If the Phoenix Suns are to emerge victorious in Game 3 of their Western Conference semifinals series against the Denver Nuggets, they’ll do so without their star point guard.
Chris Paul has been officially ruled out for Friday’s Game 3 in Phoenix (10 p.m. ET, ESPN) because of the left groin strain he suffered in Game 2 of the series, which the Suns trail 2-0. His absence means the team will likely turn to backup guard Cameron Payne to fill in for Paul for as long as he is out.
“We’ve been in these situations before where we’ve had guys go down and we’ve had a number of guys step up,” Suns coach Monty Williams said Thursday. “We’re hopeful that a few adjustments to the lineup — not just Cam Payne — but a couple of the guys that play and space the floor a little bit more can help us.”
Three-time All-Star Devin Booker said the team has spent the past few days going through potential scenarios. In a strange bit of scheduling, the Nuggets and Suns have three days off between Games 2 and 3.
“You can’t replace what Chris brings to the team,” Booker said Wednesday. “He’ll still be there, being a leader, being vocal, but the things he does on the court, we’re just going to have to find other ways to be effective.”
BOTTOM LINE: The Denver Nuggets visit the Phoenix Suns in the Western Conference second round with a 2-0 lead in the series. The Nuggets won the last matchup 97-87 on May 2 led by 39 points from Nikola Jokic, while Devin Booker scored 35 points for the Suns.
The Suns are 30-22 in conference play. Phoenix averages 113.6 points and has outscored opponents by 2.0 points per game.
The Nuggets are 34-18 in Western Conference play. Denver is second in the Western Conference with 28.9 assists per game led by Jokic averaging 9.8.
TOP PERFORMERS: Booker is averaging 35.4 points, 6.6 assists and two steals for the Suns. Kevin Durant is averaging 22.4 points, 6.7 rebounds and 3.9 assists over the last 10 games for Phoenix.
Jokic is scoring 24.5 points per game and averaging 11.8 rebounds for the Nuggets. Jamal Murray is averaging 2.8 made 3-pointers over the last 10 games for Denver.
LAST 10 GAMES: Suns: 5-5, averaging 114.4 points, 41.8 rebounds, 25.4 assists, 6.4 steals and 5.9 blocks per game while shooting 48.1% from the field. Their opponents have averaged 115.5 points per game.
Nuggets: 7-3, averaging 113.1 points, 44.4 rebounds, 24.7 assists, 8.0 steals and 3.7 blocks per game while shooting 48.3% from the field. Their opponents have averaged 105.3 points.
Interestingly, Booker went 2-for-2 from the line, not shooting his free throws until the final seconds of the game.
While Booker and Durant were the story for the Suns, Phoenix did get some key contributions off the bench, an area where they have struggled this postseason.
Jock Landale played 22 minutes and had six points and nine rebounds, outplaying starting center Deandre Ayton, who had nine rebounds and four points in 26 minutes.
During his tenure in the Valley, Williams has also been outcoached far too often in the playoffs. He has been reactionary and slow to adjust. But that wasn’t an issue on Friday.
Without point guard Chris Paul, the Suns rolled out a much different look in Game 3. A pair of defensive stalwarts — Josh Okogie and Torrey Craig — were almost afterthoughts in the revamped lineup while Terrence Ross and T.J. Warren went from the end of the bench to playing nearly 39 minutes combined. Warren responded with a couple of big buckets in the fourth quarter.
Meanwhile, Jock Landale gave the team hustle and energy and badly outplayed starting center Deandre Ayton.
“He just scrapped,” Williams said. “You couldn’t point out anything he did from a high-level skill perspective. But he just scrapped.”
Ayton scored four points in just under 26 minutes. His maddening motor and finesse approach incited the fan base, and many booed Ayton after he missed a finger roll attempt at the rim that should’ve been a ferocious dunk. Ayton is clearly struggling with his place on the Booker-Durant Suns, and this is a situation that bears watching.
For now, the contributions from the bench were a pleasant surprise, and proof that role players always perform better in the comfort of home. Without Paul on the floor, the Suns played with greater pace, and the results were encouraging.
Will Williams stick with his new rotation? Can they hold up defensively in Game 4?
Here’s the good news: The Suns are still waiting for that transcendent performance from Durant, one of the greatest players in NBA history. When it happens, it will be a most welcome addition to the series.
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