In more than a century of popular spectator sports, there are some plays so bewilderingly, bafflingly botched they enter the lexicon, perhaps even more prominently than the many great achievements that deliver championships. These busted plays earned nicknames when sportswriters were inclined to such things in the early 20th century, such as “Merkel’s Boner”. More recently, their memory may be summoned with but a single word, like “Buckner.”
So what are we to make of “Paul’s Push”?
It is to Chris Paul’s advantage that his moment of disingenuity was surrounded by enough instances of Bucks brilliance and enough other Phoenix failures that the lethal blow he dealt to the Suns’ chances in Game 5 was overlooked by many reporting on the 2021 NBA Finals. What should have been his equivalent of J.R. Smith running out the clock of a tie game in the 2018 Finals became something of a lost episode from an instant classic Bucks victory, which improved their series lead to 3-2 and placed a potential Game 6 clincher on their homecourt in Milwaukee.
Instead of hearing endlessly about how Paul had blown it, we were told repeatedly about the daring of Bucks guard Jrue Holiday in ripping the ball from Devin Booker’s hands as the Suns pursued a basket that would have completed a rally from a 13-point second-half deficit inside the game’s final half-minute. Focusing on the positive is not a negative, but it did serve the purpose of mitigating Paul’s reckless choice to purposefully foul Bucks All-Star Giannis Antetokounmpo as he threw down Holiday’s lob pass with 13.5 seconds remaining.
Paul drew more criticism regarding the propriety of his foul than the consequence, but perhaps there is a deeper connection there. In a career of public basketball performance that stretches back to his time as an All-American at Wake Forest, when there has been an occasion to choose between the available chicanery and the pursuit of a championship, Paul has erred on the side of erring.
His foul against Antetokounmpo was an atrocious decision on a variety of levels. The Bucks trailed by a single point when Booker was stripped, and Holiday chose to throw a lob to Giannis rather than wait to be fouled and forced to make two free throws. Paul was the only player near the goal as the pass flew, but at 6-feet-0 with meager hops, he had essentially no chance to prevent that alley from being ooped, hard. Paul pushed Antetokounmpo, anyway.
So instead of the Suns taking timeout after the score, advancing the ball to the frontcourt and working with more than a dozen seconds toward a tying 3-pointer, they watched as Antetokounmpo went to the line for a clinching free throw. He missed, badly, but the ball was far so off target it rocketed back toward the shooter before any Suns player had a good chance to react and block out. Antetokounmpo tipped the ball backward, where it was retrieved by teammate Khris Middleton, and he sank the clincher.
“Everybody’s out there anticipating a miss,” Paul said. “Hell, even he is.”
Antetokounmpo would not have been in the position to miss if Paul hadn’t put him there.
This is not lost on former NC State All-American Julius Hodge, drafted with the 20th pick in the same 2005 NBA Draft in which Paul went No. 4 overall. Hodge’s NBA career was over in two years, but he played professionally for a decade in such countries as Italy, Australia and France and now is an assistant coach at San Jose State.
When he saw Paul’s Push, he was not at all surprised and tweeted, “This. dude. just. can’t. help. himself!”
Hodge has been there, and it was painful. As a senior wing for the Wolfpack playing in his final regular season game against Wake and Paul, Hodge was struck below the belt by Paul’s fist after the two battled for a rebound. Hodge called it, at the time, “uninstigated.” That led to Paul being suspended by Wake for an ACC Tournament quarterfinal game, which the Deacons lost, which relegated them to a No. 2 NCAA Tournament seed rather than a No. 1 and thus to playing No. 7 seed West Virginia in the second round of March Madness. The Demon Deacons lost to Kevin Pittsnogle and the Mountaineers in double overtime.
The team that got Wake’s No. 1 seed, Duke, had finished two games behind the Deacs in the ACC standings. The team that won the national title, North Carolina, had been a 13-point Wake victim in a regular-season game. So the most disconcerting element of this episode, save for Hodge’s obvious discomfort, is that Paul seemed to learn so little from it.
Paul unquestionably is one of the greatest point guards in NBA history, with 11 All-Star Game appearances and 10 All-NBA selections, but his teams’ record in NBA series is going on 10-13. This seems less like a matter of misfortune each time a play like Paul’s Push occurs.
This has happened terribly often for it to be considered coincidental or accidental.
Although he and LeBron James are extremely close, James at least twice has been left in some degree of pain following an intersection with Paul, from a February 2019 battle for a rebound on which Paul might have been called, under NCAA rules, for a “hook-and-hold” to a curious attempt at a box-out of James in this year’s playoffs that ended with the Lakers star on the floor holding his shoulder. “He got undercut,” ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy said on the telecast.
None of that was as obviously consequential as the play against Antetokounmpo. This was the big moment in one of the biggest games possible. To his credit, writer Liam McKeone of The Big Lead described Paul’s decision as “the worst possible thing he could have done under the circumstances.” ESPN’s Max Kellerman called it, via Twitter, “Just an awful blunder.”
Chris Paul’s foul on Giannis was the killer. Worse than Booker’s turnover, because there at least Jrue Holiday made a play. Just an awful blunder. #NBAFinals
— Max Kellerman (@maxkellerman) July 18, 2021
There was no better way to describe it, because it was awful, and it was a blunder. When the biggest games of his career beckoned, too often this is what Paul has delivered.