One of the most unpredictable NBA postseasons in recent history, riddled with injuries left and right to some of the league’s best players, has taken another turn for the worse. The Phoenix Suns’ Chris Paul entered the NBA’s health and safety protocols less than 24 hours ago after testing positive for COVID-19 and his availability for at least the early part of the Western Conference Finals is now uncertain.
Paul has averaged 15.7 points, 8.7 assists, and 4.1 rebounds in 10 playoff games this season, shrugging off a shoulder injury that he incurred in the playoff opener against the Los Angeles Lakers to lead Phoenix to their first conference finals appearance since 2010.
He will now be out indefinitely and this development is a critical blow to the Suns’ championship aspirations. Those who enter the league’s COVID-19 protocols are typically required to isolate for 10-14 days, though some have missed longer periods of time in order to recover after contracting advanced symptoms of the virus. Paul’s positive test is the NBA’s first after zero cases were detected for three consecutive weeks.
The Boston Celtics’ Jayson Tatum was one of the more high profile players who suffered from the coronavirus over the course of the regular season and missed over two weeks of action. Upon his return, Tatum shared that he still had trouble breathing on certain occasions even months after his bout with the virus.
The possibility that Paul has already been vaccinated, which has been scientifically proven to help prevent serious cases of COVID-19, makes it highly likely that he will not experience symptoms as grave as Tatum’s. There are reports from notable sources, including ESPN’s Jalen Rose, who have claimed that the Suns’ All-Star guard was already vaccinated last February.
Paul could return to the court sooner than expected if he remains in good health and has indeed been vaccinated. However, the league’s guidelines on vaccinated players who have contracted the virus remain unclear as there have been no precedent cases and an official confirmation from the Suns or Paul himself on his vaccination has yet to surface. The Suns have announced that they will give an update on Paul on Saturday (Sunday in the Philippines).
If the Los Angeles Clippers, who currently hold a 3-2 lead over the Utah Jazz, can close their series in six games, they will play the Suns on Sunday (Monday in the Philippines). Considering the brief amount of time between Paul’s positive test and the prospective start of the Western Conference Finals, it seems unlikely that he will be able to suit up for the series opener.
Devin Booker will see more ball handling duties in Paul’s absence and will be asked to carry much of the scoring and playmaking load for the Suns. Booker is already averaging 27.9 points, 6.8 rebounds, and 4.8 assists in the postseason–all improvements from his regular season numbers–but will have to do more to make up for the absence of Paul.
Back-up guard Cam Payne, who is scoring 10.2 points per game off the bench in the playoffs, is likely to see more responsibilities while the seldom-used veteran E’Twaun Moore may see spot minutes in the backcourt.
Paul, who closed out the Denver Nuggets in Game 4 with a 37 point-seven assist masterpiece, makes them the favorite to win their upcoming match-up if he plays, regardless of whether they face the equally injury-riddled Clippers or Jazz.
The Clippers played without All-NBA forward Kawhi Leonard in their Game 5 win over the Jazz, banking on Paul George, Marcus Morris Sr., and Reggie Jackson. Leonard is expected to miss a few weeks with a knee injury which is a major hindrance to the Clippers whose top-heavy roster is dependent on him and George.
Meanwhile, the Jazz have been missing the services of All-Star Mike Conley since the last game of the first round while leading scorer Donovan Mitchell has been playing with a knee injury that he sustained a few games ago against the Clippers. Despite the absence of Conley and a hampered Mitchell, the Jazz boast of a deeper roster than the Clippers, but still fell to their Leonard-less team and are now a game away from elimination.
A Jazz win in Game 6 extends the series to a seventh game and buys Paul two more days to sort out his COVID-19 situation. If Paul manages to see the floor in the Western Conference finals, the recent form of the Suns suggests that they could be favored to win a best-of-seven against either team.
Without Paul, taking into consideration his influence on the team’s success both on and off the court, the Suns will instead be a slight underdog in their upcoming match-up.
Given the situation, the Suns’ sweep of the Nuggets has given them the privilege of time and even if Paul is to miss 10 days due to quarantine, he can possibly see the floor for the third or fourth game of the upcoming round. Paul’s status remains up in the air and will play a significant role in determining who wins this year’s title.
These developments around Paul are just the latest wrinkle in one of the more dramatic years that the NBA has seen and if these past few months have been any indication, the safest bet for the next few weeks is to just expect the unexpected.