LOS ANGELES — Chris Paul took a seat next to Kevin Durant after the Phoenix Suns held a commanding 3-1 lead over the LA Clippers with a 112-100 win at the Crypto.com Arena on Saturday afternoon, and took stock of his new place in the NBA landscape.
“I’ve never played with so much talent,” said Paul after scoring 12 of his 19 points in the fourth quarter of Saturday’s win. “Where people double down from me … I’ve never seen so many open shots.”
Paul almost didn’t know what to do with all those open looks in Thursday’s Game 3, when he only walked off the field 5-for-18.
“It’s something I’m getting used to,” he said. “I’m trying to figure out when to pick your spots, when to be aggressive. We’ll figure this thing out in no time. I’m just glad a few of them fell tonight.”
On Saturday, Paul hit 8-of-17 from the field and dished out nine assists. He also had three steals and three blocks for the first time in his career. And after the Suns turned the ball around with three straight possessions and gave up seven straight points in the first minute of the second half, it was Paul who got in the way of his teammates on the bench.
“I think the way the third quarter started I was pissed. We all were,” Paul said. “We were on the bench and attacked each other. But it’s healthy. I was just trying to get us going. I tried to start defensively. The shots will come.”
Paul had some of his best games as a pro in that building, scoring six shots on goal in the last 10 seconds of the fourth quarter or in overtime in his six seasons with the Clippers (2011-17). Since then he has played for three different franchises. This season’s Suns could be his best and last shot at an NBA title.
Phoenix has been considered a favorite from the Western Conference since being traded for Durant in February. Its greatest weakness is simply a lack of depth, with so many key rotary players having to be traded away to acquire Durant. That has forced Durant, Devin Booker and soon-to-be 38-year-old Paul to play much heavier minutes than coach Monty Williams would prefer so early in the playoffs.
Durant logged 45 minutes Saturday, with Booker 42 and Paul 38. Durant and Booker are both averaging more than 43 minutes per game in the playoffs, eight more than they have in the regular season. According to research by ESPN Stats & Information, no other NBA player has averaged more than 40.2 minutes per game in the postseason.
“I think it’s something that we’re going to worry about if it starts to pile up,” Williams said. “If you look at how the schedule is set up, it’s not conducive to playing every other day. One reason I did it today is that we have a few days to recover. But if you’re playing every other day of the playoffs, I’m like, ‘There goes load management.'”
Williams said he stops by his stars regularly during the game and watches them closely to read their body language, even when they tell him they’re feeling good.
“When I talk to our people and they talk about how our boys are walking around, it’s not like the regular season. We don’t play at this pace,” he added. “So the load can be a bit different with the minutes the lads have played.”
Durant scoffed when asked about the heavy burden he carried. Saturday’s contest marked the 13th straight playoff game he has registered for at least 40 minutes.
“How did I look tonight?” he said with a grin after scoring a team-high 31 points and deducting 11 rebounds. “I felt great. I’ve missed a lot of time this season. I want to be out there every minute. I wish I could play every game 48.”
That series appeared to be a struggle as Kawhi Leonard led the Clippers to a road split in the first two games. But with Leonard out with a knee injury, LA lost both home games despite a setback from Durant’s former teammate Russell Westbrook (37 points) on Saturday.
Game 5 takes place in Phoenix on Wednesday night.