PHOENIX – The Phoenix Suns ruled out point guard Chris Paul and listed center Deandre Ayton questionable for Game 6 of the Western Conference semifinals against the Denver Nuggets on Thursday.
Paul participated in an extensive workout Wednesday at the team’s practice facility, but coach Monty Williams pointed out “nothing has changed as far as availability.”
Paul suffered a left groin injury in Game 2 of the Western Conference Semifinals, forcing him to sit out the last three games.
“He’s working out, but his status hasn’t changed,” Williams said. “He is doing more for sure. But I’m careful not to [speculate] because I haven’t had a report come to me that says, ‘OK, he’s 80%, 90%.’ I haven’t had that yet.”
Trailing 3-2 in the Western Conference Semifinals, Phoenix finds itself on the brink of elimination after Tuesday’s 118-102 loss in Game 5 to the top-seeded Denver Nuggets with key contributors such as superstar guard Devin Booker (left ankle) and center Deandre Ayton (ribs) playing through minor injuries. Williams said both appear to be good to go for Game 6, adding that Ayton is “gonna get [his injury] checked out today.”
Booker landed awkwardly at the end of a drive to the rim with 2.4 remaining in the first quarter of Game 5. Fouled on the play by Jeff Green, the 26-year old knocked down a pair of free throws immediately after but checked out of the contest at the end of the quarter. Booker re-entered the game with 8:49 left in the second quarter.
Yet in the postgame locker room, the shooting guard walked around with a slight limp, despite saying the ankle “felt fine.”
Whatever it takes. At all costs.
— Phoenix Suns (@Suns) May 10, 2023
Devin Booker was not listed on Thursday’s injury report.
Ayton, meanwhile, absorbed a knee to the ribs from Bruce Brown in the opening quarter and subbed out at the 2:50 mark before returning with 8:15 left in the second quarter.
While those minor injuries shouldn’t affect the availability of Booker or Ayton, they serve as testament to the physicality starting to take hold in a series that has already featured heavy minutes from Phoenix’s top producers. In 10 postseason outings, Booker hasn’t yet played fewer than 40 minutes while Kevin Durant has logged 42 minutes or more in all but one contest in this series.
The Suns own a record of 0-3 this postseason when opponents limit both Booker and Durant to fewer than 30 points. It’s worth pondering whether the heavy minutes paired with the Nuggets physicality is starting to take a toll on Phoenix’s prolific scoring duo.
“We took the challenge,” Denver coach Michael Malone said when asked how the Nuggets successfully held down the Suns stars in Game 5. “[Kentavious Caldwell-Pope] was the defensive player of the game and I just felt he set the tone early on [in Game 5]. Booker’s a hell of a player. He has respect from everybody in that locker room. But when you’re playing against a great player, you’ve got to get under their skin. You’ve got to get into them. You’ve got to make them feel you.”
That, in turn, negatively affected Booker’s ability to maintain a groove. Booker and Durant combined to shoot 18 of 43, as the duo teamed with Ayton to score 66.7% of Phoenix’s points on the night.
Denver, meanwhile, set playoff highs in Game 5 in bench scoring (34 points) and fast break points (31) after sitting at minus-29 in the latter for the first four games of the series. Nuggets backups Brown, Jeff Green and Christian Braun combined for 34 points in matching the production of the nine other Suns that logged minutes in Game 5 outside of Booker, Durant and Ayton.
“That’s who we are, and when we’re not running and we’re not defending, we’re going nowhere,” Malone said. “That’s what we have to do [in] Game 6 if we’re gonna try to close this series out. The defense has to be great; the rebounding has to be on point, and then get out and run and attack before they can get set.”
Williams called Phoenix’s transition defense in Game 5 “unacceptable based on our standards.” But five games into this series, these teams know one another so well that strategy takes a backseat to the more basic elements of postseason basketball.
“Both teams have run enough sets and plays where we kind of understand each other. It’s will, it’s fight, it’s physicality, being able to get the 50-50 balls and not get pushed off your spot,” Williams said. “All that stuff has nothing to do with a strategic play that you’ve run all season. It just becomes attrition, if you will, and you have to win that battle. I think we learned a number of things last night that we have to apply quickly tomorrow from a physicality standpoint. You learn some things, then you flush the game and try to apply what you’ve learned. That’s what we hope to do.”
If not, Phoenix’s recent run of futility in elimination games will continue. The Suns are 0-2 in elimination games over the last three postseasons, falling to Dallas at home in Game 7 of the 2022 Western Conference Semifinals after losing the season before at Milwaukee in Game 6 of the 2021 NBA Finals.
“You lose a game in the playoffs you can imagine there’s always remorse, frustration, all that stuff, and that’s normal for any competitive group,” Williams said. “I know the guys in the gym, they’re looking forward to tomorrow’s game. That’s why I enjoy the group we’ve had here because we really relish opportunities to bounce back. This is another opportunity for us to not just bounce back, but to do it in front of our home crowd.”
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