By: Brendon Kleen
In the waning moments of a nationally televised clash between the Phoenix Suns and New York Knicks, Knicks guard Alec Burks missed a free throw that would have put his team up three with mere seconds remaining. The moment opened the door for Cam Johnson’s heroic buzzer-beating three pointer to secure the dramatic win for the Suns and a social media avalanche that would last for 24 hours.
Johnson’s clutch shot was the latest example of a squad not just weathering the storm without its All-Star backcourt of Devin Booker and Chris Paul, but extending its lead in the Western Conference and best record in the NBA.
Paul suffered an avulsion fracture in his right thumb in the final game leading into the All-Star break and Booker hit the injured list due to the NBA health and safety protocol on March 2.
Still, the Suns have extended their lead in the Western Conference by going 3-3 without Paul and 2-1 since Booker went out. It has taken career nights up and down the roster to make up for Paul and Booker’s absences.
The Suns punctuated their next man up mentality without Paul and Booker with a 30-point dominance against Portland and frenzied victory over New York. The Portland victory marked the first time since December 6, 2018, that Phoenix’s leaders in scoring (Johnson), rebounding (JaVale McGee) and assists (Aaron Holiday) all came off the bench.
Against New York, the Suns were led by forward Johnson, who scored a career-high 38 points and knocked down the game-winning buzzer-beater to close out the victory. In five games without Paul, Johnson is averaging 23.4 points per game on 60.3 percent shooting from the field and 58.5 percent shooting from three.
If the question is who has stepped up during this period of adversity, the answer has to start with Johnson. But on the decisive final play of the win over New York, Johnson was the beneficiary of a clear step forward by the Suns in handling winning time without their leaders.
In a situation reminiscent of a flub against Utah, it was Knicks guard Alec Burks who missed with a few seconds left and his team leading Phoenix. This time, Mikal Bridges grabbed the rebound and found Payne instantly, who zoomed the ball up the floor as the game clock ticked away. Johnson plodded behind the play, caught a pass from Payne and, down two, dribbled into a heave to win it. Game over.
Prior to entering the protocol, Booker had been running point, filling both the scorer and distributor roles on his way to nightly heroic state lines. He left at the worst time, coming off the disappointing loss to the Jazz.
Yet in just a week, the Suns flipped their fortune in a tight spot, a testament to the team’s determination to figure things out while they are shorthanded. Having Payne on the floor was key. As an understudy to Paul the past year and a half, Payne has absorbed a ton about how to read the game and take what’s given in any given moment.
Payne, who had a career-high 16 assists in the win over the Knicks, has embraced a key lesson from Paul this season. Especially within Williams’ point-five offensive scheme, it’s not so much about where Suns players might be on the court, but where the defense is rotating.
With Payne sliding into the starting point guard position, it created a new opportunity for recently acquired Holiday to elevate his play with increased minutes and performances while still learning the Suns’ offense.
Holiday’s presence is hard to miss off the bench. Infectious energy and tenacious defense and eyes for open teammates, Holiday currently ranks fourth in the NBA in total assists (25) off the bench since the All-Star Break.
Shooting guard Landry Shamet has found his stroke and is contributing to the team’s winning ways making two or more three pointers in five of the last six games since the halfway point of the season.
Each night, a different Sun has stepped up, a shining example of the depth created by general manager James Jones and the organizational pillar of staying ready. Despite being without the NBA’s assists per game leader in Paul, the Suns rank fourth in the NBA with 28.7 assists per game since the break with Payne, Booker, Shamet, Johnson, Mikal Bridges and Jae Crowder all setting or matching season highs in assists over this recent stretch.
In a tightly contested matinee NBA Finals rematch in Milwaukee last Sunday without Booker, Paul or Johnson, the short-handed Suns fought valiantly behind a season-high 30 points from Deandre Ayton in the loss.
Even in defeat, head coach Monty Williams praised his team’s effort.
“The fight that we show night in and night out no matter who plays is something that I’m proud of.”
“That’s who we are,” he added. “Who steps up or who’s got a uniform on, it does matter, but the style of play is always there, and the grit and toughness is there.”
The Suns’ look to bounce back after the loss to Milwaukee with back-to-back games against the Orlando Magic and Eastern Conference-leading Miami Heat to close out the road trip.