PHOENIX – Suns point guard Chris Paul was leading the league in assists, had his team positioned atop the NBA standings and was in the running for the league’s Most Valuable Player trophy when he suffered an avulsion fracture in his right thumb during the Suns’ final game before the All-Star break.
Now, the Suns face the prospect of playing the final 24 games of the regular season without their 36-year-old playmaker and veteran leader as they try to hold off the Golden State Warriors in the race for the NBA’s best record. The Suns are 48-10 and lead the Warriors by 6.5 games in the Western Conference playoffs as well as for the league’s overall best record.
Paul orchestrates the Phoenix offense and is the master of the pick-and-roll. He also sets the tone defensively, and the Suns will miss his leadership on and off the floor as much as his mid-range jumpers and no-look passes.
“I always talk about the leadership and him being vocal, keeping everybody organized is the most underrated part,” Suns guard Devin Booker said. “Besides the fact the numbers that he puts up, just making sure the team is ready to go and putting people in the right spots.”
For Paul, the timing could have been much worse. It has been before.
On five occasions during his career, Paul has suffered an injury at the worst possible time – during the playoffs. It was a groin injury in 2012, a hamstring in 2015, a broken hand in 2016 and another hamstring in 2018.
Last season, Paul suffered a badly bruised shoulder in Game 1 of the team’s first-round playoffs series against the Los Angeles Lakers. He played through the injury, but later revealed that he couldn’t even shoot the ball.
The Suns eliminated the Lakers anyway, and then lost Paul again when he tested positive for COVID-19 before the Western Conference finals against the Los Angeles Clippers. He missed the first two games of that series, but the Suns won them both and advanced to the NBA Finals, where they eventually were knocked out by the Milwaukee Bucks.
Paul was averaging 14.9 points and 10.7 assists per game when he suffered the avulsion fracture, which occurs when a small piece of bone that is attached to connective tissue such as a ligament or tendon, is pulled away from the rest of the bone.
Backup point guard Cam Payne, who has missed the last 13 games with a wrist injury, is expected to return to the team when the Suns begin the season’s stretch run in Oklahoma City Thursday. The Suns also acquired playmaker Aaron Holiday from the Washington Wizards shortly before All-Star Weekend, and he played 20 effective minutes against Houston after Paul went out with the injury.
Veteran Elfrid Payton is another option for Suns coach Monty Williams alongside Booker in the Phoenix backcourt, and Booker also is capable of triggering the Phoenix offense.
But Paul has been most masterful in late-game situations, where the Suns have excelled.
“The last year and a half, guys have really picked up on what it takes to win in these close games or end of game situations and to capitalize and manage the clock,” said Suns forward Cameron Johnson. “He’s (Paul) kind of the mastermind of all of that.”
Meanwhile, Paul could have about two months to rest his body while rehabbing his thumb. In late January, weeks before his injury, Paul foreshadowed the team’s current predicament when he was telling reporters about the team’s depth and interchangeable parts.
“We just talk, we communicate, coaches, players, everything,” Paul said after the Suns had beaten San Antonio, sending Williams and his coaching staff to the All-Star Game.
“The thing about us is we have a system,” Paul continued. “It doesn’t matter who you plug into it, everybody knows their job.”
For now, that job is holding off the Warriors. But even if the Suns falter without the “Point God” and are unable to hold onto the top seed throughout the playoffs, they have proven they’re capable of winning on the road when they are healthy.
They go to Oklahoma City Thursday with a 22-5 mark on the road. That’s 4.5 games better than any other team in the NBA this season away from its home arena.