PHOENIX — Chris Paul was a FaceTime away from the Phoenix Suns minutes after Devin Booker stepped off the court, having pushed their team past the Los Angeles Clippers on Sunday.
But Paul, for the first time this season, was out of contact completely throughout the Game 1 Western Conference Finals victory.
Not that the Suns are force-sensitive like someone out of Star Wars, but it was like they could feel his presence during the series opener, which went in their favor, 120-114.
“That’s the only thing honestly today we missed, he wasn’t talking,” said Paul’s starting point guard replacement, Cameron Payne. “We ain’t have him on the bench talking today. We ain’t have him on the court talking, in the timeout talking. That’s probably the craziest thing. He talk so much, man. It’s crazy.
“To not have that voice is kind of weird.”
Though they couldn’t hear him, the Suns summoned Paul’s best qualities.
Payne played 29 minutes and recorded 11 points on 5-of-10 shooting with nine assists to a single turnover.
His plus-minus (+14) was by far the best of the Suns’ starters, with Devin Booker’s 40-point triple-double coming in at a +6 in 44 minutes of play.
As a team, Phoenix finished with 31 assists to seven turnovers, a monumental feat with Paul in COVID-19 health and safety protocols, where he remains day-to-day.
While his voice wasn’t in the huddle, the Suns’ play showed the impression he’s made since joining them in an offseason trade before the season.
That appeared, most aptly, in Booker’s performance, as he guided the Suns with timely attacking and pin-point reads of a defense trying to hide its hand.
“Every time you say ‘turnovers,’ I think of Chris,” said Booker, who finished with two turnovers and 11 assists for his first career triple-double.
“Just watching him control the game and how he just never turns the ball over; when he does, it’s a rare sighting. We knew that was going to be key for us today, is taking care of the ball with the type of defense that they play, an aggressive style defense where they gamble a lot and will reach.”
Booker and Payne entered the game on the same page.
And that, unsurprisingly, is because Paul was in their ear a bit leading up to the start of the conference finals.
Paul called Payne with a message on Saturday.
“He said the game gonna get hectic, keep your poise,” Payne said. “Be poised, get on to the next play.
“He Hall of Fame. We got to listen to him, he got the knowledge.”
With Payne in the starting lineup and the little-used E’Twaun Moore buying 11 minutes (no points, two assists and one turnover) as backup point guard, Suns head coach Monty Williams put a lot of the game management load on Booker. It allowed Payne to keep his attacking mindset that’s made him a bench booster this entire playoff run.
Booker slid to the point surrounded by center Deandre Ayton, plus wings Mikal Bridges, Cam Johnson and Jae Crowder down the stretch of the fourth quarter.
Though the Suns carried a two- or three-possession lead for much of the final three minutes, that, according to Crowder, was the only time Phoenix may have felt like Paul’s absence left a noticeable gulf.
Not that they were devaluing the absence of an All-NBA player and future Hall of Famer, who Booker couldn’t wait to call as he walked off the floor. It’s just that the Suns felt like everything he’s preached to them all year came naturally as he watched from afar.
“We definitely missed him,” Crowder said. “I think, the last three minutes of that game, that’s when we felt like ‘hey, where the hell is Chris at?’”
Somewhere, he was smiling.