It wasn’t long ago that uttering the name Chris Paul prompted premature declarations of “washed” among the Phoenix Suns fanbase. Now, it appears as though the Point God has risen again.
It took a little longer than three days, but CP3 looks more like himself since returning from a right hip injury that sidelined him for just over two weeks. Mikal Bridges dominated Phoenix’s 114-106 win against the Toronto Raptors with a scorching first half and a pair of big late-game buckets, but Paul’s steady hand helped guide the Suns in crunch-time.
Paul drilled a massive 3-pointer off Torrey Craig’s offensive rebound to put the Suns up by 4 points with 1:30 to go, and he made four free throws in the final 20 seconds to ice the game. Bridges’ 29-point, 6-assist performance made him the star of the night, but Paul’s 19 points, 9 assists, 4 rebounds and 2 blocks served as yet another indicator that the Point God is not only back, but has learned to adapt.
“He’s been playing like he didn’t have any injury,” Dario Saric said. “He just do his things, his pull-ups is just amazing, [have] been through the whole his career, and he was shooting that ball, finding the guys around and just playing like Chris Paul in his best way.”
Chris Paul back to Point God form
In the five games since his return, Paul is averaging 21.6 points, 10.4 assists, 5.6 rebounds, 1.0 steals and 1.0 blocks per game. He’s posted .541/.467/1.000 shooting splits in that stretch, and the Suns are 4-1 since he re-entered the lineup.
Compared to the 13.1 points, 8.3 assists and 4.2 rebounds per game on .425/.398/.802 shooting splits he posted over his first 26 games of the season, this Chris Paul feels more recognizable.
“That’s what he does, and he’s been doing it for so many years, you just expect him to come back and continue to do it,” Cam Johnson said. “But even when he does do it, it’s such a big boost to our team just watching him work. He makes it look like art out there.”
37-year-old Chris Paul out here looking like 36-year-old Chris Paul again
— Gerald Bourguet (@GeraldBourguet) January 27, 2023
In his first game back after missing two weeks, CP3 played 38 minutes in a win over the Memphis Grizzlies without Devin Booker. Paul looked like he hadn’t missed a beat since his Third Team All-NBA selection last season, dropping 22 points, 11 assists, 6 rebounds and 3 steals.
“Chris was Chris,” coach Monty Williams summed up. “He’s a guy that can just manage certain situations, he was knocking down shots in the first half, he had 11 assists. First game back, to pull off that kind of outcome is important for us, again, especially when you don’t have Book out there and Cam Payne to alleviate him with some of the ball-handling responsibility.”
For a team that had been struggling to string wins together for over a month, the impact of Paul’s return wasn’t lost on anyone.
“Having CP back is big-time, though, because you know games like the Memphis game, having somebody like Chris Paul on the court, that is much-needed,” Deandre Ayton said. “Him controlling the game 110 percent and just making sure it don’t get out of hand.”
Another thing that shouldn’t be lost on anyone? How his frustratingly long absence may be paying dividends right now.
Tied for the longest active streak in the NBA of points/assists double-doubles!@CP3 is the first player 37+ years old with at least four consecutive points/assists double-doubles since Steve Nash in 2012-13. pic.twitter.com/e2y6cTV2Bz
— Phoenix Suns (@Suns) January 30, 2023
“We’re just trying to keep him as fresh as we can,” Williams explained after the Raptors win. “We know that when Chris is fresh, he doesn’t look like someone his age, with as many miles as he has on his body, he just doesn’t look that way. And so it’s a combination of keeping him fresh, but him getting his work in, and then in those [late-game] moments, understanding how to play around him.”
Taking the right approach to injuries
For the first two years of his Suns tenure, Paul often bristled at any insinuation that he was getting older, needed to take a step back, or — (Point) God forbid! — might consider occasionally resting games.
That’s still largely his thought process, but after turning 37 years old last May, that traumatic Game 7 loss, and spending the longest NBA offseason since 2019 with his family, Paul and the Suns’ approach to this season feels different. It’s more patient, almost as if he’s wisened up to the fact that both he and the team need Paul to pace himself.
It wasn’t pretty to start the season. Paul picked up right where Games 3-7 of that second-round series left off, looking a step slow. He was facilitating well enough, but the Suns needed a sacrificial Point God for Bridges and Cam Johnson to grow. Adjusting to that role proved tricky for an 18-year NBA veteran who was used to dominating the ball, and just as he was finding the right balance between embracing life as an off-ball shooter and playmaking, injuries piled up on him and his teammates.
Paul had already missed a month of games between November and December with a sore right heel, and then on Jan. 6, right hip soreness sidelined him for another two weeks. Both injuries were listed as “day-to-day,” but CP3 and the Suns exercised a rare amount of caution with their Hall-of-Fame point guard.
“We’ve had these situations this year where guys have gotten re-injured, and we’re just trying to be as careful as we can to prevent that,” coach Monty Williams said. “Now, some of it is just basketball, but I think everybody’s just trying to do their part.”
That restraint has made a clear impact. Williams said before last weeks Dallas Mavericks game that he hadn’t noticed anything different with Paul’s performance, but the proof is in the film. Earlier in the season, he hesitated on catch-and-shoot 3s, it looked like he could barely get the ball to the rim with his heaves from beyond the arc, and he even struggled to create separation on his patented midrange jumpers from the elbows.
Since his latest return, Paul has looked like the Point God again. Just watch him snake his way around screens, slither through the paint and create space off the dribble, rising up over backcourt defenders as he gets to his spots or embarrassing bigs who are foolish enough to switch onto one of the greatest midrange gunners of all time:
“Whenever C gets hurt, it’s kind of, like, ‘Good. Like, sit your ass down, get some rest,” Bridges said with a grin. “He got a lot of miles on that body, so especially if it’s not something super serious, little things like that, it’s just like, ‘Good. Get your rest, take care of your body.’
Paul had been showing signs of getting back to form before the hip sidelined him. In 11 games leading up to that injury against the Heat, he had averaged 17.3 points, 8.5 assists, 3.8 rebounds and 1.5 steals per game on .472/.500/.721 shooting splits. The only problem was it didn’t feel like it because the Suns went 4-7 over that stretch.
Now, the team is winning again with Paul posting even better numbers and routinely getting to his spots — like he did over and over again in an overtime win against the San Antonio Spurs.
It’s not just that Paul is up to his old tricks again, but he’s cashing in on those looks too:
Chris Paul's mid-range numbers, by month:
He's back??? pic.twitter.com/wQPVN2gDK1
— Sam Cooper (@scooperhoops) January 29, 2023
Even better, Paul’s recent play represents a merging of his typical midrange prowess and more 3-point shooting, which usually stems from someone else initiating the play. The hesitation is long gone.
“He’s been shooting more, and early, but that’s what we’ve been encouraging him to do, that’s what we need him to do,” Williams said.
Over his last 11 games, Paul has made 29 triples — the most he’s made over any 11-game stretch of his Suns tenure. Not only is he stepping into catch-and-shoot 3s with the confidence you’d expect from a career 37 percent 3-point sniper, but he’s even turned back the clock to the pre-Phoenix days when he’d drill long-range looks off the dribble.
Creating that separation is hard enough, but Paul is showing enough burst, basketball I.Q. and lift in his legs to get these shots off comfortably:
Hell, he’s even blowing by guys on the perimeter to get all the way to the basket!
Sure, the Suns’ opponents over these last five games have been the Raptors, Spurs, Mavs, Hornets and Grizzlies — teams that rank 18th, 30th, 23rd, 27th and second in defensive rating, respectively. But it shouldn’t be lost on anyone that Paul is hitting the boosters on some of these 3s, middies and even layups in the fourth quarter.
And that’s where Mikal Bridges’ growth comes in.
Mikal Bridges eases Chris Paul’s burden
In 12 games since Jan. 8, which was the Suns’ first matchup over their seven-game stretch without Booker and Paul, Bridges has stepped up, averaging 21.3 points, 4.9 assists and 3.8 rebounds per game on .505/.434/.884 shooting splits. He’s gotten to the free-throw line more, has grown exponentially as a scorer and playmaker, and did all this despite being the No. 1 option for opposing defenses to concentrate on.
It was the type of newfound confidence everyone on the Suns wants to see continue once they’re fully healthy.
“I told him, I said, ‘You have to stay this aggressive when we get whole,'” Williams said. “I don’t want him deferring to anybody, ’cause it’s gonna make everybody better.”
For the last year, the biggest question was whether the Point God would ever be willing to ease up on the reins as he entered his twilight years. There’s still no Point Messiah to succeed him in Phoenix, but he’s loved letting Bridges seize those reins for himself.
But Paul understands that for the Suns to get where they want to go, an empowered Bridges is crucial, but his support isn’t for selfish reasons. During his time on the sidelines, CP3 said it was fun watching Bridges grow in that role and watch how Phoenix had to move the ball without their two leading playmakers.
“When we both were out, it was a lot of responsibility on him,” Paul said. “And so one time during the game tonight, we was on the bench and I said, ‘It’s crazy having to try to make every play, ain’t it?’ ‘Cause he plays every night, he guards the best offensive player every night, and we need him to do that.”
It’s something Paul has been in Bridges’ ear about throughout his absences.
“Everybody has been,” Bridges admitted. “It’s just only gonna make the team better. In the playoffs, how they blitz or take Book and C out, it comes down to the other guys making plays with me, Cam and everybody else. So yeah, that’s what we need, and he’s giving us the confidence to go out there and just play.”
The fun hasn’t stopped with Paul and Cam Johnson back in the lineup either. Over the five games since CP3’s return, Bridges has put up 22.4 points, 4.2 assists, 3.0 rebounds and 1.2 steals per game on 48.8 percent shooting, including 42.9 percent from 3.
Even better, he’s asserted himself as a go-to guy down the stretch in close games. Against the Spurs, he scored 14 points on 6-of-6 shooting in the fourth quarter and overtime. On Monday against Toronto, he hit back-to-back jumpers to help Phoenix build a small lead in crunch-time, capitalizing on elbow sets the Suns call the “Mikal-bow”:
3:08 – CP sets down screen at the right elbow. Bridges curls up & uses CP/DA's screens to create space on the left elbow
2:32 – CP's on opposite elbow/DA's out top. Mikal curls out again, this time rejects the screen to spin back towards the right elbow #Suns https://t.co/kHS7zMSHDi pic.twitter.com/zlDS5z6n0P
— Suns Video Breakdown (@SunsVideo) January 31, 2023
“I was like, ‘Book, you know what’s crazy? These are your plays here!'” Ayton laughed. “I was like, ‘This is Mikal’s play now! Every time we do a play on the elbow, we call them The ‘Mikal-bow,’ ’cause that’s ‘Kal’s shot.”
Tremendous play-call puns aside, Williams said those plays were all about Bridges and Paul reading the defense, communicating, and planning their counters accordingly.
“Tonight, we ran one play, and then he and Chris knew we couldn’t run the same play,” Williams said. “Then they went a different route, same kind of play but just took a different route, and he came off and got another good opportunity for us. And so that’s the maturation that you look for in guys down the stretch, where you’re able to run the same playbook, run the counter to try to get a good shot for your team.”
The confidence that Williams and Paul have in Bridges to make those reads and take those shots speaks volumes about the work he puts in…and how much easier it makes life on CP3 as well.
It’s an incredible burden to put on a two-way workhorse like Bridges, but if he can continue to excel in this role, and Booker’s return and Johnson’s return to form spread the wealth further, this resurgent, healthy version of Chris Paul could make all the difference.
“The only thing that really be holding him back is his age, honestly, and I don’t even know what ‘holding back’ is for him anyway,” Bridges said. “Like, his holding back is somebody’s best night, so it’s just great to see him coming off and feeling good.”