Chris Paul was vindicated on Tuesday night in Houston, and there was no way around it, not for the Rockets, not for the Jazz, and not for those who have long crafted narratives around his career, some warranted and some less so. The Rockets advanced to the conference finals—somehow the first of Paul’s long career—with a resounding 112–102 win, their star point guard and pivotal summer gambit dragging them each step of the way. Paul finished with 41 points and 10 assists, and was a game-high plus-20 with zero turnovers.
Paul carried an unwieldy scarlet letter of an NBA record with him into the Toyota Center on Tuesday: 86 consecutive postseason games without a conference finals appearance. The elephant made a scene on its way out of the room. On a night where James Harden took a backseat, Paul drained eight consecutive three-pointers and scored 19 fourth-quarter points to close down the series. Jumper after jumper culminated in a fadeaway, banked-in prayer over the much larger Royce O’Neale as the shot clock expired that effectively ended the night.
He joined Michael Jordan as the only players to record 40 points and 10 assists in a series-clinching playoff game.
For an extended beat, it looked like Game 5’s script would belong to Donovan Mitchell, the Jazz’s sublime rookie star who put on a show of his own in the third quarter. The game belonged to Paul, but it jumped off when Mitchell did. Find another rookie in recent memory who dominated a playoff game quite like this. Houston was completely unable to keep Mitchell out of the paint once he turned it on, and he hit several tough shots off the bounce, finished with both hands off the glass, drained a pair of threes, and put on an incredible display of confidence and skill.
Mitchell’s outburst led Utah to a brief lead in a hostile gym, as he scored or assisted on an incredible 29 of his team’s 32 points in the quarter (22 were his own), turning it over just once. And it’s fair to at least posit that the game may have ended differently, unconscious Paul and all, had Mitchell not left for good in the fourth quarter with an apparent leg injury. He appeared to knock knees with Harden after losing control of the ball, and the Jazz gradually lost a handle on the game. All things considered (remembering Ricky Rubio missed this entire series), Utah should feel more than hopeful entering next season.
The Rockets move onto the conference finals and presumably a date and a score to settle with the Warriors. Thanks to Paul, they’ll do it on a resounding note, and with much of the pressure off, depending who you ask. To nitpick, Harden’s general reticence was somewhat concerning. But for a night, Paul shaking everything off at once, as pointedly as possible felt like the way things needed to go down. And it’s nice when that happens.