Suns Hopeful For Chris Paul’s Return, But Have Backup Plans

NBA ARTICLES » Suns Hopeful For Chris Paul’s Return, But Have Backup Plans
Suns Hopeful For Chris Paul's Return, But Have Backup Plans

Cameron Payne, who helped the Suns reach the NBA Finals in 2021, will replace Chris Paul in Game 3.

Chris Paul watched practice on Wednesday from a black folding chair, uncertain of his fate for Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals.

While reports surfaced Tuesday suggesting the club is preparing for the veteran point guard to miss Games 3 through 5, Phoenix Suns still hopes Chris Paul can return from a left groin injury with the team down 2-0 to Denver Nuggets and three days of rest between the second and third games.

Paul will play Friday at Footprint Center after the Suns declared him day-to-day.

“Gratefully, he didn’t tear it or something like that where he’s done for the season,” Phoenix coach Monty Williams said. “You have to see the good in bad situations and bad breaks. I’m hopeful because I trust the doctors and Chris’s will to recover. Wait and see.”

The Suns must first overcome the Nuggets’ 2-0 lead in Denver. 92.6% of playoff teams with a 2-0 lead win. Phoenix ignores the odds. The aim is to use prior experience to defeat the Western Conference’s top seed.

After a 97-87 defeat in Game 2, Devin Booker readily gave a postgame message of optimism Monday.

“I love playoff basketball,” Booker added that night. “That was my first statement in the locker room. Love and accept this. Playing at the top level of basketball is rare.

The Suns’ priority is to maintain that.

“We wouldn’t be here today if we didn’t have Book in those moments, letting everybody know before I even come into the room what we’re capable of,” Williams added.

The 2020 NBA Bubble, where Phoenix went 8-0, and the 2021 Western Conference Finals against the LA Clippers, where Cam Payne started the first two games in place of Paul to help the Suns win in six games, are examples of “overcoming” adversity, according to the coach. Phoenix is set to start Payne alongside Booker, who will presumably open Game 3 at point guard. Payne played 17 minutes in Phoenix’s Game 2 defeat to Denver.

Paul instructed Payne “to be ready” on Wednesday.

“Honestly, man, I’ve got so much energy to go out there and play,” Payne added. “I’m excited to play. I’m all set.”

Payne shot 50% in back-to-back starts in the West finals, averaging 20 points and nine assists as Phoenix took a 2-0 lead. Payne had a career-high 29 points, nine assists, two steals, and two blocks in Game 2.

The 28-year-old point guard feels he has more speed than Paul, who turns 38 on Saturday. Payne joined Game 2 on Monday with 4:32 remaining in the third quarter following Paul’s left groin injury. Paul hit an 18-footer to conclude a 3-of-3 third quarter in which the Suns scored 31 points and shot 70.6%.

Payne scored one basket in the third quarter before going 0-4 in the fourth as Phoenix shot 7 of 25 from the floor and 0 of 9 from deep. Payne feels he can compensate for his midrange ineptitude by helping the Suns play quicker and attack the paint.

“If anybody gets their foot in the paint, the defense always converges because the ball scores,” he added. To acquire nice open glances, attempt to converge them. The speed produces more shots and prevents them from setting their defense. We benefit from their scrambled play. They’re scrambling us. They’re doing our stuff. Pace helps us get free shots, get [Kevin Durant] open shots, get Book open looks, [and] makes [Denver big Nikola] Jokic run when we’re fast.”

Suns like Payne are expected to take on more in Game 3. The best playmakers, Booker and Durant, will be relied on more, with Booker presumably handling more of Phoenix’s ball handling. Williams hopes to enhance the responsibilities of February arrivals Terrence Ross and T.J. Warren to boost scoring.

Ross has played just 10 minutes for the Suns in the playoffs, while Warren played roughly six minutes in two games in the first round.

Williams added, “I can do a better job of putting more scorers on the floor and living with whatever warts may come with that just to free [Booker and Durant] up so they don’t have to do it every single time down the floor.

Before Wednesday’s practice, the coach “listed out the things we’ve been through the last four years” to show that Phoenix can overcome the latest challenge.

Williams says Paul’s health is “day-to-day,” but Phoenix’s will to recover persists.

“We’ve embraced all these things since I came to the team since the bubble,” Payne added. Injury-prone this year. We’re here. We’re here. Accept what life provides you. We can escape this hole. Home again. Denver was our target. It didn’t. Let’s go 2-0 in Phoenix and deal with what we must accomplish on the road.”