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Stiffs Shootaround: Getting over the hump when there are mountains still to climb

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Chris Paul will finally play in the Western Conference Finals. Enjoy Golden State, man.

NBA: Playoffs-Utah Jazz at Houston Rockets Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

Chris Paul’s greatness and ability should never have been in question. In the ‘RINGZ’ era, however, Paul’s status as a true legend was—frankly, it still might be. Paul has waited 13 long years for this moment; in sports writing, that sentence typically precedes some description of an unlikely championship, or perhaps a curse, finally broken. For Paul, it merely means he’ll participate in an NBA Conference Finals. That’s somewhat anti-climatic and a relatively low bar to clear. Paul admitted as much to ESPN following Tuesday night’s series clinching win over the Utah Jazz.

“Who plays just for that?”

Paul’s right. The proverbial monkey is now off his back, but King Kong awaits he and his teammates in the conference finals. There are no parades for making it this far. The true prize still sits beyond his grasp and the only reward now is tougher competition.

It doesn’t get any tougher than what comes next.

Paul never really deserved the criticism that he drew for his “lack of playoff success.” He’s performed at nothing short of a legendary level in the postseason throughout his career, and his shortcomings have had more to do with injury luck in a loaded Western Conference than any sort of inability to get it done on the biggest stage.

Paul isn’t LeBron James or Kobe Bryant, but he’s always been far closer to Jerry West than Carmelo Anthony. He was a victim of circumstance, he wasn’t incongruent with winning basketball.

To be fair, things like this didn’t exactly help to dispel that narrative:

But that’s old news. Chris Paul has vaulted himself up and over the second round hurdle for the first time in his hall of fame worthy career with a 41, 10 and 7 performance in game 5. It was the type of moment that we’d been waiting for from Paul, and that Paul himself, presumably, had been pining for.

Sure, Paul’s benefitted from new teammates and perhaps MVP level play from Harden this season. But on Wednesday night, with the conference finals in sight, it was Paul who guided the Rockets home.

It’s been admittedly tough watching individuals and teams free themselves from the shackles of such narratives. Paul has now reached the conference finals. Over in Philadelphia, their trust of an arduous process is finally paying dividends. In Minnesota, frozen hell finally thawed over as the Timberwolves reached the playoffs for the first time in 14 seasons at the expense of—well, you remember.

The Nuggets were so close to getting over a hump of their own this season. It’s been four years since the NuggLife included playoff basketball. And for a brief moment following an unlikely win over Milwaukee, it seemed as if it was Denver who would be the authors a magical run down the stretch that would’ve melted away years of past disappointment. Unfortunately, like Paul did for so many years, they fell just short.

Of course, even if that run had culminated in an unexpected playoff berth, reality would have set in fast. There’s getting in, and there’s getting the job done once you’re there. Chris knows this as well as anyone.

In many ways, Paul has served as some version of the NBA’s Sisyphus. He rolled his boulder up as high as he could, year-after-year—for 13 years—only to watch it roll back down to the bottom whenever he neared the top. That appeared to be his fate.

Imagine the joy that our Sisyphus must’ve felt last night when he finally pushed the boulder not just to the top of the hill, but over the edge—his seemingly impossible task suddenly accomplished. Imagine the elation, and juxtapose it with the gutting realization of what lies ahead of him now: a bigger boulder, lying at the base of an even steeper, more treacherous mountain—now he gets Golden State.

Watching Paul field questions regarding this dynamic brought a wry smile to my face. Once again, the playoffs reminded me—all of us, really—of just how hard it is to truly compete in this league. For all the excitement and frenetic energy that surrounded the Nuggets push for the final playoff spot, I almost forgot what it would’ve meant. A playoff berth would have been wonderful, but mountains would have loomed.

As the true titans of the league throw down in this highly anticipated series, it will be hard to look on without finding reminders of all the hurdles the Nuggets have yet to clear. There’s levels to this thing.

Denver’s got a long way to go.