six first-round exits, four surrendered series leads and a handful of injury-bitten playoff runs later, the future Hall of Famer will finally get to compete for the ever-elusive Larry O'Brien Trophy on the NBA Finals stage.

Chris Paul is just four wins away from accomplishing one of the few remaining boxes left unchecked on his resume.

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