Focus should be on Chris Paul after Suns’ unexplained collapse

The Suns were supposed to be like the 2004 Red Sox and the 2016 Cubs.

They were our deliverance. Our ghostbusters. Our roundball saviors.

They were destined to the break the curse in the Valley following a decade of competitive dysfunction, which followed a decade of playoff torment and heartbreak. They had a commanding 2-0 series lead against the Mavericks in the Western Conference Semifinals, an opponent they had beaten 11 consecutive times.

Somehow, the Suns lost their grip, their composure and four of the next five games. The last two outcomes were thoroughly embarrassing and emasculating, derailing the individual legacies of every notable performer in the group. They were the No. 1 seed with homecourt advantage on the biggest stage in basketball and trailed by 46 points in the second half of Game 7.

We have been given no explanations. Invested fans remain deeply traumatized. We’re all searching for answers and alibis. Just like the Cardinals’ shocking collapse in 2021, the bottom simply fell out of the bathtub. The mess is profound.

Yet the Suns seem to be taking the shocking elimination in stride, taking solace and pride in their regular-season feats. Their acceptance is both suspicious and unnerving. Especially when a team with elite chemistry and depth had very little of either at the bitter end, a team where a genteel servant-leader, Monty Williams, engaged in a very public display of mutual dissatisfaction with Deandre Ayton, and according to multiple sources, had something of a fallout with veteran leader Chris Paul.

Let’s stop focusing on Ayton. As most fans know, he is a convenient fall-guy for most everything on Planet Orange. If the Suns have decided they are not keeping him nor paying him maximum dollars, the slander is just beginning because they need a convenient scapegoat. But Ayton has every right to be unhappy with Suns ownership. And for the most part, he’s done a tremendous job of hiding his workplace woes for the good of the group.

Instead, we need to focus on Chris Paul.

It’s clear that something happened to Paul besides a 37th birthday. He didn’t get old overnight. He didn’t suddenly succumb to larger, mobile defenders or defensive trickery from Mavericks head coach Jason Kidd. Remember, Paul is a Hall of Fame player. His nickname is “Point God.” Put your hand in his breadbasket for a moment, and he’s ripping through for an automatic foul. You don’t beat Paul with NBA chess. There is no defense he hasn’t seen or beaten.

Which means he was injured. Or he was sick. Or something happened between he and Williams that rocked the group to its core.

I believe Paul was physically compromised yet again. In the first half of Game 3, he set a personal-worst for turnovers in a playoff game. In the first half of Game 4, he set a personal-worst for most fouls in half of playoff basketball. He was strangely detached and resigned for the back half of the series.

A veteran NBA scribe reported that Paul injured his quadriceps muscle. That makes sense. Because Paul didn’t look like he had the requisite juice. He lacked the quickness to get to his spot, which means he lacked the ability to feel in complete control of the game, a step ahead of everyone else.

He was very reluctant to shoot the ball, especially from the perimeter, even though his shooting percentage remained very high throughout the series. After a third loss in Dallas, he seemed absurdly relieved to have two days off before Game 7. His body language gave off zero killer instinct.

Even worse: when the deed was done and the collapse complete, nobody seemed surprised. Nobody seemed shocked. Nobody seemed appalled at what transpired. The ending made perfect sense to them because they understood the forces that conspired to make it happen.

We don’t have that luxury. And chances are, we’ll never really know what happened to Paul in his Phoenix playoff encore. Too many people might look bad.

But in the end, the team that was supposed to deliver the Valley from our inglorious past somehow gave us more of the same and then some. A swaggering team destined to spawn a long-awaited parade was booed off their home court at Footprint Center in Game 7.

That’s perfectly awful. And perfectly Phoenix.

Reach Bickley at dbickley@arizonasports.com. Listen to Bickley & Marotta weekdays from 6 – 10 am on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station.

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