2023 Playoffs: West Conf. Semifinal | Nuggets vs. Suns

Suns optimistic for Chris Paul's return, but contingency plans in place

If Chris Paul can't go in Game 3, Phoenix will turn to Cameron Payne, who was a huge part of the Suns' Finals run in 2021.

Next man up? Cameron Payne was a surprise hero for a few games during the Suns’ run to the NBA Finals in 2021.

Balls bounced and shots took flight at the Verizon 5G Performance Center on Wednesday as Chris Paul watched a portion of practice from a black folding chair, unsure of his status for Game 3 of the Western Conference semifinals.

While reports surfaced Tuesday suggesting the club is preparing for the veteran point guard to potentially miss Games 3 through 5, Phoenix continues to hold out hope that Paul is able to return from a left groin injury with the team down 2-0 to Denver and three days of rest between the second and third games of this series.

The teams clash again Friday at Footprint Center (10 p.m. ET, ESPN), with the Suns officially deeming Paul as day-to-day.

“Gratefully, he didn’t tear it or something like that where he’s done for the season,” Phoenix coach Monty Williams said. “You always have to look at the bright side of tough situations and tough breaks. I’m optimistic just because I believe in a number of things: the medical staff, [and] Chris fights his tail off to get back. We’ll just have to wait and see.”

The immediate concern, however, is whether the Suns can dig themselves out of the 2-0 hole the Nuggets shoveled in Denver over the first two games of the series. Teams taking a 2-0 lead in the playoffs go on to win the series 92.6% of the time. Phoenix isn’t concerned with the odds, though. The plan is to lean into lessons learned from the past in charting a course to topple the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference.

That’s how star guard Devin Booker so easily delivered a postgame message of hope Monday in the face of despair coming off a 97-87 loss in Game 2.

“I just love playoff basketball,” Booker said that night. “That’s the first thing I said when I got into the locker room. You just have to love this and embrace it. There [are] not many people that get a chance to do what we’re doing, playing at the highest level of basketball.”

If Chris Paul misses Game 3, Devin Booker will likely take on more ball-handling responsibilities.

The most pressing task now for the Suns is to continue that as long as possible.

“We wouldn’t be here today if we didn’t have Book in those moments letting everybody know before I even come into the room what we’re capable of doing,” Williams said.

Williams points to the 2019-20 NBA season restart, where Phoenix notched a perfect 8-0 record in the Orlando bubble. There is also the 2021 Western Conference finals against the LA Clippers, in which Cam Payne started the first two games in place of Paul, helping the Suns eventually win that series in six games as evidence of “a reference point of overcoming” adversity. Payne played 17 minutes in Phoenix’s Game 2 loss at Denver, and the club is preparing for him to start opposite Booker, who will likely begin Game 3 in the point guard spot.

Paul didn’t participate in Wednesday’s workout, and told Payne “to be ready,” the reserve guard said.

“Honestly man, I’ve got so much energy to go out there and play,” Payne said. “I’m geeked to be playing, honestly. I’m just ready to go.”

The last time Payne filled in for Paul in the playoffs, the he shot 50% in back-to-back starts while averaging 20 points and nine assists as Phoenix built a 2-0 lead over the Clippers in the 2021 West finals. In Game 2, Payne racked up a career-high 29 points and nine assists with two steals and two blocks.

While Payne admits he’s not as adept as Paul in crushing opponents in the midrange, the 28-year-old point guard believes he brings more speed to the table than the 12-time All-Star, who turns 38 on Saturday. Payne entered Game 2 on Monday with 4:32 left in the third quarter after Paul suffered the left groin injury. Prior to leaving the game, Paul played a significant role in helping Phoenix build an eight-point lead, draining an 18-footer to cap a 3-of-3 shooting third quarter in which the Suns dropped 31 points in connecting on 70.6% of their shots.

Payne made one bucket in the third quarter before finishing 0-for-4 in the fourth quarter as Phoenix struggled as a whole (7-for-25 overall, 0-for-9 on 3-pointers). Payne believes he can compensate for his lack of midrange prowess by helping the Suns play with a faster pace on offense while attacking the paint.

“If anybody can get their foot in the paint, the defense always will converge because the ball scores,” he said. “The recipe [is to] try to converge them and get some good open looks. I feel like the pace kind of generates more shots, kind of [doesn’t] let them set their defense up. I feel like when they’re playing kind of in scramble mode, it kind of helps us out. They’re kind of doing that to us, making us scramble. It’s kind of like they’re doing the things that we want to do. Pace kind of helps us get free shots, get [Kevin Durant] open shots, get Book open looks, [and] makes [Denver center Nikola] Jokic run when we’re fast.”

Payne isn’t the only Sun expected to carry more responsibility into Game 3. Already shouldering a heavy scoring burden, the team’s most prolific playmakers — Booker and Durant — will be leaned on more heavily, with the former likely to carry more of the load as Phoenix’s primary ball handler. Williams plans to add a little more scoring punch by expanding the roles of a couple of newcomers in Terrence Ross and T.J. Warren, who joined the club back in February.

Ross hasn’t even played 10 minutes for the Suns so far in the playoffs, while Warren clocked nearly six minutes total during two games in the opening round.

“I can do a better job of putting more scorers on the floor and living with whatever warts may come with that just to free [Booker and Durant] up so they don’t have to do it every single time down the floor,” Williams said.

Before the team’s workout on Wednesday, the coach “listed out the things we’ve been through the last four years” in explaining how the latest bout of adversity is something Phoenix can easily overcome given the club’s recent history.

While Paul’s status remains a “day-to-day situation,” according to Williams, Phoenix’s resolve to bounce back holds steady.

“We’ve been embracing all these kinds of things since I came to the team since the bubble,” Payne said. “This year, we’re dealing with injuries. But we’re where we are. We’re here. You’ve got to take what the world gives you, just accept it. I feel like we’re capable of getting out of this hole. We’re back home. Our job was to steal one [in Denver]. That didn’t happen. Let’s try to go 2-0 here [in Phoenix], and deal with what we’ve got to do back on the road.”

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Michael C. Wright is a senior writer for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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