“It’s built for these moments”

PHOENIX — First, Chris Paul heard his former teammate and coach Willie Green instruct the New Orleans Pelicans to challenge him to the shooting. Then, after Paul gutted the strategy, he let his old friend know.

Paul, who turns 37 in three weeks, was the oldest player to have 30 points and 10 assists in a playoff game as he used those exact numbers to push the top-seeded Phoenix Suns to a 110th in Game 1 -99 win to lead their first-round streak on Sunday.

He passed Steve Nash, who did the same as a member of the Suns in 2010 at the age of 36. Paul is now one of only five players in history to have 10 playoff games with 30 points and 10 assists. LeBron James has the most with 22 such appearances, followed by Michael Jordan with 15.

Much of that came in a furious rally in the fourth quarter as Paul scored 17 points in five minutes to smash a Pelicans comeback attempt. Green’s decision to let his defenders give Paul space by going under pick and rolls backfired when Paul made three straight 3-pointers as he attacked a shifting defense that saw him repeatedly against the slower Larry Nance Jr. left behind.

“It’s like inviting me over [to] shoot,” said Paul, glancing over at Green several times after firing shots. ‘I know Willie; This is my man. It’s all part of the game.”

Green, who was an assistant with the Suns last season and played with Paul at the LA Clippers and then-New Orleans Hornets, took advantage of a banker-heavy lineup that reduced a 23-point lead over Phoenix to just six early in the fourth quarter.

But Paul broke strategy as he repeatedly called for center Deandre Ayton to put up a screen and force Nance into a move. Eventually Green Nance, who had been very effective with Paul on the bench, had to pull out of the game.

“We went under a couple of screens and he just stood behind it and shot the 3-ball,” Green said of Paul. “The mix-ups were on our side, on my side as a coach. I need to get better at this reporting. Chris, that’s exactly what he’s doing.”

Paul scored or assisted 23 of the Suns’ 31 points in the fourth quarter. His 19 underframe was the second-highest in the final quarter of his career.

“This man is a real competitor and a real winner,” said Suns star Devin Booker, who scored 25 points. “If he wants it that badly, you can see it in his demeanor and his gait, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. It’s built for those moments.”

The Suns held the Pelicans to 22% shooting in the first half when Mikal Bridges, who was named finalist for NBA Defensive Player of the Year, choked Pelicans guard CJ McCollum. The Pelicans shot just 2 of 16 for the game when Bridges was the main 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 and had three steals.

“It’s just his ability to understand that he has to take over a game,” said Suns coach Monty Williams. “I don’t think I’ve dated anyone like Chris who has this innate feeling for that time.”

ESPN’s Andrew Lopez contributed to this report. “It’s built for these moments”

Joel McCord

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