By Matt Citak
Heading into the 2017-18 season, there were not many ways one could criticize the career of Chris Paul.
The recently turned 33-year-old was the fourth overall selection of the 2005 NBA Draft. In his rookie season, Paul averaged 16.1 points, 7.8 assists, 5.1 rebounds and 2.2 steals per game. His performance earned him the 2006 NBA Rookie of the Year Award, as well as a spot on the NBA All-Rookie Team.
This was an amazing way to start a career. But for Paul, things would only go up from there.
Now playing in his 13th season, the veteran point guard has put together quite an impressive resume over the years.
9x NBA All-Star. 4x All-NBA First Team. 3x All-NBA Second Team. 1x All-NBA Third Team. 7x NBA All-Defensive First Team. 2x NBA All-Defensive Second Team. 4x NBA assists leader. 6x NBA steals leader. Not to mention career averages of 18.6 points, 9.8 assists, 4.5 rebounds, and 2.3 steals per game, with a career-shooting percentage of 47.2 percent.
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There’s no denying that Paul will one day be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. The former Wake Forest Demon Deacon has proved to be not only one of the best point guards in the NBA over the last 13 years, but also one of the greatest all-around players during that span.
For as great as Paul has been since taking the NBA by storm in 2005, all of his accomplishments have been on the personal side of the game.
The point guard had made four trips to the second round of the playoffs prior to this season, once with the New Orleans Hornets and three times with the Los Angeles Clippers. In two of those postseason appearances, Paul came within a game of reaching the conference finals.
Despite his domination on the court, Paul never got over the hump, falling short of the conference finals in each of those four tries. His nine All-Star Game appearances tied him with Dominique Wilkins for the most in NBA history for a player without a trip to a conference finals.
Knowing all of this, one would imagine that with the Houston Rockets up three games to one over the Utah Jazz heading into Tuesday night’s Game 5, Paul might feel a bit nervous. As close as he’s been to making the conference finals in the past, he’s always fallen just short.
Instead, what we witnessed was one of the greatest playoff performances in NBA history. With the taste of the Western Conference Finals on his tongue, the future Hall of Famer put together a jaw-dropping display of basketball genius.
Paul scored a career-playoff-high 41 points while dishing out 10 assists and picking up seven rebounds. He recorded zero turnovers throughout his 38 minutes, making it the first 40-point, 10-assist, no-turnover playoff line since turnovers became an official stat 40 years ago, according to Elias Sports Bureau.
Paul was simply unworldly. He shot 13-of-22 from the field, including 8-of-10 from the three-point line (matching his career playoff high for made 3s) and 7-of-8 from the free throw line. With the veteran on the court, Houston outscored Utah by 20 points.
But the 13-year vet seemed to save his best for the fourth quarter, where he scored 20 points while playing the entire 12 minutes. His 20 points set a career-high for points in a quarter, regular season or postseason. He either scored or assisted on 26 of Houston’s 37 points in the final frame, which included all 18 of the team’s points over the last six minutes of the game.
To say he was saving his best for last would be an understatement. The Rockets entered the fourth quarter trailing by three points, and Paul was clearly not about to risk having the series go back to Utah for a Game 6.
Now that he has the monkey off of his back, so to speak, Paul still has a lot left to prove.
Following Tuesday’s win, the point guard was asked if he would be celebrating his first trip to a Conference Finals. His response?
“Not at all. Who plays for just that?”
Despite finishing the regular season with the NBA’s best record, and seven games ahead of the Golden State Warriors, the Rockets still find themselves as underdogs heading into their Western Conference Finals matchup. Houston won two of the three regular-season meetings between the two teams, and will also have home-court advantage, yet Vegas still believes the defending champions will make their fourth consecutive trip to the NBA Finals.
So while Paul may feel slightly relieved to finally get over the hump, don’t believe for a second that he is satisfied.
Because he, along with the rest of the Houston Rockets, have only one goal in mind.
“We’ve got eight more wins to get…” said Paul following the final buzzer Tuesday.
Vegas may not believe in Houston, but if Paul can put together more performances like his Game 5 gem, then the future Hall of Famer may make his first appearance in the NBA Finals this postseason as well.
Matt Citak is a contributor for CBS Local Sports and a proud Vanderbilt alum. Follow him on Twitter.