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Chris Paul struggles from the field in return to Suns lineup

The Suns’ starting point guard appeared out of rhythm after missing the first two games of the conference finals

NBA: Playoffs-Phoenix Suns at Los Angeles Clippers Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

Chris Paul was back in the lineup for the Phoenix Suns’ third game of the Western Conference Finals against the Los Angeles Clippers on Thursday night after missing the first two contests due to health and safety protocols. But it wasn’t a return that he — or his teammates — were pleased with.

In 39 minutes, Paul had 15 points on 5-of-19 shooting in the Suns’ 106-92 loss to the Clippers at Staples Center. He was forced to play extensive minutes without backup point guard Cameron Payne, who suffered an ankle injury in the final minute of the first quarter, available, something that Phoenix coach Monty Williams wished he could have changed with Paul re-acclimating to game speed.

“That’s on me,” Williams said. “But I think as he practices more and plays more — he hasn’t done anything in 10 days. So I think he’ll get better, he’ll be much better in the second game from the conditioning standpoint, this next game.”

Paul told reporters he did not play much basketball other than when he “messed around a little bit” on the court at his house. He last appeared in a game on June 13, when Phoenix clinched its semifinal series win over the Denver Nuggets behind a 37-point, seven-assist night for Paul on 14-of-19 shooting.

Paul and the Suns now lead the Western Conference Finals two games to one and will look to respond in Game 4, which tips off at 6 p.m. on Saturday on ESPN. After Thursday’s game, here’s what Paul had to say to reporters.

On how he would sum up the loss:

“They outplayed us tonight. We didn’t make shots, you could tell they had a lot more energy. I got to be better, I shot terrible. I got to pick up the pace. We’ll be ready for Game 4.”

If he got to play basketball at all when he was in the health and safety protocols:

“I messed around a little bit on the court at my house, but other than that, (no). I’m happy to just be out here playing, you know what I mean? It’s a lot of people in the world who dealt with this (COVID-19) and don’t get the opportunity that I have. So I’m just grateful to be back out here playing.”

On his reaction to entering the health and safety protocols:

“[Expletive] happens. And it did, and I’m here now. You know what I mean? So I’m cool. I’m cool.”

On what he saw go wrong for the Suns in the third quarter:

“We was taking the ball out of the net, (Clippers forward Terance) Mann got aggressive. You watch them all playoffs long, that’s when they’ve been really good, that third quarter. So we got to see [how] we can do better. We missed (backup point guard) Cam Payne. I’ve been at home watching these last two games and I saw the pace he was playing with. And late in the game, we started to do it a little bit. So we’ll look at the film and try to make sure we’re better not just in the third quarter, but all game.”

On what he’s taken from handling injuries and challenging circumstances in the postseason and if he feels more equipped to handle them now:

“Absolutely, absolutely. Things could be a lot worse. Like I said, I’m here now. Got an unbelievable team that’s in Phoenix, and I got the best support system that you could absolutely have. So ain’t nobody feeling sorry — whatever, that’s in the past. You move on.”

On the challenges of returning to play after being away for 10 days:

“I don’t know, that’s a good question. I just, I can’t wait to get home and watch the film from the game. It’s a lot easier playing than it is watching it at home, I’ll tell you that much. My nerves was terrible these past two games watching at home, but it felt good to get back out there and play. And now, we got some unfinished business.”

On how his body felt during the game:

“I was cool. I was good. Yeah, I was good. I was good, I feel like I’ll feel even better next game. But yeah, I was cool. I was prepared.”

On finding out about entering the health and safety protocols:

“You go into, it is what it is. Dealt with it. Anybody with kids, anytime you’re going through something, the hardest part is being away from your kids and your family. Once you get over the shock of what’s happening, the hell with ‘how and ‘why.’ You start figuring out how you can get better. Like I said, I got the best team in the world you could possibly have. And I’m here, I’m grateful.”

If he felt starting shooting guard Devin Booker’s mask over his broken nose affected his offensive game and what he thought of his injury:

“They happen. I told him, Game 2, when it happened, first thing (that) popped in my mind was Steve Nash (in the 2007 Western Conference semifinals). But he got the mask, he’s fine. Like, we’re not one of those teams that’s looking for excuses and all that stuff. Give them credit, they played really well tonight. We’ll get ready for Game 4.”

On what it was like to FaceTime his teammates after they won Games 1 and 2:

“It’s kind of a blur. I feel like that was like three weeks ago. But it’s great, man. I done talked to a few guys around the league who called, checked on me or whatnot. But I think the biggest thing, they called and said they just loved the way our team is. A few guys, stars in our league, called and was like, ‘Man, just to see the way that you guys really play together, play for each other.’ That’s real, our relationships and stuff. So it’s genuine, it’s a fun group to be around. And when you’re around a group like that, you want to win. You don’t ever want the season to end because you actually like being around each other.”