LOS ANGELES — A little over a week ago, Chris Paul christened the Phoenix Suns’ first trip to the postseason since the 2009-10 season with a bit of style. Paul, who is 6 feet tall, does not dunk often, but he rose to the occasion during warm-ups for the opening game of the Suns’ first-round series with the Lakers, leaping for an alley-oop as his teammates — and thousands of fans in Phoenix — celebrated in unison. It felt like a party. The city brimmed with hope.
Why not? Rather than merely being back in the playoffs, the Suns had returned as the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference. Now, anything seemed possible: a deep run, a chance at a championship. And Paul, of course, had been central to the team’s identity, adding leadership and a dose of feistiness to a young roster.
Since Paul’s pregame dunk, the series has taken on the feel of a more earthbound slog: sprains and strains, trash talk and errant shots. More than a few possessions have bordered on skirmishes. After injuring his right shoulder in Game 1, Paul has personified the series in some ways. He has played with a grimace.
But after being a nonfactor in back-to-back losses, Paul resurfaced for Game 4 on Sunday in vintage form. He scored and scowled. He had running conversations with defenders and courtside fans at Staples Center in Los Angeles. He played a huge role in the Suns’ 100-92 win, which evened the best-of-seven series at two games apiece, and amazingly he nearly played no role at all.
Suns Coach Monty Williams said he had essentially decided before the game to pull Paul from the lineup. Paul had been ineffective in Game 3, and Williams said he was concerned — concerned about Paul’s health and concerned that his presence could actually hinder the team. It was not a decision that Williams had taken lightly.
“It was something I’d been thinking about for the past 48 hours,” Williams said.
So, a few minutes before the Suns gathered as a team, Williams met with Paul and James Jones, the Suns’ general manager, and shared how he felt. Paul pushed back and argued that Williams should let him start: If it was clear in the early minutes that he was not himself, then Williams could sit him and the team could go in a different direction.
“This is one of those situations where I had to trust the player, trust our relationship from over the years,” Williams said, adding: “He’s trained to be in these moments, and my final thought was: I don’t want to be the one who takes that away from him.”
It was one of several conversations that Paul had before the game. He said he called his brother, C.J., and conferred with the other members of his inner circle. He also talked to teammates Jae Crowder and Devin Booker, conveying an important message to both players.
“If you all feel like I’m out here looking like some trash, just tell me and I’ll get out,” Paul recalled telling them. “I had to see what I could do.”
For his part, Williams said he was reassured when Paul went through a pregame workout with an assistant coach and showed improved mobility in his shoulder. It was the first time Paul had touched a basketball since the Suns’ 14-point loss in Game 3 on Thursday. The team’s training staff had recommended rest.
“They say that’s the only way to treat what I have going on,” said Paul, whose injury is listed as a contusion.
Paul made his first shot — a pull-up jumper from 11 feet — and was assertive in the second quarter after the Lakers had built a double-digit lead.
“I’m never doubting myself,” Paul said, “but I’m like, ‘Man, it’s on me. It’s on me.’ ”
He left even more of an imprint at the start of the third quarter, when Lakers center Anthony Davis remained in the locker room with a strained groin. There was Paul, racing upcourt on a fast break before dumping a pass to Deandre Ayton for a layup. There was Paul, darting through the lane for a short jumper. And there was Paul again, firing an 18-foot fadeaway to give the Suns a 14-point lead. Davis left a void, and Paul pounced on the opportunity.
“Once I got a couple shots to fall and we started to play with pace, we felt like we had it,” he said.
Paul, who finished with 18 points, 9 assists and 3 steals, was not totally himself by any stretch. He was still favoring his right shoulder and dribbling with his left hand whenever possible. But he was productive — more so than he had been all series — and his teammates fed off his hallmark frowny-face energy.
“The game’s a lot easier when he’s out there,” Suns guard Cameron Payne said.
It has been that way all season for the Suns, who have leaned heavily on Paul. His impact has gone far beyond creating open looks for teammates. “A lot of guys have changed how they work out, how they eat, just by being around Chris,” Williams said.
Now in his 16th season and playing for his fifth team, Paul is still trying to reach his first N.B.A. finals. It is a hole on his otherwise crowded résumé. Helping guide the Suns there in his first season in Phoenix would be an enormous achievement. Only a couple of days ago, that dream seemed in danger of prematurely crumbling into desert dust.
Now, the Lakers look vulnerable, especially with Davis’s uncertain status for Game 5 on Tuesday in Phoenix.
The playoffs, Williams said, tend to push players to their absolute limit. Paul, for example, is facing another test in a career full of them.
“It was a good feeling,” Paul said, “just to be out there and compete.”