Phoenix Suns point-guard Chris Paul found himself in an extremely unusual position on Wednesday night, glued to the bench as the teams went back-and-forth in the closing moments.
The 12-time All-Star was forced to play spectator as the Suns overcame a 22-point to defeat the Dallas Mavericks 107-105 in the season opener, thanks to a Damion Lee baseline jumpshot with 9.7 seconds remaining
Chris Paul’s late-game benching may have been a negative for him personally, but the decision did have other positive effects for the Phoenix Suns.
The 37-year-old left the game at the 6:41 mark, a point in which coach Monty Williams usually gives him a break anyway. But instead of giving Paul a few minutes rest and bringing him back for the closing minutes, we never saw him on the floor again. Williams explained his decision in the post-game:
When Cam (Payne) came in, we had a good rhythm. I just felt like it was the move to stay with Cam. Chris was engaged, it was almost like he was out there…Cam did such a good job with that group — that group as a whole was pretty good on both ends and so I just rolled with them.”
Williams’ flexibility was in itself a positive, preferring the backup over a top five point-guard of all-time. He was criticized during the second-round loss to the Mavericks in the postseason — seen as unwilling to change and try different things in the wake of mounting pressure.
It was a bold and controversial move to have Paul watch on, yet it’s the kind of decision that the best coaches make at the most critical times. Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr sat Draymond Green for the majority of the closing minutes in game four of the NBA Finals in Boston — they overcame a late deficit to take the crucial win and tie the series at 2-2, before Green played a vital role as the Warriors closed out the series 4-2.
Of course, Williams’ decision is made to look good by what happened next. With Paul off the floor, Devin Booker became the bonafide leader of the team and the offense. He had returned at the 8:30 mark after Christian Wood produced a blistering start to the fourth, reopening Dallas’ lead to 15.
Booker had seven points and a staggering six assists in the fourth, delivering the combo-guard potential that’s been bubbling away over the past few seasons. That version of Booker is a top ten player in the league, and that’s generally what you need to win championships.
There’s an understanding Paul’s minutes need to be limited this season, allowing him to play nearer to his optimum level during the playoffs. He can’t do that if there aren’t bench pieces Williams can trust for important stretches. Don’t underestimate the confidence gained by Lee and Payne in that moment, and the sense of empowerment they can move forward with in such a long season.