Chris Paul carries Rockets into conference finals

Chris Paul carries Rockets into conference finals

Chris Paul never has to hear it again. He made damn sure of that.

For everything he’s accomplished in the NBA — the All-Star nods, the All-NBA selections, the countless dimes delivered and defenders put on skates — he’d never in his 13-year professional career made it out of the second round of the postseason, with injuries and late-game meltdowns and cruel acts of the basketball gods all combining to keep one of the best point guards of his generation from playing past mid-May and give his critics all the ammunition they’d need to question his bona fides. Well, there goes that.

Paul scored 20 of his career-playoff-high 41 points in a peerless fourth quarter to carry the Rockets past the finish line for a 112-102 win and eliminate the incredibly tough Utah Jazz in five games. The Rockets will advance to the Western Conference finals to take on the winner of the West’s other semifinal series between the Golden State Warriors and New Orleans Pelicans, and will host Game 1 of the conference finals at Toyota Center.

On a night where All-Star running buddy James Harden didn’t have it going — just 18 points on 7-for-22 shooting in 35 minutes for the likely 2017-18 NBA Most Valuable Player — Paul took over. He drilled 13 of his 22 field-goal attempts — including eight straight 3-pointers, capped by a dagger-ish banker to put Houston up nine with 2:30 to go — and distributed 10 assists, hauled in seven rebounds and snagged a steal while logging a team-high 38 minutes without a single turnover. He was breathtaking, to a historic degree …

According to , Chris Paul is the 1st player to have 40 points, 10 assists, and 0 turnovers in a playoff game since turnovers became an official stat in 1977-78

… and now, he’s got a particularly persistent black mark off his Hall of Fame résumé.

Rockets forward P.J. Tucker was excellent when called upon, helping settle Houston’s defense and making timely shots on the other end. He scored a career-postseason-high 19 points on 7-for-9 shooting, including a 5-for-7 mark from behind the 3-point line, to go with six rebounds, three blocks and two assists in 36 minutes, some of which were spent playing as an extreme-small-ball center when Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni chose to downsize and play five-out to try to overwhelm the Jazz at the start of the fourth quarter.

The Jazz entered Tuesday down two of their top guards, with starting point man Ricky Rubio still sidelined by a hamstring injury and key defensive reserve Dante Exum joining him with one of his own. Still, Quin Snyder’s club battled, coming back from an 11-point third-quarter deficit to take a lead entering the fourth behind a remarkable surge from rookie sensation Donovan Mitchell … only to watch him, too, go down hard after being stripped by Harden on a drive that led to a Rockets layup:

The Rookie of the Year hopeful, who had scored 22 points in a remarkable third quarter to give Utah a lead entering the fourth quarter, needed to be helped off the court and back to the locker room by Jazz personnel.

Mitchell would eventually return to the sideline, but do so with his left shoe and sock off. He would not return to the game, forced to watch the final seven-plus minutes of Utah’s season tick away from the sideline. He finished a tremendous campaign in which he announced himself as a star on the rise with a team-high 24 points on 9-for-17 shooting, nine assists, four rebounds and a steal in 34 minutes; after the game, the Jazz announced that he’d been diagnosed with “left foot soreness,” that X-rays on the injured foot came back negative, and that he’d receive further testing when the team returned to Salt Lake City.

Even without their top gun, the Jazz just kept coming, cutting the deficit to one point on a 3 by guard Royce O’Neale (17 points on 6-for-10 shooting) with 4:34 to go. But Paul was just too much down the stretch, scoring or assisting on all 15 Rockets points over the final 4:09 to put the game away, and punch his ticket to the conference finals for the first time in his career.