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The Suns are asking Chris Paul and Deandre Ayton to carry a historical burden

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The workload for Chris Paul, Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton is compounding in the 2021 NBA playoffs, and it reached a crescendo in Game 2 of the Finals, when all three played more than 41 minutes in victory.

None of the Phoenix Suns stars was close to his best three days later in Sunday's listless Game 3 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks. We may never know whether a lack of desperation or fatigue was more responsible for the blowout, but the demand on all three will only increase as the series moves to Game 4 and beyond.

You do not worry so much about Booker, whose 40.1 minutes per game in these playoffs are roughly 20% higher than his career average and the highest of anyone still playing. He is 24 years old with no significant injury history. As Booker said after his brilliant performance in 44 minutes of Game 2, lumping 24-year-old Mikal Bridges into the conversation, "We're young and trying to get after it. So, I don't feel tired, for real."

Booker also exceeded 40 minutes in nine of his previous 10 games before resting the entirety of Sunday's fourth quarter. Granted, it was a 20-point game, but NBA leads are fickle and all other starters were on the court. Prior to this two-month stretch, the highest average for any single month of Booker's career was 37.7 minutes per game in March of his rookie year. This is unprecedented territory, and preserving him for Game 4, even if there are two days off between each of the middle five games of this series, was a wise decision.

You do worry more about the onus on Paul and Ayton for a variety of reasons. Most notably, Paul is a 6-foot point guard already exceeding expectations at 36 years old, and Ayton is a 6-11, 250-pound big playing in a league that placed only one traditional center inside the league's top 30 in minutes per game this season.

The Suns rush to help 36-year-old star Chris Paul off the floor during his historical playoff run. (Harry How/Getty Images)
The Suns rush to help 36-year-old star Chris Paul off the floor during his historical playoff run. (Harry How/Getty Images)

Any way you analyze his workload in Basketball Reference's database, Paul is one of few players to carry so demanding a burden at this point in his career. Jason Kidd in 2011 and Gary Payton in 2006 — both for championship teams, by the way — are the only other point guards to play more than 500 playoff minutes in or after his 16th season. Their combined usage rate (27.4%) was comparable to Paul's this year (25%).

Paul's playing time of 41:28 in Game 2 put him on the short list of guards 35 years or older who have reached the 41-minute mark in a Finals outing. Only Kidd, Payton, Derek Fisher, Mark Jackson and Ray Allen had done it before him. Those five played a total of seven Finals games after their 40-minute outings. Their average stat line: 5.7 points (39 FG%) and 3.1 assists against 1.7 turnovers in 28 minutes per game.

Paul collected 19 points on 8-for-14 shooting and nine assists against four turnovers in 34 minutes of Game 3, and it was not nearly enough. The Suns can afford nothing less from their most important player, who averaged a ridiculous 27.5 points on 56/58/80 shooting splits in his team's Games 1 and 2 victories.

It is notable that Paul played 41:31 for the Houston Rockets in Game 4 of the 2018 Western Conference finals, only to strain his hamstring two nights later in Game 5. The Rockets lost Games 6 and 7 to the Golden State Warriors without him. On the rare occasion he has hit the 41-minute mark in three regular seasons since, he has dialed his workload way back, often below 30 minutes per game for weeks on end.

That obviously is not happening in the Finals. It is asking a ton of Paul, his vegan diet and Phoenix's renowned sports science staff to sustain his extraordinary level of play at his height and age in the playoffs.

It does not help that, since rolling his ankle in Game 3 of the Western Conference finals, backup Suns point guard Cameron Payne has been a shell of the impactful spark plug he was earlier in the playoffs. In five games following an injury that only cost him three quarters of availability, Payne is averaging just six points on 34% shooting in 16.7 minutes per night. He is a -26 in 41 minutes through three games of the Finals. 

The backup situation for Ayton is even more dire. Small-ball center Dario Saric tore his ACL two minutes into his Game 1 stint. Suns coach Monty Williams has yet to trust rookie Jalen Smith in the Finals. That leaves veteran Frank Kaminsky, who was a DNP in seven games prior to Saric's injury demanding his time.

Game 3 foul trouble for Ayton required more minutes from Kaminsky, and Milwaukee outscored Phoenix by 14 in the former college player of the year's first five minutes. Williams found some success in the third quarter with a small-ball lineup of Paul, Booker, Bridges, Jae Crowder and Cameron Johnson, but that unit feels unsustainable against a team with Giannis Antetokounmpo, the ultimate small-ball weapon at center.

Not only must the Suns avoid foul trouble for Ayton, but they need in the neighborhood of 40 minutes a night from their 22-year-old center. He may well give them that for two more victories. He has exceeded 40 minutes in five of 19 playoff games after hitting that mark once all season. Only once in his career had Ayton ever matched the 42:18 he did in Game 2, and he missed the next two games with ankle soreness.

No true center since Tyson Chandler in 2011 had played more than 40 minutes in a Finals game until Ayton's Game 2. Only four centers this century have hit 40 minutes in a Finals game: Shaquille O'Neal (19 times from 2000-06!), Dikembe Mutombo (four times in 2001), Dwight Howard (three times in 2009) and Chandler (twice in 2011). Again, the 2011 Dallas Mavericks won a title with Chandler and Kidd playing huge minutes alongside Dirk Nowitzki. They are a blueprint for sustaining an aging point guard and agile center.

Keep in mind, only two of those 28 40-minute Finals game by a center since 2000 was played at a faster pace than the 95 possessions used by the Suns in Game 2 of this year's Finals — both by O'Neal. The average pace of those 28 games (90) would rank by far the slowest of any team in this year's playoffs. Even the Suns, who are not a fast-paced team by today's standards, play faster than any playoff team in 2011.

None of this is to say the Suns cannot handle the load required to win two more games and the franchise's first title. It is just that Paul and Ayton are carrying a burden few players in the generations before them did, especially for a Phoenix team that is down to six rotational players, plus a hobbled Payne and Torrey Craig.

And they must do it against a Bucks roster that has managed minutes more closely than anyone the past two years — arguably to a fault at times — and that boasts Antetokounmpo, a freakishly healthy specimen (knock on wood) who has registered back-to-back 40-point nights days after hyperextending his left knee.

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Ben Rohrbach is a staff writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at rohrbach_ben@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @brohrbach

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