The San Antonio Spurs are scared. They are scared that the Phoenix Suns have a player who can go toe-to-toe with the NBA’s most dynamic point guard, and win. The Spurs coach, Gregg Popovich, had the choice of sitting his star point guard, Tony Parker, for Game Four of the Western Conference Finals Tuesday night. He chose to keep Parker in his starting five, benching his backup, namely, the Suns’ leader, Chris Paul.
Chris Paul was a game-time decision for Game 4, but it quickly became clear that the Atlanta Hawks would be taking him out if he was going to play. They had a plan in place to limit him, and did so: Paul got the night off in favor of Eric Bledsoe, and Paul’s teammates were also asked to go a little easier on him.
LOS ANGELES – Phoenix Suns coach Monty Williams originally planned to rest Chris Paul for Sunday’s fourth game against the Los Angeles Lakers. A nagging shoulder injury has pushed the point guard back to his own level, and Williams didn’t think Paul could help in a crucial game. Paul changed his coach’s mind in an emotional conversation before the game. He said: Coach, let me start and if you don’t think I belong, take me out and we’ll have to go another way, Williams said. It was one of those situations where I had to trust a player. When Paul led a strong second half, the Suns could only go one way: back to Phoenix with a 2-2 lead in the series and increased confidence in the ability of these rookies to beat the defending champions. Paul scored 18 points and provided nine assists, Devin Booker and Jay Crowder each added 17 points, and the Suns swept the first-round series with a 100-92 victory. Deandre Ayton scored 14 points and grabbed 17 rebounds for the Suns, who took advantage of Anthony Davis’ absence (groin injury) in the second half to regain home-field advantage after two consecutive defeats. Game 5 is Tuesday night in Phoenix. Paul was a near inactive factor in the third game of his first post season with a new team, clearly struggling with a sore right hand. After two days without touching the ball, Paul looked better at practice for Sunday’s game and then much sharper during the match. He scored 12 points and handed out all of his assists in the second half in the Suns’ first playoff victory on the road in more than 11 years. The last time this happened was on the 9th. May 2010, when Steve Nash and Amar’e Stoudemire ended a four-game winning streak against the San Antonio Spurs in the second round, before losing to the eventual champion Lakers in the Western Conference Finals. Paul was grateful to Williams for fulfilling his fervent desire to play. He also assured his teammates that he would only hang if he could help : I told them: I don’t know how long this will last, but if you guys think I look like garbage in here, tell me and I’ll leave. I haven’t touched a basketball since the last game, Paul added. We don’t have a lot of guys who have missed a lot of games this season, so we’re used to playing a certain way. I was just happy to be there to help. Aside from Davis’ absence, the Suns improved significantly in terms of effort and composure in Game 4. Phoenix mounted a 32-15 run that began just before halftime and lasted the entire third half, in which the Lakers scored just 15 points on 3-for-16 shooting. The Suns led by 18 points with less than nine minutes to go, but LeBron James, who scored 25 points in the game, started a 19-8 run to cut the lead to 95-88 with 2:40 left. Phoenix stayed in the game when Paul floated through the air to intercept a pass (1:59), and Crowder scored an uncontested three-pointer in front of the Suns’ bench (1:23). Booker, feeling the pressure of the postseason for the first time in his six-year NBA career, also played more focused after being taken out of the game in the closing minutes of Game 3, when the high-scoring guard had a lackluster performance. The Associated Press contributed to this report.