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‘I’m back’: As Chris Paul gets healthier, Suns’ chances to win series grow

Chris Paul appears to be moving closer to 100 percent, and the Suns benefited from it collectively in a gutsy win

NBA: Playoffs-Phoenix Suns at Los Angeles Lakers Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

For a rare moment, Chris Paul was emotionally vulnerable.

While interviewed by ESPN’s Rachel Nichols, the Phoenix Suns’ starting point guard — typically a stone-faced assassin who shows no remorse while slicing through his opponents — became human. His voice cracked, his body swayed from side to side and he opened up about his family, who he said prayed for him “all day” recently.

The last week has been especially challenging for Paul and his teammates. The Suns’ unquestioned leader has been heavily restricted by a right shoulder contusion suffered in Game 1 of his team’s first-round series against the Los Angeles Lakers, hindering its collective rhythm in the process. It led to Phoenix’s coach, Monty Williams, considering benching him for a pivotal Game 4 on the road with the Suns down two games to one.

But in a classic showing of his resilience, Paul vehemently denied his coach any chance of sitting him. It resulted in the Suns collectively refusing the Lakers an opportunity to put them in a 3-1 series bind with a dominant 100-92 win in Staples Center in Los Angeles on Sunday afternoon.

With their victory, the Suns tied their first-round matchup against the defending champions as the series moves back to Phoenix for a pivotal Game 5 on Tuesday. And suddenly, Paul’s individual vigor and that of his team appears to be closer to normal, a dramatic shift in a series that seemed lost just days ago.

“Showed a lot of fight, man,” Paul said. “Guys on both sides, banged up, it’s the playoffs, that’s what it’s going to look like. But we showed a lot of fight and got this win.”

Before the Suns’ gutsy win on Sunday, Paul’s chances of playing seemed bleak. He did not practice in each of the two days following Phoenix’s 109-95 loss in Game 3 on Thursday, when he was a team-worst minus-20 and clearly not his normal self. Paul said on Sunday he had not even touched a basketball since that game.

The decision to play Paul in Game 4 came into focus during a 20-minute conversation with him, Williams and Suns general manager James Jones in the hours leading up to the contest. Initially expressing his desire to sit Paul, Williams was essentially told by his point guard, “Hell nah.” Paul bargained to start, see how his shoulder felt and then have his coaches and teammates determine if he should be pulled from the game.

Ultimately, Williams conceded, a decision stemming from his established trust in Paul since he coached him with the New Orleans Hornets in 2010-11.

“It was something that I had been thinking about for the past 48-whatever hours and it came down to him looking me in the eyes and saying, ‘Just trust me on this one, coach,’” Williams said. ‘“If I don’t look the way you want me to, then take me out.’”

Williams said his confidence in Paul’s ability began to grow in pregame warmups, when Paul worked out with Suns assistant coach Willie Green and showed “stuff that he couldn’t do the last couple of days.” That soon carried over to the game.

Paul played the first six minutes and 30 seconds of the first quarter, appearing not to labor while hitting a pull-up jumper and attempting a 3-pointer on consecutive possessions. He then played over eight minutes in the second quarter including his normal stint before halftime, when the Suns went on a 7-2 run over the last 2:35 to take a 54-50 lead.

And for the first time this series, Paul — and his team — got better as the game progressed. Phoenix used an 18-4 run from three minutes remaining in the second quarter to 9:21 left in the third to build a double-digit lead on Los Angeles. The Suns extended their advantage to as large as 16 points during the third quarter, which they won 27-15 and thoroughly controlled on both ends.

Paul had eight of his team-best 18 points during the period, including consecutive pull-up jumpers that led him to looking at the Lakers’ crowd and saying, “I’m back,” with clear excitement on his face.

“I don’t know if I yelled it or (Suns backup shooting guard) Langston Galloway yelled it, but I mean it felt good man,” Paul said. “You work all summer, all season to get here and to not be able to get your team what you want to give them, and to have them out there so they (the Lakers) are guarding you knowing you’re somewhat less than, it was good.”

After a pull-up shot from Paul that gave the Suns their biggest lead at 85-67 with 10:09 remaining, his team was momentarily threatened by a 21-10 run over the next 7:29 that saw their edge fall to 95-88. However, he had a huge steal on Phoenix’s next possession, leading to a back-and-forth sequence that ultimately led to a dagger 3-pointer from starting forward Jae Crowder to give the Suns a 98-88 lead with 1:23 left.

Crowder, who shot 2-of-20 from 3-point range in the first three games of the series, broke out of his shooting slump by scoring 17 points on 6-of-12 shooting on Sunday, including three 3-pointers. He said Paul’s presence had a lot to do with that.

“Everything’s been a little off-kilter here because of our point guard (Paul), honestly,” Crowder said. “It’s not an excuse, that’s just us having to adjust on the fly, in a sense. My shots and things are coming different, our offense is clicking different when he’s not on the court. So we have to adjust and be prepared to play without him, even though we want him to play very badly, because you see what he can do.”

In the end, Paul played 32 minutes, shot 7-of-15 from the field and also led his team with nine assists and three steals. Suns backup point guard Cameron Payne, who played extensive minutes in Paul’s absence and 25 on Sunday, said Paul made the game “a lot easier” for his teammates with his closer-to-normal impact.

“I mean, he’s been the quarterback the whole season, so it’s always a blessing to have him out there with us,” Payne said. “He shot the ball, that was a plus. He was able to find people, that was a plus. So it was just great to have him out there with us tonight.”

With the Suns regaining home court advantage, this series now has a much different feel. Phoenix seems to have momentum after a dominant victory on the road, especially since Lakers superstar forward Anthony Davis — who torched the Suns with back-to-back 34-point outings in Games 2 and 3 — suffered a groin strain with 40.1 seconds left in the second quarter and is reportedly unlikely to play in Game 5. Phoenix was winning at the time of Davis’ departure, 51-50, and in the midst of a 24-13 run dating back to 8:49 left in the second.

Regardless of Davis’ status, Paul appears to be inching back to 100 percent, and so are the Suns collectively. That gives them a much better chance to win now.

“Just having Chris out there, him being a threat, him making plays for everybody and feeling more healthy is what we’ve been doing all year,” said Suns starting shooting guard Devin Booker. “So that’s what we’re accustomed to, that’s what we’ve been used to. And he’s leading us all the way through, so I’m happy to see him getting better, getting healthier by the second.”