Chris Paul could barely move his right arm in Game 2, which means the Phoenix Suns have hit their first patch of adversity in the 2021 NBA Playoffs.
“Everything you want is on the other side of hard.”
It’s one of the famous “Monty-isms” fans have come to adore, and it used to be the most popular one until “we can’t get happy on the farm” took over. The Phoenix Suns have heeded head coach Monty Williams on the latter saying, rarely showing complacency or satisfaction with their success despite having plenty of reasons to be “happy on the farm.”
After all, the Suns posted a 51-21 record this year, the second-best mark in the NBA. They ended an 11-year playoff drought and finally got Devin Booker to his first postseason. And perhaps most of all, they came into the 2021 NBA Playoffs with legitimate title aspirations, given how they were one of four teams to rank in the top 10 for both offensive and defensive rating, as well as fourth in point differential — all indicators of a championship-caliber team. Even as they continued to stay vigilant, life on the farm was good.
But in Game 1 of their first-round series against the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers — a historically brutal matchup not usually fit for a 2-seed — the Suns were dealt their first blow of adversity. Chris Paul went down with what looked like a stinger in his right shoulder, and although he would return and help inspire an unafraid group of Suns youngsters to their Game 1 win, Game 2 was a different story.
On Tuesday night, Phoenix came out sloppy. They committed seven first-quarter turnovers that led to 12 easy LA points; they got outworked on the boards 39-31, giving up eight second-chance points while securing zero for themselves; and they tested the limits of the rotation with multiple players — most specifically, Jae Crowder — in early foul trouble.
The worst of it, though, was that Paul was clearly favoring his right arm, mostly using his left hand to dribble up the court while shying away from the types of looks he normally wouldn’t hesitate to fire up. Paul was a relative non-threat on the offensive end, finishing with 6 points and 5 assists on 2-of-5 shooting in his 23 minutes of playing time. He even missed two of his four free throws — a clear sign something was wrong for the guy who led the league in free-throw percentage at 93.4 percent.
Williams gave Paul credit for battling and called him a warrior, but the Suns head coach also admitted that he ultimately made the decision to pull the 36-year-old for the final seven minutes of Game 2, when the score was still knotted at 86.
“It’s pretty obvious he’s not able to make the passes that he wants,” Williams said. “He was laboring tonight. I don’t want to get into too many details until I talk to him about it, but you could see that his arm wasn’t — he wasn’t even running the way that he ran and dribbled the ball this morning.”
Cam Payne (19 points, 7 assists) was tremendous in Game 2, which made the decision to ride with him over CP3 a little easier to stomach. But the Suns clearly needed Paul’s high basketball I.Q. and knack for clutch playmaking down the stretch, especially when LeBron James and Anthony Davis started throwing late-game haymakers. It was glaringly obvious after the defeat, and Williams’ assessment on Paul’s health doesn’t bode well with Game 3 looming on Thursday night.
Neither does Booker’s use of the future tense while answering a question about potentially having to move forward without CP3 at full capacity.
“It’s gonna be tough, but we all have to step up,” Booker said. “We don’t know how his health is right now and how quick he’s gonna recover, but everybody has to give a little bit more.”
All of this means one thing: The Phoenix Suns’ culture will be put to the ultimate test much sooner than anyone expected.
The Phoenix Suns are in a tough spot
Lots of teams talk about the “next man up” mentality, but the chips are stacked against this Suns squad in a way most 2-seeds don’t typically have to worry about. They were already considered underdogs in a series against LeBron, AD and a healthy Lakers side, and even in Game 2, when everyone expected LA to bounce back and win handily, Phoenix still almost pulled it out — despite Paul playing with one arm, despite Dario Saric being a gaping negative and despite the team going ice-cold from 3-point range (30.8 percent).
“Just doing it collectively, doing it together — like we’ve been doing all year,” Jae Crowder said. “We do have a lot of players in there who have a lot of pride and feel like they can get it done. But we’ve gotta continue to do it collectively, I think that’s what got us back in the game when we started to play with each other on both ends of the court and gain some momentum. That’s what it’s gonna take in Game 3, especially on the road in the playoffs, everything’s gotta be together.”
This first-round matchup feels more befitting of a conference finals showdown, especially with a vulnerable team — either the defense-less Portland Trail Blazers or Jamal Murray-less Denver Nuggets — waiting in the second round. The Dallas Mavericks going up 2-0 against the LA Clippers (who were a horrendous matchup for Phoenix) only adds to the sense of urgency for these two teams, because whoever wins this Suns-Lakers matchup could realistically have a much easier path to the NBA Finals than anyone anticipated even a week ago.
Everything the Suns want is on the other side of hard, and this Chris Paul injury, here and now, is their “hard.”
The truth is, we haven’t seen what Phoenix can or can’t do without their veteran floor general yet. He only missed two games all season and was obviously an instrumental part of their success, their on-court playing style and the growth of these impressive youngsters throughout the year. The Suns aren’t a title contender without him, and if Paul is done for the series or even limited by that stinger, it will go down as another massive “what-if” for this franchise and for CP3 alike.
But dialing it back to the situation at hand, as Monty and his team preferred to do all season, the Suns will be searching for a way to defy outside expectations once again. Phoenix only had four losing streaks during the 2020-21 campaign, and only one of those reached three consecutive losses. As Williams has said many times, this group is a bunch of sore losers: They hate losing, they obsess over it afterward, and they respond to it in a big way the next time out.
“One thing about us, losses do not change anything,” Deandre Ayton said. “We stick to our culture and we still have each others’ back til the end.”
Despite losing home-court advantage, Phoenix was also 24-12 away from home this season — the best road record in the NBA by two full games. If Payne is able to step up again like he did on Tuesday night, if Mikal Bridges’ offense decides to join the series, and if the Suns’ find their expected advantage in 3-point shooting that’s been absent through these first two games, nothing is impossible heading into Game 3.
It’s just going to be really, really hard if Chris Paul isn’t fully healthy, which leaves the Suns facing their first true test with everything they want on the other side.