I was 8 years old when Robert Horry hip-checked Steve Nash and the Phoenix Suns out of an NBA championship. And boy, was I livid.
I remember running to the television screen in the living room of my two-story home in Chandler, screaming, “What the heck was that?” I imagine Amar’e Stoudemire and Boris Diaw had similar thoughts — likely with more colorful language — as they moved steps away from the Suns bench with the intention of checking on their teammate.
Suns fans, you know where I’m going with this. Stoudemire and Diaw were suspended for a crucial Game 5 of the 2007 Western Conference semifinals in Phoenix, a contest the Suns actually almost won before Bruce Bowen hit a soul-sucking corner 3-pointer to give the San Antonio Spurs an 84-81 lead with 35.4 seconds left. Stoudemire and Diaw came back for Game 6, but it was too late — the Spurs had seized control of the series.
I will go to my grave saying that had the Horry incident not occurred — much less Tim Donaghy’s bogus association with a gambling scandal that stole Game 3 of that series from Phoenix — the Suns would have won the title that year. It was an unfortunate circumstance that when I reflect, I always ask, ‘What if?’
I hope that Wednesday morning’s news about Chris Paul being placed in the health and safety protocols doesn’t lead to the the same feeling.
First of all, this could be a terrible break for Paul. His history of setbacks in the postseason is well-documented, and Suns fans witnessed it firsthand when he bumped his right shoulder into Cameron Johnson while fighting for a defensive rebound in the first round against the Los Angeles Lakers. He came back, so the bullet was dodged, right?
Wrong, maybe. Shams Charania of The Athletic reported that Paul’s status is “up in the air” for the start of the Western Conference Finals. John Gambadoro of Arizona Sports reported that Paul tested positive for COVID-19 and was vaccinated in February. Late Wednesday morning, the Suns confirmed Chris Paul is in protocols and another update would not be provided until Saturday, June 19. Depending on the entirety of the circumstance, that means he could miss no games at all or multiple. It’s too early to tell.
What we do know is this: the Suns are obviously a better team with Paul. Their Net rating is 1.3 points better per 100 possessions when he is on the floor versus on the bench. In the playoffs, that number has dipped to minus-1.8, though some of that can be attributed to when he was less than 100 percent with his shoulder injury.
We’ve already seen how important Paul is to this playoff run. With the Suns down two games to one against the Lakers, he basically flipped the bird to coach Monty Williams when there was discussion of him being benched. Paul’s response? An 18-point, nine-assist outing including 12 second-half points to get Phoenix back in the series. It hasn’t lost since.
Just three nights ago, Paul had a virtuoso 37-point, seven-assist outing on 14-of-19 shooting, by far his best game in a Suns uniform. It was a death by a thousand mid-range shots for the Denver Nuggets, with Michael Porter Jr. looking more lost than a kid in a grocery store while trying to defend the Suns’ pick-and-roll actions.
For a Phoenix team that is relatively young in playoff battle, Paul’s presence as a poised, veteran commander is invaluable. That is why he was acquired in the offseason, why general manager James Jones pushed all of his chips to the center of the table to bust ‘The Timeline’ rebuild that seemingly had no end date.
Now, the Suns might not have Paul in the building for the moment he was brought here for. It’s a tough pill to swallow, but they must plan for that reality.
In the event that Paul misses one or multiple games of the Western Conference Finals, the Suns could start backup point guard Cameron Payne in his place. Payne has been one of their most productive players in the postseason — ranking fourth on the team in net rating — and offers a boost in pace that Paul doesn’t provide at his age.
That could be beneficial for a number of reasons. The Suns rank first among remaining postseason teams in points per possession in transition (1.30) and third in transition frequency (15.1 percent). With lineups in which Payne is on the floor and Paul is not, Phoenix’s Net rating is 9.8 points better per 100 possessions; it ranks in the 72nd percentile with 120.7 points per possession; and it holds teams to an effective field goal percentage of 45.6.
The Suns may also call upon Booker to be more of a playmaker. In 1,537 possessions in which Booker has been on the floor and Paul has not, Phoenix has a Net rating of 6.5 points better per 100 possessions, including a lineup with Payne and the rest of its starters — Mikal Bridges, Jae Crowder and Deandre Ayton — in which it is 15.8 points better per 100 possessions. That’s the Suns’ second-most effective lineup this postseason behind one with Paul, Bridges, backup forward Cameron Johnson, Crowder and Ayton, which is plus-23.8.
“That’s why your player development program is so important,” Suns coach Monty Williams said on Wednesday about filling in for Paul. “These guys are ready to play.”
Williams said each team remaining in the postseason has faced issues with health in some capacity and that the Suns are not unique in that regard. He added that they had a “really good” practice on Wednesday.
“We have said we are not going to let anything change our culture,” Williams said. “Chris’ situation aside, we just want to win.”
Phoenix is certainly a deep team, but how will it operate late in games without Paul? Not only was his mid-range takeover extremely entertaining to watch on Sunday, it was necessary. Multiple shots put the Nuggets back into submission even as they got close, allowing the Suns to seize control in the third quarter and during a final push in the fourth.
With Paul laboring at the end of Phoenix’s Game 2 loss to the Lakers, his team struggled in the fourth quarter, not making a field goal over the final 4:04 as Los Angeles went on a 7-0 run to secure the game. Payne was terrific beforehand — he scored or assisted on 19 of the Suns’ 29 points from 6:03 remaining in the third to 7:04 left in the fourth, when he tied the game at 86 — but there is something to be said about not having your leader in crunch time.
“I just wish [Paul] was out there,” Payne himself said. “I just wish [Paul] was healthy.”
Suns fans, it’s time to hold your breaths and see how this situation unfolds. The team will play its first game in the 2021 Western Conference Finals on Sunday, June 20 or Tuesday, June 22 depending on the length of the semifinal series with the Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Clippers. That matchup also had an interesting wrinkle thrown in on Wednesday, as there is concern that Kawhi Leonard has suffered an ACL injury.
I remember the anguish I felt as a kid when the Suns unfairly lost out on arguably their best chance at a title during the seven-seconds-or-less era. I hope — for Paul, you all, and the city I grew up in — that the feeling doesn’t return.