CP3 makes 1st conference finals, but not content

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HOUSTON — Chris Paul, 13 years into his career, finally is going to the conference finals.

The future Basketball Hall of Famer made sure of that.

Not that he’s ready to celebrate.

“Not at all. Who plays just for that?” Paul told ESPN after starring in the Rockets‘ 112-102 win in Tuesday night’s Game 5 to eliminate the Utah Jazz. “Know what I’m saying? Not at all, not at all. We’ve got eight more wins to get. I don’t know what it’s supposed to feel like, but we’ve still got a lot of work to do.”

With co-star James Harden under the weather, Paul had perhaps his best postseason performance in his 86th career playoff game. He scored a career-playoff-high 41 points, dished out 10 assists and grabbed seven rebounds. According to Elias Sports Bureau, it was the first 40-point, 10-assist, no-turnover playoff line since turnovers became an official stat 40 years ago.

Paul was at his best in the fourth quarter, when his scoring flurry served as the knockout punches. He scored 20 points while playing the entire fourth — the highest-scoring quarter of his career, regular season or postseason, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.

Paul, who no longer has the title of the most playoff experience in NBA history without a conference finals appearance, scored or assisted on 26 of the Rockets’ 37 points in the fourth quarter. That included the Rockets’ final 18 points over the final six minutes, when he scored 15 points and fed PJ Tucker for a dagger 3-pointer with 35 seconds remaining.

“Unbelievable. He went out there and took over the game,” said Harden, who scored 18 points on 7-of-22 shooting. “Especially for an opportunity like he’s never had before, he went to go get it. He put us all on his back and said, ‘Listen, I got us.’ That’s big time right there. That’s a big-time performance. He got in his bag and he called everybody off. He said, ‘You get out the way, I’m going to put us on my back.’ He had that look in his eye.”

After the Jazz pulled within one point with 4:34 remaining, Paul hit jumpers on the Rockets’ next four possessions, pushing the lead back to nine points and essentially putting the game out of reach. He hit a pair of 3s and a couple of midrange shots during his personal 10-2 run, kissing the last 3 off the glass.

“CP3! CP3! CP3!” the Toyota Center crowd chanted during that stretch.

“Unbelievable. He went out there and took over the game. Especially for an opportunity like he’s never had before, he went to go get it. He put us all on his back and said, ‘Listen, I got us.’ That’s big time right there. That’s a big-time performance.” James Harden, on teammate Chris Paul

Paul, whose nine All-Star Game appearances matched Dominique Wilkins for the most in NBA history for a player without a conference finals berth, finished 13-of-22 from the floor, 8-of-10 from long range (equaling his career playoff high for made 3s) and 7-of-8 from the free throw line. The Rockets outscored the Jazz by 20 points during Paul’s 38 minutes on the court.

“He’s a great player,” said Jazz rookie star Donovan Mitchell, who scored 22 of his 24 points in the third quarter to give Utah the lead but exited with 7:09 remaining in the game due to a left foot injury. “He’s been under a lot of unfair scrutiny throughout the playoffs, and tonight he showed that he wanted it. He does that every night, but tonight taking over the way he did was very impressive.

“It was one of those nights where you tip your hat to shots like that. We played well, but he’s in a different mode right now.”

Paul, 33, had made four previous trips to the second round of the playoffs, once with the New Orleans Hornets and three times with the LA Clippers. He twice came within a game of reaching the conference finals.

Paul’s Hornets lost a Game 7 to the San Antonio Spurs in 2008, his first playoff appearance, and the Clippers fell in a Game 7 to the Rockets in 2015. The loss to the Rockets was especially painful, as Houston rallied from a 3-1 series deficit despite Paul averaging 26.3 points and 10.3 assists in the last three games. It is one of only 11 times in NBA history that a team overcame a 3-1 deficit to win a playoff series.

That marked the third time in Paul’s first four seasons in Los Angeles that the Clippers’ season ended in the second round. Paul primarily blamed himself for their failure to advance to the conference final the previous year, in 2014, as he committed two turnovers and an uncharacteristically ill-advised foul in the final 17.8 seconds of a pivotal Game 5 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder, who rallied from seven points down in the last minute.

It was different this time around.

“I know for sure he didn’t want to go back to Utah, being with the Clippers and he’s gone through losing a series after being up 3-1,” Rockets forward Luc Mbah a Moute, Paul’s Clippers teammate the past two seasons, said after Tuesday’s victory. “You could tell, especially with James not feeling good, that he was playing with a chip on his shoulder. That fourth quarter, he just took over. I’ve seen it in his eyes before, and I saw it again tonight. That’s probably one of his best performances I’ve seen.”

After the Clippers made first-round exits the past two seasons, Paul pushed for a trade to the Rockets to maximize his chances to win a championship.

As Mitchell told his mentor Paul after the game, “Get your first ring, bro.”

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