SAN FRANCISCO — As he walked toward the loading dock, Phoenix Suns guard Chris Paul appeared at ease.
Paul had just spent the past two hours leading the Suns to an eventual 107-103 win over the Golden State Warriors at Chase Center on Wednesday that featured his familiar crunch-time value with dagger shots, timely playmaking, steady leadership and competitive trash talk.
In just his third game since missing the previous 15 games while nursing a fractured right thumb, Paul hardly appeared limited with his production (15 points, eight assists), workload (33 minutes) and conditioning. And unlike what he had experienced for over the past month, Paul no longer carries the physical and mental toll stemmed from nursing a serious injury.
— * – Phoenix Suns (@Suns) March 31, 2022
“I’m just happy that’s behind me. I go to a dark place a lot of times when I can’t play,” Paul told NBA.com. “Some people like to play basketball. I need to play. This is my happy place.”
How did Paul get out of a dark place?
“I got an unbelievable support system, and having a great a team like this,” Paul said. “So, there was no pressure to try to get back faster or anything like that. It’s a good situation to be in.”
Paul may not have felt any external pressure to return even if the Suns had remained the best team in the Western Conference partly because of Paul’s leadership and league-leading 10.7 assists per game. Internally, though? Different story. Paul admittedly feels antsy staying on the sidelines.
Paul suffered his injury against the Houston Rockets on Feb. 16 after accidentally smashing his right hand on Rockets forward Jae’Sean Tate. That forced Paul to wear a cast during NBA All-Star weekend in Cleveland before playing only two minutes in his 12th All-Star appearance. That then blemished a previously fully healthy season already having four other hand and wrist surgeries in his 17-year NBA career. That included his left wrist after the Suns lost to the Milwaukee Bucks in six games in the 2021 Finals.
“He was working his tail off so that he could get back to playing and he wouldn’t have this huge gap in between being out and where he needs to be,” Suns coach Monty Williams said. “He shortened that gap with how he worked while he was out.”
Williams maintained details of that work “is all in house” out of respect for Paul’s privacy. But Paul revealed he had “around-the-clock treatment every single day,” which entailed a mix of weightlifting, running and rehab work. No wonder Paul has posted promising numbers against Denver (17 point on 6-of-10 shooting; 13 assists), Philadelphia (19 points on 9-of-15 shooting; 14 assists) and Golden State (15 points on 6-of-9 shooting, eight assists) since his return.
I’m just happy that’s behind me. I go to a dark place a lot of times when I can’t play. Some people like to play basketball. I need to play. This is my happy place.”
— Chris Paul
“Doing everything I could to speed up the recovery,” Paul said. “It made a huge difference. I didn’t want to come back on a minutes restriction. I make a point when I’m training that I push myself harder than any game ever could. But there’s still nothing like playing.”
There’s nothing like helping the Suns (62-14) tie a franchise record for most regular-season wins only four seasons after he helped the Houston Rockets finish with the league’s best record (65-17). This happened a season after Paul led the Suns to their first Finals since 1993.
“Obviously, I’d like to get a championship to go along with that. But that doesn’t diminish anything that we’ve done,” Paul said. “Seasons are hard. It’s a long season. Ups and downs of a season. It’s dope to be a part of that with this franchise and have the opportunity to have the most wins this franchise has ever had.”
There’s nothing like Paul prevailing in crunch time, a familiar job description that Williams likened to how “a great quarterback is in a two-minute drill.” In the final five minutes, Paul set up Devin Booker for an open layup before sinking two floaters. Paul then drove for a layup that gave the Suns a 104-101 lead with 13.1 seconds left. Roughly six seconds later, Paul sank a pair of foul shots for a 106-103 cushion with 7.7 seconds remaining.
During those stretches, the Warriors made various miscues. Klay Thompson committed his fourth foul with 34.2 seconds left, which set up Booker to make a pair of foul shots for a 102-101 lead. Following an ensuing timeout, Draymond Green committed a traveling violation. The Suns took advantage of those miscues because of Paul’s presence as well as Phoenix’s continuity and experience.
“It’s that confidence of knowing when we come to the huddle that everybody knows they got a job to do and everybody has their input,” Paul said. “We don’t get rattled like that. We lose at times. We understand and try to learn from it. But we also try to learn from our wins. We say it all the time. It’s a fun team to be around.”
And there’s nothing like Paul engaging in competitive gamesmanship. In light-hearted moments at his post-game press conference, Paul praised all of his Suns teammates before jokingly singling out Mikal Bridges nearby and calling him “a bad guy” and “a horrible human being.” In more serious moments in the actual game, Paul bantered with a Warriors veteran (Andre Iguodala) and young guard (Jordan Poole) in between giving teammates advice during timeouts and in between free throws.
Seasons are hard. It’s a long season. Ups and downs of a season. It’s dope to be a part of that with this franchise and have the opportunity to have the most wins this franchise has ever had.”
— Paul, on Suns getting win No. 62
“When you’re out here playing basketball, especially against elite teams like that, you ain’t playing checkers. You’re playing chess,” Paul said. “It’s a thinking game. You can’t be running around out there. It’s not a pickup game. It’s just all strategy. That’s all it is.”
Not a surprise then that Paul played an active role behind-the-scenes during his recovery. As Williams drove from the Phoenix arena to his home, Paul talked with him on the phone filled with ideas and observations. Williams expressed appreciation for the feedback “because I know his intentions are to help us.” Paul took a similar approach with teammates from the bench by “giving insight to what I see and don’t see.”
Given the Suns’ recent Finals experience, however, Paul noted that he “let certain guys figure it out on their own.” The approach worked. The Suns maintained their league-leading record by going 11-4 during Paul’s absence. Booker then further cemented his case for regular-season MVP consideration by averaging 30.3 points on 53.8% shooting and 6.8 assists since the All-Star break.
Because of those developments, one can’t help but wonder if the Suns will benefit from any silver linings stemmed from Paul’s absence. After doing the same thing amid this season overlapping injuries to Booker and Deandre Ayton, the Suns’ stars and role players mitigated Paul’s absence with elevated play. Paul also recharged and healed his body just before ramping up in time for the postseason.
“It is what it is. You just never know,” Paul said. “You always have to look at the bright side of anything. I think that’s what we try to do.”
Still, Paul wished he could have just stayed on the basketball court instead of working tirelessly in the trainer’s room. He remains much happier that way.
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