PHOENIX – With 10 games remaining in the regular season, the Phoenix Suns clinched their second consecutive Pacific Division on Tuesday.
Despite playing the past month without their star guard Chris Paul, Phoenix has dominated a division that could see four of its teams advance to the postseason: the Suns; the Golden State Warriors, currently the third seed; the Los Angeles Clippers (eighth) and the Los Angeles Lakers (ninth).
The bad news for those teams chasing the Suns, who hold a commanding lead in the Western Conference, is that Paul is expected to return sooner than planned. Sidelined since Feb. 16 with a thumb injury, Paul is back practicing and could return before the playoffs. It was originally thought that he would miss the rest of the regular season.
“He’s ramping up a little bit,” forward Mikal Bridges. “He continues to get right and get better. I saw him shooting the other day and I am excited to get him back whenever he gets back.”
Paul has recently been seen shooting in practices and during pregame workouts with his teammates, raising expectations of his imminent return. But coach Monty Williams said there’s no rush to get Paul back in the lineup. He suggested that Paul will know when it’s the right time for him to return.
“Chris is a big-picture guy,” Williams said. “He understands when he is going to need the juice he needs to play at the highest level he possibly can.”
Because of Paul’s absence, players such as Elfred Payton have been seeing more action. Payton has been in and out of the lineup all season in a crowded backcourt that, when everybody’s healthy, includes Cameron Payne, Aaron Holiday and Paul.
It is exciting to see guys on the floor doing more than they did before,” said Williams. “If we can get everybody back and get our rhythm but at the same time I’m proud of what we learned about the guys who have played.”
Payton found himself in the starting lineup for the first time this season in the overtime win over the Sacramento Kings on Sunday night after Suns backup point guard Camerom Payne was ruled out with a non-Covid-19 related illness.
Payton understands that anything can happen in a playoff series. He values every minute on the court as he could be a depth piece if needed in the playoffs.
“We need those experiences and we’ve been doing it all year,” Payton said. “Guys have been in and out of the lineup but we have continued to run off with wins. “Coach keeps telling us to stay focused and keep in mind the bigger task at hand.”
The Suns, who lost in the Finals last season, expect to be there again at the end. They have reason to be confident, having created a nine-game cushion over the Western Conference’s second-seeded team, the Memphis Grizzlies, without their field general, Paul.
With Paul possibly returning soon and the postseason around the corner, the Suns are looking to hold their momentum – and avoid any more injuries – as their path to the Finals becomes clearer.