DENVER – Chris Paul returned from a broken thumb sooner than expected when the NBA-leading Phoenix Suns played the Denver Nuggets on Thursday night.
“It's good to have him back," Suns coach Monty Williams said about an hour before tip-off. “He’s been working diligently to not just get back but play at a level he wants to play. I’m sure the guys are jacked up.”
Williams said he had a certain number of minutes in mind for Paul's return, “but you can't cookie-cut it. I have to watch him, especially when there’s a break in the action. There are certain times with an athlete you’ve got to know if a guy is laboring. He knows and he’ll tell me. But it’s something we’ve got to monitor. You won’t see him close to his normal 28-32 (minutes). With the games we have left we’ve got to do our best to get him where he needs to be.”
Paul returned to the lineup roughly five weeks after he broke his right thumb in a game against Houston just before the All-Star break.
“It’s kind of scary,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said while Paul was warming up at Ball Arena. "I’ve gotten the chance to coach Chris, know him. arguably the greatest point guard of all time. But what’s really interesting is that they went 11-4 without him. They’ve won six in a row, seven of eight. That speaks to the quality of their depth and their team and their talent and the job that Monty Williams does.
“I knew he was close to coming back and I was just hoping that wouldn’t be tonight.”
Paul missed 15 games after getting hurt Feb. 16. The 36-year-old point guard is averaging 14.9 points and 10.7 assists.
The Suns were worried that Paul might miss the remainder of the regular season because of the thumb injury, but the veteran has been active in recent practices in a push to return. With a nine-game lead over second-place Memphis with nine games left for both teams, the Suns were in position Thursday night to wrap up the best record in the NBA and home-court throughout the playoffs.
“I didn’t put a limit on it or think that deeply about it,” Williams said about Paul's absence. “I was just listening to the medical staff and we were with Chris every day and talked all the time. I watched him progress in his rehab and watched him on the floor. I’m not surprised, I’m just grateful that he’s back.”
Phoenix has played better than expected without the 12-time All-Star guard. The Suns went 11-4 without Paul and took a six-game winning streak into their game at Denver, where the Nuggets are still awaiting the returns of their second- and third-best players. Jamal Murray is 11 months removed from a torn ACL and Michael Porter Jr. is recovering from an early-season back injury.
Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges and Deandre Ayton have played well in Paul's absence and Ayton had a career-high 35 points Wednesday night in a comeback victory at Minnesota.
The Suns lead the NBA with a 59-14 record and are trying to make the NBA Finals for a second straight season. They lost to the Milwaukee Bucks in six games in the Finals last year.