The Los Angeles Lakers escaped, in every sense of the word, with a 109-102 victory over the Phoenix Suns on Tuesday, bringing their first-round series to 1-1 as the scene shifts to Los Angeles for Game 3 on Thursday. Anthony Davis led the way for L.A. with 34 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists. Dennis Schröder was superb. LeBron James was strangely deferential throughout most of the night before sticking two filthy fadeaways and a 3-pointer to essentially ice the game late in the fourth quarter.
But Chris Paul is the story.
Or should I say, Chris Paul’s shoulder is the story. They’re calling it a contusion, but it doesn’t really matter what you call it. What matters is Paul is basically playing with one arm. He looked a smidge more right-hand capable on Tuesday than he did after the injury in Game 1, when he could hardly keep control of the ball, but not by much. He took just five shots. Scored six points. Played just 23 minutes. Paul is one of the best clutch players in the world, and Monty Williams couldn’t even afford to have him in the game to close the fourth quarter.
Somehow, the Suns were still right there. It’s a credit to Devin Booker, who had a poor shooting night but muscled his way to 31 points on 17-of-17 free throws. Props to Cameron Payne, who posted 19 points and seven assists and looked, dare I say, pretty Paul-esque in crunch time. Deandre Ayton is coming of age in front of our eyes. He finished with 22 points on Tuesday and has made 21 of his 24 shots in this series.
Phoenix can still win this series, though it does feel like the Lakers wrangled the momentum heading home. Perhaps Paul will make significant progress by Thursday, or at least by Game 4 on Saturday. But to this point, it’s hard not to qualify most every piece of analysis pertaining to this series with the effective absence of one of the league’s most valuable players.
The Lakers played championship defense on Tuesday, but surely that was an effort aided by Paul’s limitations. When Paul was on the floor, the Lakers were afforded the luxury of basically ignoring him as a scorer/playmaker. They got a major contribution from Andre Drummond, who would, under normal circumstances, be an exploitable Paul pick-and-roll target. They were able to double-team Booker, who looked out of sync trying to assume Paul’s normal half-court initiator role.
For the life of me, I can’t figure out why the Lakers aren’t taking extreme measures to force Paul right when he has the ball. To be honest, they’re often shading him left, which is the only way he can really take his dribble right now. They were better about leaving Paul to help on other Suns penetrators and shooters, or not leaving their assignments to help on Paul, on Tuesday than they were in Game 1, but still, one could argue they’re actually taking it kind of easy on Paul, who is nonetheless a shell of his normal self.
It stinks. There’s no other way to say it. Paul’s postseason injury luck, or lack thereof, has ventured into the realm of cruelty. Over the course of his career, Paul has suffered an injury during a playoff series that either significantly limited his abilities, or took him out entirely, four times. The worst was in the 2018 Western Conference finals, when he ripped his hamstring at the end of Game 5 and was forced to miss Games 6 and 7. The Rockets lost those games, squandering their 3-2 series lead and Paul’s best shot at a title.
This season, Paul and the Suns enjoyed an extraordinarily campaign, but the bug has bitten Paul again. It’s brutal, but it’s the card he and the Suns were dealt. We’ll all hold out hope that Paul’s condition will improve before the series potentially slips away, but right now, it doesn’t look good. Unless you’re a Lakers fan.