PHOENIX — With 3:23 left in the second quarter, Chris Paul passed Spurs great Tony Parker for the fifth-most assists in NBA playoff history, with 1,144.
No one would call it a momentous play in Monday night’s Game 1 of this Western Conference semifinal, except that it came during a key sequence in which Paul, in his typically understated way, took over the game.
And the assist moved Paul within one rung of the No. 4 career playoff assist leader, a 49-year-old who was standing about 30 feet away, an NBA great who is part of this series’ full-circle troika of point guards: Mavericks coach Jason Kidd, Paul and Dallas star Luka Doncic.
“I think my last time playing against Dallas in the playoffs, I was playing against J-Kidd,” Paul noted.
“It didn’t go well,” Kidd said.
No, it didn’t. That 2008 first-round series between Kidd’s Mavericks and Paul’s New Orleans Hornets went about as well as Monday night’s Game 1 did for Dallas: Horribly.
Paul was only 22, three seasons into his career, and the series between his second-seeded Hornets and seventh-seed Dallas was the first of his career.
Kidd just two months earlier had been traded back to the franchise that drafted him. Kidd, 34, was supposed to provide leadership and stability to a franchise that was coming off blowing a 2-0 series lead in the 2006 NBA Finals and then getting toppled by No. 8 seed Golden State in the 2007 playoffs despite winning an NBA- best 67 games that season.
In that 2008 Mavs-Hornets series, Paul averaged 24.6 points, 12.0 assists and 5.6 rebounds to Kidd’s 8.6 points, 6.8 assists and 6.4 rebounds as New Orleans won in five games.
Here, though, is where the Kidd-Paul parallel comes into play into this series: In 2011, 38-year-old Kidd helped lead the Mavericks to their and his only NBA championship. Now Paul, who turns 37 on Thursday, is trying to win his first title from him, with a Suns team that lost a 2-0 lead to Milwaukee in last year’s NBA Finals.
“I don’t know if a lot has changed,” Kidd said. “He’s perfected the point guard position. As you get more reps and you see different defenses, you start to understand what you have to do. He knows how to move the pieces to get that advantage.
“And so when you talk about IQ it’s off the charts. And his competitiveness is off the charts. And his will is off the charts. So all of the things are off the charts. You’ve just got to make a tough on him.”
Paul was coming off a Game 6 series-clinching win over New Orleans in which he made all 14 of his field goal attempts.
In Monday’s Game 1, the Mavericks after a horrendous start had pulled to within 51-47 with 5:06 left in the first half.
That’s when Paul took over, assisting on Phoenix’s next four baskets. That is the flurry during which he passed Parker on the career list, with Kidd ahead with 1,263 assists.
Paul completed his surge by making a turnaround 18-footer, followed by a 3-pointer to give Phoenix a 65-52 lead.
Similarly, when Dallas closed within 106-93 with five minutes left, Paul made a 3-pointer that turned out to be significant as Dallas’ rally in the final two minutes fell short.
That’s what Paul does. Perhaps some day soon Paul will follow Kidd’s path by not only winning his first title in his late 30s, but becoming a head coach.
Paul certainly approves of the coaching job Kidd has done, particularly in his work with Dallas’ other point guard, Jalen Brunson.
“Probably because J-Kidd’s a point guard,” Paul said. “He’s letting Jalen go, he’s letting him play. You have some coaches in this league that want to call every set, want to control and stuff like that.
“But Jalen’s been a point guard his whole life. I don’t know. I’m just speculating. I think he just gives him the reins and let’s go out and hoop.”
This series has just started, but the Kidd-Paul parallels will continue. And how will 24-year-old Doncic fare in his first conference semifinal series? He scored 45 points in Game 1, but he simply did n’t get nearly enough help.