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Chris Paul has led the Suns to first playoff spot in 11 years — and they stand one game vs. the Utah Jazz away from No. 1 seed

The top two teams in the NBA’s Western Conference meet Friday night in Phoenix

Phoenix Suns guard Chris Paul, right, looks for a shot over Denver Nuggets guard Facundo Campazzo during the first half of an NBA basketball game Friday, Jan. 1, 2021, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

For the first time in 11 years, the Phoenix Suns clinched a playoff berth Wednesday night.

Of course, that was mostly a formality after the season that the Suns have had. With 10 games left in thie shortened regular season, the Suns stand with a 44-18 record, on pace for 58 wins in a normal NBA season. That record has put them just one game back of the Utah Jazz for the coveted spot of No. 1 team in the NBA.

The tiebreaker situation — which is in the Suns’ favor after they won the first two matchups earlier this season — means that the winner of Friday night’s contest between the two teams will become the No. 1 seed.

The only thing that keeps the matchup from being the most anticipated game of the NBA’s season is the injury report. The absence of Donovan Mitchell due to the right ankle sprain suffered two weeks ago is confirmed, while Mike Conley will likely not play due to a reaggravation of his hamstring pull in the Jazz’s game against the Timberwolves Monday. Role players Dario Saric and Jae Crowder missed the Suns’ game against the Clippers on Wednesday, and their status for Friday’s game has yet to be announced.

Still, the Jazz showed that they can put up a fight if their shots are falling, even without their top two guards, on Wednesday against Sacramento. But thanks to their strength and health, the Suns will be the clear favorites to earn that No. 1 seed on Friday — a situation that would have seemed outlandish even a year ago.

It’s clear what the biggest difference is: the arrival of one Point God. Chris Paul’s second-most-famous nickname — the shorter “CP3″ a little too obvious — reflects his seemingly omnipotent power over what happens on a basketball court, despite being the smallest starter in the NBA in terms of height.

Want proof? Compiled by StatMuse, here’s a roundup of the five teams he’s played for in his career, and their winning percentage before and after acquiring Paul:

The smallest difference on that list might be the most remarkable of them all. Yes, he only made the Oklahoma City Thunder one game better, a paltry accomplishment for Paul. Except that was the season that both Russell Westbrook and Paul George left Oklahoma City for what they considered greener pastures; Paul took the rag-tag roster in 2019 and carried them into the playoffs.

“Chris is a different breed,” Jerry West, the Hall of Fame Lakers legend, told The Athletic. “I love him as a player. I always have. He’s smart. He’s clever. He can make shots. He can defend like crazy. Again, he does everything that you would want in a leader. He’s just a remarkable player. He’s just a tremendous, tremendous player. The ultimate competitor. He’s been like this his whole career.”

The arrival of Paul has changed everything in Phoenix. Star guard Devin Booker, truthfully, is putting up the same stats as he did last season, but now he can afford to play some time off the ball, too. DeAndre Ayton’s efficiency has skyrocketed, as he now can finish more of Paul’s trademark lob passes. The 24-year-old Mikal Bridges has continued to develop into one of the NBA’s best role players, knocking down 40% of his threes this season while playing stellar defense.

Also important has been the contributions of head coach Monty Williams, now considered the frontrunner for the NBA’s Coach of the Year award. Action Network commentator Matt Moore summed up Williams’ contributions:

“Monty Williams took a team that everyone thought was HOPELESS because of ownership and has them as a top-2 seed in the West,” Moore wrote. “The big thing I noticed about the Suns three years ago was that no one knew what they were doing at any point and now they are ALL always prepared.”

The total package has meant that the Suns have been surprising teams all year long, climbing up the standings. After a 6-7 January, the Suns went 12-3 in February, 11-3 in March, and 11-4 in April.

The question with the Suns is the same as with the Jazz: can they get it done in the playoffs? Neither core of young players has seen the later rounds of the NBA playoffs, and while Paul’s playoff stats are quite good, he’s never reached an NBA Finals.

But those questions will begin to be answered 10 games from now. For now, for this Friday’s contest, the two teams who have done everything they can to put themselves in position will see who can edge out the No. 1 spot.

JAZZ AT SUNS

When • Friday, 8 p.m. MT

TV • ATTSN


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