Chris Paul has not yet been injured or load-managed this season and might not only play more than 70 regular season games for the first time since 2017, but conceivably could play all 82 for the first time since he wasn’t 30. That is, unless him hurting his hand and getting stealth ejected last night in the Phoenix Suns’ otherwise uninteresting 124-121 victory over the Houston Rockets is suddenly the first really bad thing to happen to the Suns all year.
Paul, who is generally acknowledged to be the most important of all the Suns as well as the most aged and most injury-magnetized, jammed his thumb on Rocket small forward Jae’sean Tate and first complained to official J.T. Orr, who gave him a technical foul, and then (maybe) inadvertently bumped Orr and got a second. The Suns were circumspect about the injury afterward, though Devin Booker claimed he’d be fine to play in the All-Star Game in Cleveland this coming Sunday.
Yeah, Like that’s what everyone was worried about.
Paul is the light bulb over the head of the Suns’ brain, which is in considerable part why the Suns have the best record in the league, are pulling away from Golden State and all the other contenders, and if they are inclined to fall into meaningless statistic traps, are on a pace to win a franchise-record 68 games and maybe even stretch it to 70. They won 19 of their first 22 games and have won 20 of their last 22, have winning streaks of 18, 11, and seven games, and are now 6.5 games clear of the Warriors and 10.5 clear of the Bulls for home-court advantage in the Finals. This may not be the best Suns team ever but it is the best at the most things. It’s even fourth in games lost to injury, which one would think would result in longer losing streaks than the two two-gamers that are their low-water mark.
And yet relatively few people seem to be keen on the Suns in the rush to await developments in the more trade deadline-active contenders, even though they’ve been the best team essentially from the start of the season. Maybe people got fooled by that crippling 1-3 start. Maybe people are still reluctant to embrace a team owned by Robert Sarver, whose allegedly racist and misogynist behavior with employees is still part of an ongoing NBA investigation. Maybe in the obnoxious label-shopping world of NBA fandom and analysis in which the Nets and Sixers are now the center of a misshapen universe, the Suns are just too competent. Maybe people think Paul is still the guy who gets hurt at the wrong time even though he has only missed six games in three years. Maybe it’s that, like the Warriors before them, they’re just guilty of Not Being The Lakers, a malady that has lasted 60 years with no discernible cure.
This seems wrong in any number of ways, as the Suns have done everything you demand an excellent team do. They are in some ways the 2016 Warriors only they weren’t coming off a championship and doubling down with a better team and record. They only won 19 games three seasons ago, which is also a bit like the early-decade Warriors. Theirs is a story that could use a good telling, and even the aggressively absentee Suns fans are filling their building every night (or at least that’s what the team is announcing, since we know that attendance figures are a gullibility test that your author seems to have just failed).
But they’re always a scare away from people doubting who and what they are, hence Paul grimacing and holding his thumb as he walked off the floor Wednesday night. The Suns have been a bit too good, a bit too seamless, a bit too mid-decade Warriors for anyone to fully trust them. But maybe this really is Phoenix’s moment. Maybe they really are the best team the industry would rather not acknowledge.
And maybe Chris Paul should keep his hand away from danger.