Chris Paul plans.
He planned when he forced a trade out of New Orleans a decade ago. He planned when he creatively leveraged a contract option to get himself to Houston. He planned when he helped change an arcane age rule in the collective bargaining agreement that enabled him the chance to earn tens of millions in extra salary.
Even in the moments after Paul’s Phoenix Suns finished a 125-98 thrashing of the Denver Nuggets to take a 2-0 series lead, Paul was planning. In the locker room, knowing the Nuggets twice came back last season from 3-1 deficits, he was getting his teammates to think about Game 3 on Friday night in Denver. Paul told stories of going up 2-0 against the San Antonio Spurs in 2008 while with New Orleans, only to eventually lose in seven games.
But even on his most rosy drawing board, he probably couldn’t have seen the situation that is unfolding.
The Suns have won five straight playoff games and, with each victory, appear to be getting stronger. His long-time adversaries are falling off the board. Stephen Curry is home. LeBron James is home. Injuries are mounting across the league and this time the one Paul had in the playoffs, his shoulder stinger that almost wrecked this run before it started, seems to be healed.
The Suns are healthy and playing brilliantly as a group. In both games of the second round, five players have scored in double figures.
People around the league are starting to talk about how this might be Paul’s best shot ever at a Finals. It might be premature to say that considering his Houston Rockets team was up 3-2 on the Golden State Warriors in the conference finals before a hamstring pull sidelined him three years ago.
But after the routine disappointments with the LA Clippers and the letdowns and near misses in Houston, this rising Suns streak feels like the most unexpected playoff situation of Paul’s career.
“I’m telling you,” Paul said after scoring 17 points with 15 assists and no turnovers in Game 2. “I really haven’t been on a team quite like this one.”
Working with the Oklahoma City Thunder, Paul had several hopes when picking a trade destination last offseason. He wanted to be close to his family in Los Angeles, be in good weather and have a shot at playing next to a star; he would have that in Devin Booker. Represented by the same agency, Booker was desperate to get some help. “I’m done with not making the playoffs,” Booker said three years ago after a 21-61 season. “I’m serious.”
After going a perfect 8-0 in Orlando to narrowly miss the playoffs in 2020, the Suns were upwardly mobile — but they were not seen as real contenders. Different people in their fanbase and organization may have jumped to that conclusion as this special season unfolded, but now that it’s actually happening, Paul is basking in the position he’s found himself in.
Booker has been the star he believed in, his 47-point closeout game to knock out the champion Lakers being the gem so far. Paul can’t believe how effective his teammates are at shooting, with Jae Crowder, Mikal Bridges, Dario Saric, Cam Johnson and Cameron Payne lighting up the opposition from outside.
Paul, who was the centerpiece of Lob City with the Clippers and on an offensive juggernaut in Houston, says he’s never seen anything like it.
“Everybody shoots,” Paul said. “You don’t have to try to find a certain guy. Everybody [on our team] are knock down shooters.”
Chris Paul connects with Deandre Ayton for a roaring two-handed slam.
During the five-game winning streak Paul has 53 assists and four turnovers. That’s 53-4. With his shoulder better — he couldn’t even attempt long shots for several games in the last round — he’s made 14-of-24 shots and 4-of-5 3-pointers in this series. His two 3s Wednesday were fourth-quarter daggers.
“He manages games better than anybody I’ve ever been around,” Suns coach Monty Williams said. “It’s not something I take for granted, it’s not something our team takes for granted.”
It is dangerous to think this fairy tale will continue, Paul’s playoff career is one long string of unexpected setbacks. But it’s also human nature to watch him, at age 36, and wonder whether there is some bit of karma heading his direction.
Outwardly Paul will not allow it, he has literally done dozens of commercials about insurance covering unexpected disasters. But inwardly he probably can see the road ahead and start to feel some warmth.
“We’re cool,” Paul said. “We have guys who understand the moment.”
New Orleans Pelicans officially name Willie Green as next head coach
The New Orleans Pelicans officially named Willie Green as their next head coach Thursday.
Green is coming off a stint as an assistant with the Phoenix Suns, who just made a run to the NBA Finals, which delayed the timing of the Pelicans’ announcement.
“After an extensive and collaborative search, Willie stood out among an impressive group of candidates as the best person to lead our team moving forward,” Pelicans governor Gayle Benson said in a statement. “We are very happy to welcome Willie as our new head coach and we look forward to working with him to guide our team on the court as we work towards bringing a championship to New Orleans.”
Pelicans executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin called Green, a 12-year NBA veterans one of the “most respected assistant coaches in the NBA.”
“He brings a vast amount of basketball knowledge and experience to our team as both a coach and former player, along with exceptional leadership qualities and an innate ability to connect with players, staff and fans alike,” Griffin said in a statement.
Green spent three seasons as an assistant with the Golden State Warriors before joining Phoenix.
“I want to thank Mrs. Benson, David Griffin, and the entire Pelicans organization for having faith in me to lead this talented group of players moving forward,” Green said. “It’s a blessing and an honor to get this opportunity in a special place like New Orleans. I look forward to getting to work and immersing myself and my family into the local community.”
As a player, Green made the playoffs in seven of his 12 seasons including the lone year in New Orleans (2010-11), one of just seven playoff trips the team has made in franchise history.
That season, Green made it on a team coached by Monty Williams and led by point guard Chris Paul. Now the Pelicans are hiring Green away from a Suns team led by Williams and Paul.
Green replaces Stan Van Gundy, who mutually agreed to leave the Pelicans after just one season. The Pelicans went 31-41 last season, a disappointing result after the season started with playoff aspirations. In the end, New Orleans didn’t even make the Western Conference play-in.
At 39, Green becomes the third-youngest coach in the NBA behind Oklahoma City’s Mark Daigneault and Memphis’ Taylor Jenkins.
Thousands turn out for Milwaukee Bucks championship parade
MILWAUKEE — Thousands of fans lined downtown Milwaukee streets on Thursday to catch a glimpse of their beloved Bucks in a parade to celebrate the city’s first NBA championship in half a century.
Six police officers on horseback clopped past cheering fans at the head of a procession that included a hook-and-ladder fire truck, occasionally blaring its horn, and open-air buses and flatbed trucks carrying Bucks stars, including Finals MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jrue Holiday, and the trophy they captured Tuesday night with a Game 6 victory over the Phoenix Suns.
Fans could be heard chanting, “Bucks in 6,” an odd but beloved rallying cry with roots in a former Bucks player’s fruitless prediction in 2013 that the team would take down the playoffs’ top seed at the time.
Antetokounmpo held his son, 1-year-old Liam, atop a bus as fans along the route chanted “MVP!” Later, he shot a basketball into the crowd.
“Milwaukee, we did it, baby! We did it!” Antetokounmpo said to a cheering crowd in Deer District, the area outside the Bucks’ Fiserv Forum. “This is our city, this is our city. Man, we did it! Unbelievable.”
Neil and Rachana Bhatia, both 34 and from suburban Waukesha, brought 1-month-old son Zain to Deer District, saying they wanted to give Zain an early taste of being a Bucks fan.
Neil Bhatia called winning the title “surreal.”
“It unifies the city and puts the city on a global stage,” he said. “It’s great for the city and the state. It’s just bringing everybody together to celebrate something that hasn’t happened in 50 years.”
Said longtime Bucks fan and Milwaukee native Dameon Ellzey: “In my neighborhood, you could hear everybody on their porches screaming. Black, white, Asian. In a city like Milwaukee, that’s big.”
Milwaukee has long ranked among the most segregated cities in America. Team president Peter Feigin called it “the most segregated, racist place” he had ever experienced, remarks he later softened. As the Bucks drove toward a championship this year, some people were cheered by the diversity of the massive crowds that gathered in Deer District to watch the Bucks on big TV screens.
The team’s ascendance has invigorated a Midwestern city far from the NBA’s more cosmopolitan venues like Los Angeles, Boston or Miami — cities that have traditionally found it easier to attract the game’s top players. One reason fans have embraced Antetokounmpo is his loyalty to the team that drafted him eight years ago when he was 18.
Police estimated 100,000 people jammed Deer District for Tuesday night’s Game 6. Though the coronavirus pandemic has lessened compared to a year ago, the level of cases in both Wisconsin and Milwaukee County still is rated by the state as high, with daily new cases in the county roughly tripling over the past two weeks to 80 per day.
City health officials noted Thursday that announcements of the parade had urged that unvaccinated people wear masks. Few were visible among fans on the parade route or outside the arena. The city health department said its contact tracing team would closely monitor the event.
Julie Willems Van Dijk, deputy secretary of the state Department of Health Services, predicted the two large gatherings would lead to more COVID-19 cases.
“We are concerned,” she said. “We know people wanted to be jubilant and celebrate, but we know half the state is fully vaccinated and half the state is not and I assume the same is true for people in the Deer District and the arena. And I didn’t see half the crowd masked.”
Bill Russell to auction most of his prized NBA memorabilia
BOSTON — The most decorated man in NBA history will be giving the public a chance to own some of the prized memorabilia from his Hall of Fame career.
Bill Russell announced Thursday he is offering hundreds of items from his personal collection, including trophies, rings, basketballs, jerseys, letters, photos and other keepsakes. The items span his 13-year career as a player and coach for the Boston Celtics and also feature mementos chronicling his work during the civil rights movement and beyond.
Highlights of the trove include the first (1957) and last (1969) of the NBA-record 11 championship rings he won in Boston, four of his five NBA Most Valuable Player trophies and his 1956 U.S. men’s basketball Olympic gold medal.
“There are a few pictures I’ll keep for myself, but the rest I will share with the world,” Russell said in a video statement.
The sale will be conducted by Hunt Auctions, which has overseen the auctions of such sports greats as Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Roberto Clemente, Gale Sayers and Johnny Unitas.
The auction is tentatively scheduled for Boston this fall or winter.
Russell said one reason he decided to sell the items was to provide a portion of the proceeds for the Boston-based nonprofit Mentor, which he co-founded more than three decades ago. The group’s aim is to strengthen mentoring relationships.
An additional donation will be made to Boston Celtics United for Social Justice, which focuses on addressing racial and social inequities in the Boston area.
Hunt Auctions president Dave Hunt said his group is honored to handle Russell’s collection.
“There’s not a lot of folks at Bill Russell’s level. The air gets real thin,” Hunt said. “There’s just certain names of certain players that just transcend the sport, that changed the sport.”
It is unclear how much any one of Russell’s items will bring, but similar auctions overseen by Hunt have delivered big numbers. The most notable was in 2019 when a rare game-worn Babe Ruth Yankees road jersey dating to 1928-30 sold for $5.64 million. The auctioneer said that broke the record for the most expensive piece of sports memorabilia sold.
Hunt noted that among the items Russell is keeping is the Presidential Medal of Freedom given to him in 2011 by Barack Obama.
There’s also the letter Jackie Robinson wrote to Russell after Russell and other Black Celtics players boycotted a game in Lexington, Kentucky, after being denied service at a hotel.
“It’s just an amazing piece and it’s very difficult to put a monetary value on an item like that,” Hunt said. “But what better way for this to be shared than directly from the person who participated, and doing good as well as a result of that offering.”
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