EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Chris Paul’s injury shifts pressure on Denver Nuggets vs. Phoenix Suns

May 3, 2023, 5:00 PM | Updated: 6:44 pm

PHOENIX — There is a stark difference between how much Chris Paul has played to his capabilities this season and how important he is to the Phoenix Suns. In simpler terms, while he regressed considerably this year, Paul is invaluable. Not only because of the Suns’ top-heavy roster but because of the leadership and table-setting Paul does on both ends of the floor.

The Suns were at their best this postseason with Paul on the floor. They outscored teams by 7.9 points per 100 possessions across his 250 minutes, per NBA Stats.That is the best mark on the team, and even worse, the net rating for the 86 minutes he sat was -17.9.

The reported timeline from The Athletic’s Shams Charania of at least a week for Paul’s left groin strain, sidelining him for Games 3-5 of the second round against the Denver Nuggets, puts Phoenix’s season on life support. If Paul only missed one game, it was realistic to foresee a Game 3 victory behind a monster outing via Devin Booker and/or Kevin Durant. Paul then comes back for Game 4, juices up the team and crowd at home, and then the series could have been up for grabs in a pivotal Game 5 in Denver.

Actually, that’s a bit unfair and disrespectful to how great the Nuggets have looked through two games. Before we get any further, that’s the biggest obstacle here. You know, the opponent that looks like they could win it all in this current form. Those guys.

But the pressure now shifts toward Denver. Remember that whole underdog mentality it had? That’s out the window, friends. The Nuggets are now the overwhelming favorites. FanDuel’s odds shifted them all the way to -490 for the series, just about doubling after Paul’s diagnosis dropped.

The swirls out of Denver clamoring for national mainstream media to take them more seriously as title contenders, sick of narratives about Nikola Jokic’s defense or being the latest great “regular-season team”, has received it. All they’ve got to do is open their front door and look down to see the hype they’ve been wanting is waiting at their doorstep next to whatever they ordered on Amazon.

This Nuggets core around Jokic and Jamal Murray was fortified two years ago with the addition of Aaron Gordon, and again last offseason by Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Bruce Brown and Christian Braun.

The ultimate vision of how the franchise could not only make its first NBA Finals since 1976 but win an elusive championship is now in reality, right in front of them.

This group has never been in this position before. How will they respond to that?

You could argue there’s even more pressure on Phoenix. It has to win Game 3 or its season is all but over.

But the Suns’ mindset is not going to crumble. At least not from their two top dogs.

“I love it,” Booker said after Monday’s Game 2 loss when asked about the confidence level down 0-2. “I just love playoff basketball. That’s the first thing I said when I got in the locker room. You just have to love this [expletive], embrace it. There’s not many people that get the chance to do what we’re doing playing the highest level of basketball. Compete at the highest level, don’t forget to have fun with it (and) just get after it every chance we get.”

Durant has been here before. In the 2012 Western Conference Finals, the Oklahoma City Thunder dropped the first two games on the road against the top-seeded San Antonio Spurs. OKC went on to win the next four and Durant averaged 29.8 points, 7.5 rebounds, 5.8 assists, 1.3 steals, a block and 2.5 turnovers per game while shooting 54.8% from the field across those victories.

In Game 4 with 6:53 left and the Thunder up four, Durant scored OKC’s next 14 points in just four minutes. Thunder up 10. Ball game.

Assuming Suns fans bring it for Friday’s Game 3 and are not more like a wound-up ball of anxiety and dread, Phoenix will put a 19-22 road team in a rowdy environment.

If the Suns take it, momentum starts to churn. More belief spreads through the organization.

Even if Phoenix drops Game 4, all it has to do is get that one in Denver for Game 5. Paul returns in Game 6 back at home. Then, as the saying goes, anything can happen in Game 7.

That’s a lot of heavy lifting, though. More to come previewing the tactical adjustments at play for the Suns and the monumental task ahead there.

But for now, the often-used shtick and throwaway line of one game at a time truly comes to life here.

Empire of the Suns

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