After two games spent in COVID purgatory, Suns point guard Chris Paul was prepared to resume the duties in Game 3 of the Western Conference final against the Clippers that Cameron Payne handled so spectacularly in his absence. So it did not seem entirely calamitous, early in that contest, when Payne stepped awkwardly in pursuit of a loose ball, caught the edge of his left sneaker on the hardwood and saw the weight of his left leg snap forward as he fell to the floor.
That’s what we call “rolling an ankle,” and the injury kept Payne from returning to action in the final three quarters of that Suns defeat.
It might now be the greatest obstacle to the Suns returning to the NBA Finals for the first time since 1993.
Payne played just 13 minutes of Monday night’s Game 5 defeat, and he was limited through the time he did appear. And the Suns were obviously impacted, losing 116-102 to see their series advantage shaved to 3-2.
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Payne has been one of the surprising stories of the Suns’ surge during the 2020-21 season. Overlooked by major programs as a high school point guard in Memphis, he starred at Murray State and became a first-round pick of the Thunder in 2015. He was traded to the Bulls in 2017, but they hadn’t much use for him, and he was out of the league and looking for an opportunity when the Suns signed him a year ago, prior to the resumption of the 2019-20 season. He averaged 8.4 points, 3.6 assists and 44 percent 3-point shooting in 17 minutes per game this season, and he delivered 15 points and 9 assists in the first two games against the Clippers, while Paul was absent.
Since Payne was injured with 30 seconds left in the first quarter of Game 3, however, the Suns as a team have shot 43.6 percent from the field and averaged a pro-rated 18 free throws per game, down from 46.2 percent and 20 free throws. They’ve been outscored by a combined 18 points and lost two of three. Though he did not return in the final three quarters of that third game, he appeared and – and appeared to be limited – in the past two.
The Suns had the opportunity to close out the series on their home floor in Monday’s Game 5. That did not happen, and it’s easy to trace that to their horrid start that resulted in a 20-5 deficit following the opening tip Monday night.
“They played with determination,” Suns coach Monty Williams told reporters following the game. “We have to realize we’re trying to close out a series against a team that’s been there before. And they’re going to claw and scratch and do whatever it takes. We have to have that mentality.”
The Suns were able to dig out of that deficit, though, to trail by seven points at halftime and to grab a one-point lead at the 8:27 mark of the third quarter. As Williams’ starting lineup began to falter against the Clippers’ small-ball lineup – LA was playing without injured center Ivica Zubac and opened with 6-9 vet Marcus Morris as their biggest player – what Payne delivered through the first dozen games of these playoffs would have been of great benefit.
Williams put him in the game for Paul with 4:30 left in the third quarter and the Suns trailing, 76-67. Less than two minutes later, with that deficit down to six, Payne was removed from the game and Booker was tasked to run the offense. He committed two turnovers and missed a long pullup jumper, and the opportunity was lost.
Payne’s exit from the game then had to be injury related. Williams was not asked about the move after the game, but it’s hard to imagine him wanting to place the ball exclusively in Booker’s hands at that stage, even for a brief segment, as Paul rested.
“We’ve got to close quarters better,” Paul said. “That’s been a problem for us all series long … We took the lead, maybe cut it to one or two, then they get a bucket and then they go on a run. So look at it, see where we are, need to do better and get ready for the next one.
“We know we’re going there, a place where we won last time. We know they’re going to be excited and ready to go. We’ll be ready.”
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