Tears welled in Chris Paul’s eyes. A message in black ink on his shoes said it all: Can’t give up now.
Not when, after 16 years, he will finally play for an NBA title.
Paul — the Winston-Salem native who stayed home and starred for two years at Wake Forest before embarking on a Hall of Fame career — led the Phoenix Suns into their first NBA Finals in 28 years, beating the Los Angeles Clippers in six games.
“I was on a don’t-lose mission,” Paul said. “Just a lot of emotion. A lot of (things) going on.”
Next up for Paul and the Suns: a matchup with Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks. The two regular-season games between Milwaukee and Phoenix this season fit the same script. Both were extremely high scoring. Both went down to the wire. Both saw Phoenix win by a single point, with a free throw by Devin Booker ending up as the game-winner each time.
There was also this: Antetokounmpo couldn’t be guarded in either game.
And now it’s the Bucks and Suns — forever tied together after Milwaukee won a 1969 coin flip after the teams’ first seasons for Lew Alcindor — in the NBA Finals, with Antetokounmpo’s status a major question.
Game 1 was set for Tuesday night in Phoenix, and Paul — who missed Games 1 and 2 against the Clippers after testing positive for COVID-19 — is back and set to play in the NBA Finals for the first time in his career.
“He was tired,” Suns coach Monty Williams said of Paul during his 41-point effort in Phoenix’s clinching win over the Clippers. “He was still making those kind of plays, getting to the basket, 3s, orchestrating everything.
“He has persevered through a lot — injuries, playoff heartbreak.”
On top of his absence due to COVID-19, Paul also injured his shoulder in the first round against the Lakers. Add in numerous surgeries and making the conference finals one other time, only to fall short.
“It’s been a lot, I’m telling you,” he said.
It’s a whole new setting for the 36-year-old Paul, who acknowledged one of the differences. Home teams usually practice at their training facility, but the workout on the eve of the NBA Finals is in the arena.
“It’s still basketball,” the point guard said. “I think we’re all locked into the goal at hand.”
Antetokounmpo, who was considered doubtful for Game 1, can only hope to be ready for the series.
The two-time NBA MVP averaged 40 points on 60% shooting against the Suns this season but hyperextended his left knee during Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals against Atlanta. The Bucks went 2-0 in the two full games that Antetokounmpo missed to win that series in six games, finishing it — and earning the team’s first finals berth since 1974 — with a win on the Hawks’ home floor on Saturday night.
“We’ve got more work to do,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said during the East trophy ceremony.
The Bucks lost 125-124 in Phoenix on Feb. 10, then lost 128-127 to the Suns in overtime at Milwaukee on April 19.
Milwaukee won its lone NBA title in 1971. The Suns have never won a championship, last getting to the finals in 1993. They also lost the finals in 1976.
No player on either team has ever won an NBA championship. Jae Crowder went to the finals last season with Miami, then chose to sign a three-year deal with Phoenix last summer.
“I knew our potential,” Crowder said. “I knew where we could get to, the level of basketball we could play, when I first got here. I just knew it was a special group. I knew we had a chance to do something special.”
The Suns indeed have that chance.
So, now, do the Bucks.
One of them is only four wins from hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
“It’s been a lot, and I want it not just for myself but for everybody in that locker room,” Paul said.