Paul, one of the greatest point guards ever and a certain first-ballot Hall of Famer, boasts an exceptional 3.9-1 assist-to-turnover ratio during his 16-year career. This season, he guided a sharp Suns attack that committed the fourth-fewest turnovers in the league. In clutch situations this season, Paul scored 120 points, dished 22 assists, committed just eight turnovers and led Phoenix to a stellar 23-12 record in games that were within five points in the final five minutes of regulation. And as he shredded the Denver Nuggets in a second-round sweep, Paul registered 41 assists and only five turnovers in 143 minutes.
But here, with all eyes on him and the game in the balance, Phoenix’s reliable leader stumbled badly. After using a screen to free himself from Holiday, Paul attempted to evade Giannis Antetokounmpo by crossing over from his left to his right. Antetokounmpo swiped at him, but Paul lost his balance on his own, falling to the court as Holiday corralled the loose ball and took off in the other direction. Paul returned to his feet in time to see Khris Middleton finish a layup that helped Milwaukee seal a 109-103 comeback win Wednesday.
The critical miscue marked Paul’s fifth turnover on a night to forget as he finished with 10 points on 5-for-13 shooting, four rebounds and seven assists in 37 minutes.
“Bad decision-making,” Paul lamented afterward. “Timely. Down two, I try to crossover and slip. I had some bad passes in the first half. For me, I’ve got to take care of the ball. We had 17 turnovers. We shot the ball too well not to have those opportunities to score.”
Indeed, this was a golden opportunity wasted for the Suns, who squandered a scintillating 42-point effort from Devin Booker and now must return home for Saturday’s Game 5 with the series tied at two games apiece. Booker, who missed stretches of the third and fourth quarters because of foul trouble, could only watch from the sidelines as Phoenix’s offense stalled out. The 24-year-old guard returned with just under six minutes remaining, but he never got back into rhythm and scored just four points in the final period.
Credit Middleton for rising to the moment with Milwaukee’s season hanging in the balance. The two-time all-star forward scored 14 of his team-high 40 points in the final period, delivering just as he had in late-game situations against the Brooklyn Nets and Atlanta Hawks earlier in the postseason.
Paul’s stretch-run play, by contrast, was marked by numerous regrettable moments. With less than four minutes remaining and Phoenix leading by three, Paul drove into the paint, drew a double team and blindly threw a jump pass across the court that was deflected and intercepted by Antetokounmpo. That turnover led to a transition layup on a play that nearly saw Booker commit his sixth foul.
On Phoenix’s next possession, Paul drove into traffic and tossed up a wild reverse layup that Antetokounmpo spiked off the backboard. With Paul out of the play after falling to the court, Milwaukee pushed the ball and found Pat Connaughton for an open corner three-pointer that gave the Bucks their first lead of the fourth quarter.
“We’ve got to execute,” Paul said. “We’re a team that has closed out games like that all season long. This is a tough one.”
When the dust settled, the Suns had matched their 2021 postseason high with 17 turnovers. Five came as Phoenix was outscored 33-21 in the decisive fourth quarter.
“The turnovers just crushed us,” Suns Coach Monty Williams said, adding that many of them came via “self-inflicted” mistakes. “It’s like a blip on the screen because we haven’t played that way from a turnover perspective this year. Usually when we do, we bounce back and we’re a bit more efficient. Give [the Bucks] credit. They do a really good job of getting hands on balls, and they were switching a lot tonight. … But this is not our normal.”
Williams added that Paul was “fine” from a health standpoint. The 36-year-old guard, who has committed 15 turnovers in the past three games combined, has battled shoulder and wrist injuries during the playoffs and missed two games because of coronavirus protocols during the Western Conference finals.
“Great players have games like that,” Williams said. “We expect [Paul] to bounce back.”
Of course, Paul has never been closer to a title during a career that has been marked by playoff disappointments. While injuries have spoiled multiple postseason runs, Paul has also long been haunted by his uncharacteristically sloppy play in the 2014 playoffs. With the Los Angeles Clippers and Oklahoma City Thunder engaged in a fierce second-round series, he committed an inexplicable turnover and a costly foul in the closing seconds of a pivotal Game 5 defeat. Paul later referred to that series loss as “probably the biggest heartbreak ever.”
The stakes now are simple and unsparing: A Suns championship would effectively bury that traumatic chapter for good, while a Bucks comeback from an 0-2 Finals deficit would force Paul to confront an even deeper pain.
The ball, as always, will be in his hands.