LOS ANGELES — Phoenix Suns coach Monty Williams initially planned to sit Chris Paul for Game 4 against the Lakers. A persistent shoulder injury had reduced the point guard to a fraction of himself, and Williams didn’t think Paul could help in a crucial game.
Paul changed his coach’s mind in an emotional pregame conversation Sunday.
“He said, ‘Coach, let me start, and if you don’t think I’m looking like I normally do, then take me out and we’ll have to go in a different direction,'” Williams said. “This is one of those situations that I had to trust the player.”
By the time Paul was finished orchestrating their superb second half, the Suns were headed in only one direction: back to Phoenix with a 2-2 series and greatly increased confidence in these playoff newcomers’ ability to knock off the defending champs.
Paul had 18 points and nine assists, Devin Booker and Jae Crowder added 17 points apiece and the Suns leveled the first-round series with a 100-92 victory.
Deandre Ayton had 14 points and 17 rebounds for the second-seeded Suns, who took advantage of Anthony Davis’ absence from the second half with a groin injury to reclaim home-court advantage in the series after two straight losses.
Game 5 is Tuesday night in Phoenix.
Paul was largely a non-factor in Game 3 of his first postseason with his new team, clearly struggling to put up shots with his ailing right arm. After two days in which he didn’t touch a basketball, Paul looked better in Sunday’s pregame workout — and then looked a whole lot sharper in the game, contributing 12 points and all his assists in the second half of the Suns’ first road playoff victory in over 11 years.
The last one came in San Antonio on May 9, 2010, when Steve Nash and Amar’e Stoudemire completed a four-game sweep of the Spurs in the second round before falling to the soon-to-be repeat champion Lakers in the Western Conference finals.
Paul was grateful Williams was receptive to his fervent desire to play. He also assured his teammates that he would only persevere if he could help: “I told them, ‘I don’t know how long it’s going to be, but if you all feel like I’m out here looking like some trash, just tell me and I’ll get out.'”
“I hadn’t touched a basketball or anything since the last game,” Paul added. “We didn’t have a lot of guys that missed a lot of games this season, so we’re used to playing a certain way. I was just glad I could be out there and help.”
Davis’ absence aside, the Suns sharply improved their effort and poise in Game 4. Phoenix made a 32-15 run starting shortly before halftime and encompassing the whole third, during which it held the Lakers to 15 points on 3-for-16 shooting.
The Suns led by 18 with less than nine minutes to play, but James led a 19-8 run and trimmed the lead to 95-88 with 2:40 left. Phoenix hung on when Paul hung in the air to steal a pass with 1:59 to play before Crowder hit an uncontested 3-pointer in front of the Suns’ bench with 1:23 left to seal it.
Booker, responding to the first postseason pressure of his six-year NBA career, also played with improved focus after getting kicked out of Game 3 in the final minute of a sub-par performance for the high-scoring guard.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.