Chris Paul isn’t 100 percent, but he’s still lethal as the Phoenix Suns’ closer

Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports /

Chris Paul’s shoulder may not be 100 percent yet, but he’s still serving his role as closer for the Phoenix Suns.

Chris Paul hasn’t been 100 percent in the playoffs since the second quarter of Game 1 in the Phoenix Suns‘ first-round series, just before he suffered the shoulder stinger he’s been playing through ever since.

Some days, the results have been great, like Games 4-6 of that series and Game 1 of the Suns’ second-round matchup against the Denver Nuggets that kicked off on Monday night. Other nights, particularly right after the injury, he’s struggled.

Overall, Paul’s postseason production this year — 10.9 points and 8.1 assists per game on 42.3 percent shooting from the floor and 30.8 percent shooting from long range — isn’t quite what we’re used to. Even at age 36, Paul put up 16.4 points and 8.9 assists a night on .499/.395/.934 shooting splits during the regular season, so to watch him dip from a hyper-efficient, second-leading scorer on a legitimate title contender to Phoenix’s sixth-leading scorer in the postseason has been jarring.

CP3 may not be 100 percent yet, but fortunately for the Suns, it hasn’t impacted his role as their reliable closer.

That was on full display in their 122-105 win in Game 1 Monday night. True enough, Phoenix actually turned the tide with a 16-0 burst after trailing by nine points in the third quarter, and Paul was only on the floor for half of that. He took his customary breather at the 4:26 mark, giving him time to recharge for the start of the fourth quarter, when head coach Monty Williams typically gives Devin Booker a rest.

CP3 watched his team finish the quarter on a 15-7 run, putting Phoenix up by nine points heading into the fourth. But like all killer sharks, Paul chose violence to start the final period once he smelled blood in the water.

After assisting on a Dario Saric bucket to start the quarter, Paul scored the Suns’ next 10 points to put his team up by 16, completely swinging momentum in Phoenix’s favor and putting Denver in a hole it was unable to climb out of.

First, he drilled back-to-back mid-range jumpers to bump the lead up to 15:

Then came an and-1 against the pesky Facundo Campazzo:

And as if that were enough, the Point God topped it all off with a downright rude step-back 3:

The Nuggets committed a live-ball turnover on the very next play, ending in the Torrey Craig alley-oop that sent PHX Arena into an absolute frenzy. But the damage had already been done: Any hope of Denver responding with a run to start the fourth quarter was singlehandedly smothered by Paul’s individual brilliance, working the crowd into a fever pitch before Cam Payne’s lob to Craig blew the roof off the building.

“We felt the energy, we felt the passion behind it,” Devin Booker said. “He just made plays, not only with his scoring ability but getting everybody else involved. And that’s been the story of the season for us, following him in that regard. So that was a big push for us, that was a big momentum swing for us that I think we took and ran with and widened the gap.”

The funny part? Through three quarters, Chris Paul was not having a great game.

He had started his night shooting 2-for-8, for only 7 points. He did have 8 assists to that point, but it didn’t feel like he was controlling the game. That changed in the fourth.

“Chris has been in those moments so many times, I don’t think not making shots is going to rattle him,” Monty Williams said. “I think he’s more concerned with managing the game than he is with his shooting percentage. And in those moments, I thought we did a good job of spacing so he had room to operate, and then he just made some big shots. That’s just who he is, whether it’s facilitating and getting the ball to guys where they need it, or in those moments, being able to knock down the shot. ”

Paul notched 14 of his 21 points and 3 of his 11 assists in the fourth quarter, shooting a perfect 6-for-6 to finish his night 8-of-14 overall.

“It was just sort of trying to be aggressive, trying to stay aggressive,” Paul said. “I missed a lot of shots early, especially the start of the third quarter. I just knew, me and Book sort of play together, then he’s in, then I’m in, so just trying to be more assertive.”

Chris Paul is still filling his role as the Suns’ closer, only with a twist

This is nothing new; Paul finished sixth in the entire NBA in total points scored (120) in “clutch minutes,” which defines as any game where the score is within five points in the final five minutes. He shot 47.6 percent in those situations, to go with 22 assists — seventh-most in the association.

Booker, who was not far behind with 95 points and 17 assists in crunch-time, was nowhere near as efficient, and Phoenix grew accustomed to CP3-led lineups (especially with Dario Saric out there) blowing games wide open at the start of the fourth quarter while Book got his rest. Unofficially and officially, Paul’s role in helping the Suns finish off games was second to none.

That was the case again on Monday. Despite Deandre Ayton‘s extremely impressive battle against Nikola Jokic, Devin Booker’s manipulation of Denver’s defense with his passing and Mikal Bridges‘ playoff-best 23-5-5 stat line, it was Paul who scored or assisted on 20 of the Suns’ 34 points in the final period.

“It’s in his hands, man,” Deandre Ayton said. “He’s made us comfortable — not comfortable, in that way, but just knowing that he got it.”

This wasn’t even the first time in these playoffs we’ve seen Paul give his teammates reason to rant and rave about his leadership. In Game 4, Paul did the dirty work in the third quarter, helping the Suns turn a four-point halftime lead into a 14-point advantage by scoring or assisting on eight of their first 14 points to start the second half. His layup and two free throws at the end of the third kept the Los Angeles Lakers behind by 16 entering the fourth, and when the defending champs cut the deficit to 10, he assisted on a Booker bucket and then hit another mid-range jumper to help close it out.

Even in the closeout Game 6, when Booker’s 47 points were the clear headliner, the Lakers had cut the Suns’ lead down to 10 in the fourth quarter, and the young Phoenix side looked rattled … until Paul scored, found Mikal Bridges for 3 and then hit another mid-ranger to push the lead back to 17 and seal the deal.

So what’s remarkable about a player who dictates the flow of games as well as anyone in NBA history doing it again for the Suns? Well, as much as Paul has an uncanny sense for when it’s time for him to take over, he’s almost doing it by necessity for Phoenix — not just to get his younger teammates involved early and feel out his opponent, but also to allow his body to warm up first.

“Yeah, it definitely loosens up,” Paul said of his shoulder as it gets later in games. “One thing about it is you don’t get like, no practice time. The only way you get a chance to see how it is is in a game.”

With such an injury, the Suns have limited CP3’s practice work in between games. From Game 4 on during the Lakers series, Paul said he didn’t even touch a basketball between games, since the medical staff told him the best thing for his shoulder was to rest it as much as possible.

Paul expressed his disappointment after the Lakers series that he hadn’t been of more use, and after Game 1, he was almost relieved with the way he was able to bounce back from his underwhelming start through the first three quarters. After all, 21-point, 11-assist performance marked only the second time he’s scored in double figures in these playoffs, as well as the second time he’s reached double-digit assists or shot better than 40 percent from the floor.

“It was fun to get out there and be involved,” he said. “That last series, that was tough. But I’m glad to be back helping the team.”

Despite not being 100 percent, Paul has still recorded 57 assists to just 10 turnovers through seven playoff games. In Game 1 against Denver, he joined Steve Nash and John Stockton as the only guards age 36 or older to record 20 points and 10 assists in a playoff game over the last 30 years, per ESPN Stats & Info. Throw in his 6 rebounds, and StatMuse informs us he’s the first player that age to put up 20 points, 10 assists and 5 rebounds in a playoff game since 1965.

Chris Paul may not be at full strength yet, but that’s honestly scary for the rest of the league if he’s still finding ways to close games out for the Phoenix Suns.

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