Chris Paul has finally done it.
The 12-year veteran has played on three teams, been to the playoffs every single season since he was 22, and now he’s going to the Western Conference Finals for the first time in his career after the Houston Rockets beat the Utah Jazz on Tuesday night, 112-102.
Paul was spectacular, scoring 41 points, dishing 10 assists with seven rebounds, acting as the catalyst for the Rockets the entire game. James Harden, who did score 18 points but seemed to go through an odd slump in the first half, wasn’t the star Houston needed in the closing Game 5. Instead it was the wily veteran, who gave us glimpses of the Paul we fell in love with early in his career in New Orleans.
There was no ticky tack gamesmanship from Paul, either. This was not a performance marred by dribbling backwards into trailing defenders to draw fouls, or sneaky pulls just out of view of the official on the arm of a rising rebounder for a key board. No, this was CP3 at his finest; snaking the pick-and-roll, dominating from midrange, and in true form for this season, firing away from 3-point range.
It was, without a doubt, a classic.
The first half was largely dominated by the Rockets, although as they have all series Utah’s defensive resiliency helped them go on runs to sustain their chance of avoiding elimination. Alec Burks was the most impressive player for the Jazz, scoring 12 points in 14 minutes off the bench in the first half alone.
The Jazz struggled from the 3-point line in the first two periods as Houston turned up the defensive intensity. For much of the second quarter the Rockets seemed off-kilter, although you wouldn’t know it by the 33 points they racked up. A late push, including a pair of Chris Paul 3-pointers, helped Houston finish the half on an 11-3 run to take a 54-46 lead into the break.
Utah battled back in the third quarter, outscoring the Rockets by 11 as Donovan Mitchell lit a fire under his squad. The Jazz rookie had 22 points in the third period alone, although Houston’s support from Paul allowed them to keep things close as Utah took a lead into the final quarter.
Disappointingly for the Jazz, Mitchell’s night was cut short thanks to a left knee injury. With the Rockets surging and Mitchell trying to fight them off, Harden picked the rookie’s pocket with 7:13 to go in the fourth. Mitchell appeared to bang knees with Harden on the play, and he had to leave the game for x-rays. He did not return.
Meanwhile, Paul was at the center of the Houston offense to close the game. A banked 3-pointer with 2:30 left and the shot clock winding down was the dagger in the heart of the Jazz. Paul then drove the dagger into the bone with 35 seconds left, passing out of a double team to find a wide-open PJ Tucker in the corner for a three that gave the Rockets a 10-point lead.
Houston moves on to the Western Conference Finals, and Utah will go home with their heads held high. The Jazz gave the best team in the West a run for their money, and the final scores tell a tale of stratification a championship-caliber team and a playoff contender. But Utah played team ball, and Mitchell is an all-out baller.
Meanwhile, the Rockets get to see if they can stack up against the best when it matters most. The Golden State Warriors will presumably be their opponent in the next round once they close out the New Orleans Pelicans, and that’s the matchup we’ve been waiting all season to see.
Now that Paul has finally broken through after years of trying, we have to wonder whether a weight will be lifted from his shoulders? He certainly seemed ready to will his team to victory, and the Rockets are going to need every weapon they have to advance to the NBA Finals.