Obviously, the Phoenix Suns are being very tight-lipped about Chris Paul’s shoulder injury, which was sustained early in the second quarter of Game One of Round One of the 2021 NBA Playoffs. They won’t discuss details on how it happened, or the current injury status, and did not even list Paul on the pre-game injury report.
But make no mistake, the Suns have a major problem with Chris Paul’s health that’s not going to just disappear.
After playing in pain the rest of Sunday’s win, he looked like a shadow of himself two days later and was eventually pulled by his coach in an act of kindness.
“Just looking at him, holding his arm the way that he was holding it, I just couldn’t watch him run like that,” head coach Monty Williams said after pulling Chris Paul in the 4th quarter. “He’s not able to make the passes he wants. He wasn’t even running the way that he ran and dribbled the ball this morning.”
Is it a bruise or strain (contusion), suffered from LeBron’s right shoulder contact? Or is it a stinger, suffered from hitting his head on Cam Johnson half a second later?
Here’s the play.
Chris Paul heads to the locker room after an apparent injury on this play.pic.twitter.com/SE8Mzitird— Sporting News (@sportingnews) May 23, 2021
Whether it’s a stinger, a bruise or a strain, the injury does not appear ready to simply disappear before Game Three.
He hobbled through the rest of Game One, playing 25 of the game’s final 31 minutes, and helped the Suns close out a 99-90 win to take the series lead.
Then he hobbled through Game Two, playing 23 of the game’s first 36 minutes, before Monty Williams called him off and let backup Cameron Payne try to carry the team to another win.
But in those final four minutes, after the Suns had taken a small lead, the Suns without Paul could not close out the Lakers. The league’s second-best clutch team this season — 25-12 record when games are within 5 points in the final 5:00 — fell apart under the Lakers’ defensive pressure without their leader.
Now, the Suns face the prospect of playing in LA without Paul, or at least without the Paul they knew all season.
The players know what they’ve lost and they’re understandably down about it. Paul is an All-Star this year, probably All-NBA as well, and the clear leader of the second-best team in the NBA.
“At all times, we miss him,” All-Star guard Devin Booker said. “And it’s going to be tough but we all have to step up. We don’t know how his health is right now and how quick he’s going to recover, but everybody has to give a little bit more.”
“It is tough, can’t even lie,” forward Jae Crowder said. “It’s not easier without him on the court, but we have enough.”
“It was tough,” backup point guard Cameron Payne said of the Lakers pressure. “I just wish he was out there, I just with he was healthy.”
If Paul cannot get back to his old self in Game Three, Payne will have to shoulder a bigger load. On the road. Against the league’s defending champs, with LeBron James hitting crazy daggers when they’re needed most.
This is just latest playoff injury sustained by Chris Paul in his illustrious career. In 13 playoff runs, Paul has four notable injuries that killed his and his team’s chances for a championship.
- 2015: Hamstring
- 2016: Broken Thumb
- 2018: Hamstring
- 2021: Shoulder
This Suns team is likely the 2nd or 3rd best team of his career. Only the 2018 Rockets, who went 65-17 and lost an epic seven-game Conference Finals to the Warriors after a Paul injury, were clearly better than these Suns.
He’s got a pair of young star teammates playing very well in their playoff debut (Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton) and a cadre of role players around them who know exactly what to do and how to do it. Frankly, the only players doing poorly so far are veterans Paul (injury), Jae Crowder (foul trouble, shooting) and Dario Saric (oof).
Paul and his team are doing their best to survive and so far they’re staying afloat in a 1-1 series tie.
- With healthy Paul: +8 net point differential in 14 minutes
- With hobbling Paul on court: -2 point differential in 49 minutes (rest of game 1 + game 2)
- Without Paul, since injury: -4 in 33 minutes (rest of game 1 + game 2)
But now the series turns to LA, with three of the next four games at Staples Center with the home crowd cheering the Lakers on.
Every single media talking head will declare the Lakers the clear favorites from here on out. Lakers fans will crow. Even Suns fans will lose hope, succumbing to recency bias of the loss and the injury and the Suns’ own history of debilitating playoff injuries.
I remember Steve Nash saying in 2006, when the massively undermanned Suns needed seven games to beat each of their first two playoff opponents before losing in six games to the Mavericks in the Conference Finals after losing yet another player, “after every win you think you’ll never lose again, and after every loss you think you’ll never win again.”
This is a team on the precipice, and they will need Chris Paul’s guidance to survive. He needs to remain their unquestioned leader, even if he can’t be on the court running the show. Monty Williams and his band of merry men will need to figure out ways to counter the Lakers’ sheer size and build leads that Lebron James can’t whisk away with a turnaround fadeaway.
This is a dangerous time. If the Suns fold in LA, the season will end with a bitter taste. If the Suns survive, and Paul returns to health, this ‘Rocky’ story could be an all-timer.
Can’t wait to find out what happens next!