PHOENIX — First, Chris Paul heard his former teammate and coach Willie Green instruct the New Orleans Pelicans to dare him to shoot. Then, after Paul eviscerated the strategy, he let his old friend know it.
Paul, who will turn 37 in three weeks, became the oldest player to record 30 points and 10 assists in a playoff game, as he put up exactly those numbers in leading the top-seeded Phoenix Suns to a 110-99 victory in Game 1 of their first-round series on Sunday.
He passed Steve Nash, who did the same as a member of the Suns at age 36 in 2010. Paul is now one of just five players in history to have 10 playoff games with 30 points and 10 assists. LeBron James has the most with 22 such performances, followed by Michael Jordan with 15.
Much of it came in a furious fourth-quarter rally, as Paul scored 17 points in a five-minute stretch to crush a Pelicans comeback attempt. Green’s choice to have his defenders give Paul space by going under pick-and-rolls backfired when Paul made three 3-pointers in a row as he attacked a switching defense that repeatedly left him up against the slower Larry Nance Jr.
“That’s like inviting me [to] shoot,” said Paul, who looked over at Green several times after splashing shots. “I know Willie; that’s my man. It’s all a part of the game.”
Green, who was an assistant with the Suns last season and played with Paul on the LA Clippers and the then-New Orleans Hornets, used a bench-heavy lineup that cut a 23-point Phoenix lead down to just six by early in the fourth quarter.
But Paul broke the strategy as he repeatedly called for center Deandre Ayton to set a screen and force Nance into a switch. Eventually, Green had to pull Nance, who had been very effective with Paul on the bench, from the game.
“We went under a couple screens, and he just stood behind and shot the 3 ball,” Green said of Paul. “The mix-ups were on our part, my part as a coach. I have to do better with that coverage. Chris, this is just what he does.”
Paul scored or assisted on 23 of the Suns’ 31 points in the fourth quarter. His 19 points in the frame were the second most in the final quarter in his career.
“That man is a true competitor and a true winner,” said Suns star Devin Booker, who tallied 25 points. “When he wants it that bad, you can see it in his demeanor and see it in his walk, so it shouldn’t surprise anyone. He’s built for these moments.”
The Suns held the Pelicans to 22% shooting in the first half as Mikal Bridges, who was named a finalist for NBA Defensive Player of the Year, smothered Pelicans guard CJ McCollum. The Pelicans shot just 2-of-16 for the game when Bridges was the primary defender, according to ESPN Stats & Information tracking. McCollum finished with 25 points but missed 16 shots and was 0-for-9 with Bridges on him.
Paul also played excellent defense, coming up with three steals.
“It’s just his ability to understand he needs to take over a game,” Suns coach Monty Williams said. “I don’t think I’ve been around anybody like Chris who has that innate feel for that time.”
ESPN’s Andrew Lopez contributed to this report.