After swishing a game-tying 3-pointer that sent a buzz inside Phoenix Suns Arena, Cameron Payne himself indulged in the electricity of the moment, skipping toward the Suns’ bench while yelling with his fans and teammates.
At that point, Phoenix had erased a 15-point third-quarter deficit to the Los Angeles Lakers, much by Payne’s backing. With starting point guard Chris Paul significantly limited by a right shoulder contusion, Payne scored or assisted on 19 of the Suns’ 29 points from 6:03 remaining in the third quarter to 7:04 left in the fourth, when he tied the game at 86.
It appeared then that the Suns were — in the words of their slogan — about to ‘Rally the Valley’ for a victory. Their fans were galvanized, and Payne’s efforts gave them energy that appeared to have no way to be cut off on their home floor.
Unfortunately for the Suns, they suffered an untimely power outage in the final minutes of their 109-102 loss to the Lakers in Game 2 of the first round of the Western Conference playoffs on Tuesday night. After Phoenix built a 90-89 edge with 5:39 to play, the Lakers went on an 11-2 run over the next 3:39, leading to them tying the series at one game apiece as it now transitions to Staples Center in Los Angeles.
Despite Payne’s heroic efforts with 19 total points, seven assists and three rebounds in nearly 33 minutes, it was arguably incomparable to what would have been expected out of Paul, who had just six points, five assists in three rebounds in 23 minutes and was pulled by Suns coach Monty Williams for the final seven minutes of the fourth quarter with lingering effects from his shoulder injury.
“He’s a warrior, we all know that, and I just made a decision to take him out,” Williams said of Paul.
Paul, who led the Suns in battle toward their second-best record in the Western Conference this season, has not been himself since he hurt his shoulder on Sunday, and his limitations have hurt his team immensely.
Closer look at Chris Paul's shoulder #Suns pic.twitter.com/kJCGzPiyre— Trevor Booth (@TrevorMBooth) May 26, 2021
Faced with a crunch-time moment it had similarly persevered through multiple times this season, Phoenix instead collapsed without its unquestioned leader. Once the game was won by the opposing Lakers, who stole home court advantage in the series, multiple Suns players were gutted they could not fight with Paul at their side.
“I just wish [Paul] was out there,” Payne said. “I just wish [Paul] was healthy.”
After forcing a shot-clock violation from Los Angeles and trailing 93-92 with 3:40 remaining, the Suns still had a chance to win without Paul. But with an inexperienced group outside of starting forward Jae Crowder with Payne, starting shooting guard Devin Booker, starting forward Cam Johnson and starting center Deandre Ayton on the floor, Phoenix was stonewalled by a veteran Lakers unit.
On the Suns’ next offensive possession, Los Angeles forward Anthony Davis blocked a post hook attempt by Ayton, leading to a difficult fadeaway from superstar forward LeBron James. After a subsequent miss from Booker, Davis hit a 3-pointer, suddenly giving the Lakers a two-possession advantage with 2:13 to play.
Unreal pic.twitter.com/8OIXM0wZ3E— Trevor Booth (@TrevorMBooth) May 26, 2021
Once Los Angeles forced a turnover from Payne and built an eight-point lead with two free throws from Davis, the Suns’ comeback hopes were all but finished.
“LeBron and AD made big plays,” Williams said. “We had our chances.”
With Paul not at 100 percent, the Suns struggled collectively to take care of the basketball throughout the game. They had 13 turnovers — six of which came in the first quarter — that led to 21 total points for the Lakers.
As a whole, Los Angeles finished with 15 fast break points compared to Phoenix’s four and won the rebounding battle 39 to 31 after the Suns outrebounded the Lakers 47 to 33 in Game 1.
“We just have to move on to the next game,” Booker said. “It’s a tough one tonight, we fought all the way through. Just came up short in the end.”
Without Paul, who finished tied for the ninth-best clutch rating during the regular season, the Suns did not make a field goal over the final 4:04 of the game. Payne, who was instrumental to Phoenix’s comeback effort, had a turnover and two fouls while not scoring in that stretch.
If Paul had been on the floor, it is conceivable that the Suns would have operated more confidently, as his presence has had a reverberating effect on his teammates. Instead, they dropped a game they felt like they could have won.
“Obviously, he’s a key piece to this puzzle,” Crowder said. “Yeah, it’s difficult but we have enough to get the job done, especially here on our home court, we felt like we had enough. “But it is tough, can’t even lie. It’s not easier without him on the court.”
With one day separating Game 3 against the Lakers in Los Angeles, the Suns hope Paul’s health will continue to improve. Phoenix had the best road record in the NBA during the regular season at 24-12 but certainly will be a different group if it does not have Paul at full strength.
After the game, Williams said Paul was “laboring” throughout his time on the floor. If his shoulder does not improve, the Suns as a whole could be laboring throughout their next two games in Los Angeles.
“At all times, we miss him,” 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.”