2021 Playoffs: West Final | Suns vs. Clippers

Suns take a moment to indulge before setting sights on conference finals challenge

With an opponent still to be determined, the Suns must now navigate the beginning of the conference finals without potentially Chris Paul.

Michael C. Wright

Michael C. Wright

Chris Paul’s status is in doubt for the conference finals, and Phoenix’s spectacular run could be challenged without his steadying hand.

Phoenix Suns coach Monty Williams admits to indulging in “a pretty cool moment for the team” at Sky Harbor Airport on Sunday when it arrived home from sweeping the Denver Nuggets 4-0 in the Western Conference semifinals.

The next day quickly became “business as usual,” he said.

“If we’re consistent with our culture, and we come in and get our work done every day, I think that’s something we can hold on to,” Williams added. “It gives us a level of stability from day to day.”

That’s precisely what Phoenix needs, but already has on the heels of point guard Chris Paul entering COVID-19 protocol on Wednesday, leaving his status uncertain for Game 1 of a conference finals series in which the Suns don’t even yet know their opponent or a start date. Williams understands the Suns could be forced to tip off the West finals without Paul on the floor, but he and the team aren’t fretting.

That’s because the “stability” Williams referenced earlier is already baked into the roster and cultivated daily in a rapidly constructed culture of accountability.

The Suns are into the West finals for the first time since 2010. These intricacies and components have made Phoenix successful.

“I think guys are always ready to play, especially in these moments,” Williams said. “Obviously, Chris Paul is not someone that you fill in for easily, but it’s the reason why your player development program is so important. We’ve had guys this year step up in big moments at the position from [Cameron] Payne to E’Twaun [Moore]. [Devin Booker] has even played some point for us from time-to-time. So, our guys are ready for the challenge.

“Everybody’s dealing with it. If you look around the league, Philly’s got a situation, the Clippers have a situation, Utah’s had one for a while. Everybody’s dealing with it. So, we don’t feel like we’re the only ones dealing with a situation when it comes to health and trying to stay healthy. It’s what you prepare for as a staff and as a team. We feel like our guys are ready for whatever presents itself.”

Phoenix plans to evaluate Paul, who is reportedly vaccinated, on Saturday and update his status. The earliest the conference finals can start is Sunday, depending on the finish date of the Western Conference semifinals matchup between the LA Clippers and the Utah Jazz.

So, advancing Paul through the COVID-19 protocols in time to possibly play on Sunday would be tricky, given the wide variance on time missed this season for players who tested positive for coronavirus.

The NBA loosened some of the previous protocols back in March for league personnel that received the COVID-19 vaccine.

But previous protocols apply for any players exhibiting coronavirus symptoms, which could include a 10-day quarantine, regardless of whether the player has been vaccinated.

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The quickest route to a return for Paul is to test negative two consecutive times at least 24 hours apart, before undergoing a cardiac screening to be cleared to return to physical activity.

Williams indicated he’s thought through all the possible scenarios, but he chooses not to inundate the team with all the info.

“I try not to overthink things, and I try to minimize, limit the amount of information that I crowd the players’ minds with because right now we’re just in a situation where all we can do is practice and wait to see what happens,” Williams said. “There’s a natural tendency to let your head spin a little bit. I try not to do that, especially with our team.”

That’s partially because the Suns were built to handle this situation. They’ve got options. They’re deep. Most importantly, they’re hungry.

If forced to play without Paul, the Suns could either insert Payne into the starting lineup at point guard or they could just slide over two-time All-Star Booker.

A reclamation project that joined the Suns after most recent stints in China and the G League, Payne is averaging 10.2 points in 10 playoff games, shooting 41.8% from the field and 38.9% from 3-point range while averaging 2.9 assists.

With Paul struggling through a shoulder injury in Phoenix’s opening-round series against the Lakers, Payne averaged nearly 16 points and 4.5 assists from Games 2 through 5, connecting on 49% from the field and 45% from deep. Payne’s minutes decreased somewhat in the conference semifinals due to Paul returning to full strength.

Still, Payne had proved himself on the big stage against a formidable foe.

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Booker provides another option at point guard due to his versatility. Sure, Booker thrives in his off-ball role, but we’ve all seen his ability to create offense, while making sound decisions out of the pick-and-roll. Booker dominated in the conference semifinals, averaging 25.3 points, 7.8 rebounds and 4.5 assists, and he’s spent plenty of time throughout the season at point guard.

“This is what I’ve trained for. This is what I’ve prepared for,” said Booker, when asked about what it means to be playing meaningful basketball at this time of the year. “I don’t work out in the summer thinking my season’s gonna be over after 82 games. I put myself in a mental space where every shot counts. Every time I train, every time I work out, I’m thinking postseason or I’m thinking these types of games right here.”

It’s also worth it to consider the injury situations of Phoenix’s potential conference finals opponents. The Suns are arguably deeper than the Clippers without Kawhi Leonard, who is nursing a knee injury that leaves his future availability uncertain. The same goes for Utah, which is playing without point guard Mike Conley (hamstring) while Donovan Mitchell fights through ankle pain that limits his mobility and explosion.

Picture Mitchell with his ankle, Conley fresh off a hamstring injury or Joe Ingles trying to run around guarding Booker in the conference finals, while Suns defensive stopper Mikal Bridges would take on the responsibility of handling Utah’s most dangerous offensive threat (Mitchell).

Consider a similar scenario with the Clippers. If Leonard sits, LA would be forced to choose between several options for guarding Booker. If the Clippers utilize their best perimeter defender in Paul George against Booker, perhaps the energy expended in that endeavor would sap away much-needed energy on offense.

Phoenix, meanwhile, would have the luxury of deploying Bridges on either George or Mitchell.

Remember, Bridges defended LeBron James fairly well in the first round, and limited Michael Porter Jr.’s impact in the semifinals.

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The Suns finished the regular season ranked sixth in defensive rating (110.4), and they’re currently No. 2 (104.7) in the postseason.

“Our improvement, I think it’s just our communication [No.] 1, our versatility; Deandre [Ayton] protecting the paint, and we just have some competitive wings that can switch a lot of actions, guard a lot of different types of players,” Booker said. “We just trust it, we play together, we talk it out together, and we hold each other accountable. We understand that we can score with the best of them in very different types of ways, and we [can] punish teams for different coverages. But what we have to rely on is our defense.”

That defense creates offense to the tune of 20.4 points per game in transition throughout the postseason, led by Ayton — who played well in difficult matchups over the first two rounds against Anthony Davis and 2020-21 Kia NBA MVP Nikola Jokic — as well as strong wing defenders Bridges and Jae Crowder.

“We just came into the postseason and just tightened up our screws a little bit,” Crowder said. “The stuff that we’ve been doing all year long, we just want to do it at a higher level, and I just think the playoffs brought that out of us. We’ve been put to the test with some challenges, but we’ve overcome.

“We’ve been playing some good offensive teams. These past two series you can look at the two teams. They have offensive [fire]power. It goes back to our connectivity, us all being on the same page and fighting for the same goal. We’ve got to continue to do that to get to where we want to be.”

They also need to keep following the lead of the stoic Williams, recipient of the Michael H. Goldberg NBCA Coach of the Year Award.

“The one thing that we said [is] we were never gonna let anything change our culture,” Williams said.

The Suns will have plenty of time to rest for either the Jazz or the Clippers. Which team offers the toughest matchup?

So, nothing changes as Phoenix ponders Paul’s potential absence to start the conference finals.

The Suns would absolutely miss all of Paul’s intangibles – his leadership on and off the court, his nasty mid-range game and ability to perform in clutch situations — if he’s unavailable to play in the team’s first Western Conference finals appearance since 2010.

But as Phoenix awaits its next opponent, it remains confident in the foundation built by Williams and general manager James Jones.

“All five guys on the court are on the same page at all times,” Crowder said. “We have great leadership. We have great coaching that’s putting us in a position to succeed right now. I definitely feel like we’re connected as a group, and it shows. When the game gets tight, we have full faith in one another to make the right play. I think we’re just playing the right way, playing free and playing for one another.”

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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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