by Gina Mizell

Headline

RIGHT PLACE, RIGHT TIME
Torrey Craig's versatility and hustle are on display in Suns' playoff series against his former team

DENVER — Torrey Craig’s frustration from the previous possession fueled his takeoff.

As Chris Paul let go of a step-back 3-pointer during the third quarter of Game 1 of the Western Conference Semifinals against the Denver Nuggets, Craig got in position to secure an offensive rebound and was wrapped and taken to the ground by Facundo Campazzo with no foul called.

So when Phoenix Suns teammate Dario Saric collected a steal on the other end and got the ball to Cameron Payne, a seething Craig pointed one finger up as he sprinted down the court. Then he went airborne, soaring down the lane for a two-handed alley-oop slam that stands as the most crowd-rocking play of Phoenix’s thrilling playoff ride so far.

“No matter where he threw it, I was going to get it,” Craig said.

What Craig left out of his retelling of that sequence is that the only reason Paul could shoot that particular 3-pointer is because Craig hustled to track down his own miss from the corner — and withstood a bump from Campazzo — seconds earlier. That’s been the fourth-year wing’s role since the Suns picked him up in a mid-March trade with Milwaukee for cash considerations.

Craig is a versatile defender and willing rebounder on both ends. He will dive for 50/50 balls and flash his athleticism via deflections and blocks. He has gotten more offensive opportunities with the Suns as an outside shooter and authoritative finisher off cuts and in transition. Now, Craig is showcasing all of those attributes during a playoff series against his former team while providing a jolt to the Suns’ championship aspirations.

“We would be in a different place if we didn’t have Torrey Craig on our team,” Suns coach Monty Williams said. “He came at the right time. … It was the right spot for Torrey. We needed him, and he needed us.”

Craig recently called the past seven or eight months “maybe the most hectic of my life.” That’s saying something for a player who took a winding path to the NBA and has been one of its more surprising success stories in recent seasons.

Craig hails from Great Falls, South Carolina (population: 2,042) and, after going undrafted out of the University of South Carolina Upstate, played overseas in Australia and New Zealand’s National Basketball League. After receiving an invitation to play on the Nuggets’ Summer League team in 2017, he earned one of the NBA’s first two-way contracts as a 26-year old rookie. He parlayed that season into a full two-year contract, then helped Denver to consecutive playoff berths including a Western Conference Finals appearance last season.

Followinig the Nuggets’ run in the Orlando Bubble, Craig began the offseason living and training in Miami as a restricted free agent. The Nuggets extended a qualifying offer to Craig but later rescinded it, making him an unrestricted free agent without Denver being able to match an offer from another team.

Williams and Craig acknowledge today that the Suns pursued Craig in free agency, and that there was strong interest from Craig in signing with Phoenix. Instead, Craig joined another contender in the Milwaukee Bucks, but never found rhythm with that team. He underwent surgery after breaking his nose in the Bucks’ third game of the season, which kept him out for nearly a month. He did not play much when he returned, calling that period “a low time for me.”

“I couldn’t understand what was going on,” Craig said, “why I was there at this point in my career, and knowing I could help a team and not playing and not understanding why.”

Before a March 17 game in Philadelphia, a Bucks representative told Craig he had been traded but did not reveal his new team. When Craig found he was heading to Phoenix, his immediate reaction was, “Wow, that’s perfect.” Williams echoed Craig’s delight, texting him “It all worked out, anyway” shortly after both teams completed the deal.

The Suns needed Craig to play immediately. Abdel Nader had sustained a knee injury that eventually required surgery, and Cam Johnson and Jae Crowder both missed stints of time due to injury and illness. Craig did not know many of the Suns’ plays when he first arrived, but figured it out on the fly because “he had no choice,” Williams said. 

Craig leaned on his past experiences to adapt so quickly.

After leading his college conference in scoring in back-to-back seasons, he shifted his focus to become the NBL’s Best Defensive Player in 2016-17. As a two-way player with the Nuggets, he spent a chunk of his rookie season with the G League’s Sioux Falls Skyforce and could only spend 45 total days participating in basketball activities with Denver.

When the Nuggets abruptly needed Craig to make his first NBA start, he traveled from Oshkosh, Wisconsin to Denver on minimal sleep, then made a critical block on then-Pelicans point guard Jrue Holiday to force overtime in a Nuggets win less than 24 hours later. Throughout that season, the Nuggets regularly held Craig out of practice and had him travel on commercial fights in an effort to maximize those 45 days.

“My whole career, my whole life, I’ve just been able to adjust and fit in any situation,” Craig said.

Craig believes his style of play helps him achieve that objective. His motor has always been a point of pride, sharing his body was always peppered with floor burns, scratches and bruises as child because he dove for so many loose balls. As a pro, he thrives on being able to cut off the ball, then crash the glass, then run the floor the opposite way, knowing that burst of energy is what teammates need from him the most.

“To me, it’s mental,” Craig said. “Even if I’m looking tired, I’m breathing hard, I’m still gonna go after the ball and do the extra dirty work. … If I’m gonna play 15 minutes this game, I’m gonna make sure I empty the tank in 15 minutes.”

Every day with the Suns helped Craig learn a bit more, such as which side of the floor to begin offensive possessions on and what spots his new teammates like. Player development coach Riccardo Fois and assistants Kevin Young and Willie Green worked with Craig to decipher plays, terminology and hand gestures, while other staffers such as Ben Strong and Brian Randle got on the floor to script offensive sets and defensive coverages. 

Teammates also helped Craig feel welcome as a midseason addition.

Mikal Bridges, who first met Craig through the 2019 Team USA Select team, gave Craig the nickname “Big Country” that all players now use. Craig got to know younger teammates by joining their shooting groups following practices. Paul, Crowder and Devin Booker invited Craig to play popular NBA card game Booray on his first plane ride with the Suns, and now mimic dealing a hand during starting-lineup introductions before every game.  

“(His) personality of just jumping right into the fold,” Williams said, “that’s endeared him to his team and the staff.” 

On the floor, Craig immediately impressed with his uncanny ability to snag offensive rebounds, defend multiple positions and bury timely 3-pointers. He filled in as the starting power forward while Crowder nursed a late-season ankle injury, recording a season-best 20 points and 14 rebounds in an April 25 game at Brooklyn. The 6-foot-7, 220-pounder has even played some small-ball center, including guarding Marc Gasol during the playoffs’ first round.

Craig averaged 7.2 points and 4.8 rebounds while shooting 36.9 percent from beyond the arc in 18.8 minutes over 32 regular-season games with Phoenix. His playoff numbers entering Friday’s Game 4 at Denver are comparable in shorter-minute bursts, including shooting 38.9 percent on 2.3 3-point attempts per game.

While preparing for this series against the Nuggets, Craig has spoken up in meetings about his previous team’s schemes and player tendencies. He spent time ahead of Game 1 catching up with former teammates and staff on the Denver bench, and calls Michael Porter Jr. one of his closest friends. Before Game 2, Nuggets coach Michael Malone candidly said, “I definitely wish (Craig) was still in a Denver Nugget uniform” and praised the way he has learned to play off Booker and Paul in the same way he played off Nuggets stars Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray.

After totaling nine points and eight rebounds — including that highlight-worthy third-quarter alley-oop — during a Game 1 victory, Craig got a dose of tough luck at the start of Game 2. Upon receiving a slick pass from Saric, Craig’s corner 3 hit seemingly every part of the rim before spitting out. A few minutes later, Craig could not convert a tip-in attempt. 

But Craig raced the other way and blocked Monte Morris from behind when he pulled up from the free throw line, a play that led to a Saric 3-pointer to help the Suns build a double-digit first-half lead. Later in the game, Craig secured a tip-in off a Payne miss, hit a 3 in front of Denver’s bench and powered his way to an And-1 finish in transition. 

Then, as Paul used his slick handle to dance on Paul Millsap early in the fourth quarter, Craig cut to the basket and received the ball for the easy layup.

“Torrey actually bailed me out,” Paul said. “I got in trouble. I didn’t have a shot, so thank God he cut for me.”

That all epitomizes a wild few months for Craig. He found his niche in Phoenix, fitting the Suns’ relentless style. And for a guy willing to make all the hustle plays, Craig's role during the Suns’ postseason run is an appropriate reward.   

“It’s been a roller coaster,” Craig said. “But I’m here now, and we’re playing our best basketball at the right time.”

ICYMI:

‘THERE’S NOTHING LIKE IT’

How the Phoenix Suns have created arguably the NBA’s best home-court advantage during the 2021 NBA Playoffs

That electric crowd is goosebumps-inducing in person and takes television viewers aback, prompting local pride and national attention. It has been praised by young Suns experiencing the postseason for the first time and veterans who have been through countless playoff games alike. That’s why it’s reasonable to wonder if — or conclude that — the Suns have quickly created the NBA’s best home-court advantage during these playoffs.

RELENTLESS

How the Suns’ full-throttle mentality propelled them to Western Conference Semifinals

The formal definition of the word “relentless” is “oppressively constant; incessant.” That descriptor has followed the Suns throughout this season, applying to their on-court style of play and their everyday habits while navigating this unique season. Knocking off the defending-champion Los Angeles Lakers in the playoffs’ first round required a relentless approach, which now carries the Suns into the Western Conference Semifinals against the Denver Nuggets.

“It’s just how the guys are built, individually and as a collective group,” Booker said. “If you go down the list of all the players, there’s nobody that’s scared of the moment. There’s nobody that hasn’t prepared for this moment. This isn’t new. This is how we’ve been playing for most of the season. We’ve had ups and downs, but we’re a confident team and we play hard all the way through.”

TEAM-FIRST MENTALITY

General manager James Jones is using his championship pedigree to construct a Suns roster on the rise

Now in his third season as general manager of the Phoenix Suns, James Jones has taken his knowledge of what it takes to win a ring and is building a roster of like-minded players with high-IQs, unselfish personalities and relentless attitudes both on the court and behind the scenes. The result is Phoenix’s dramatic rise over the past two seasons. The Suns went 51-21 during the 2020-21 regular season, finished second in a loaded Western Conference and enters Tuesday with the opportunity to take a 3-2 lead in their first-round playoff series against the defending-champion Los Angeles Lakers.

PLAYOFF PAYNE

Thanks to a fresh start with the Suns, Cameron Payne is proving he belongs

Cameron Payne plays with a fiery passion that somehow looks both free and furious, prompting some to compare him to the “haboob” dust storms that disrupt the Valley air during the summer monsoon season. It’s a fitting style for Payne, a former lottery draft pick who had his NBA career stripped away in early 2019 and is now savoring his shot on a Suns team with championship aspirations.

ROAD SUPPORT

Fans from all walks of life travel to enemy territory to support the Suns in return to NBA Playoffs

“To be on the road and have your fans cheering for you, especially when you make a run, is pretty cool," head coach Monty Williams said. "We’re thankful, grateful and we’re fighting our tails off to make those fans that we have in this environment have something to cheer for.”

Whether traveling from Phoenix or different parts of California, Suns.com gathered personal stories from six Suns fans making the trip and cheer on their favorite team.

LIVING UP TO THE MOMENT

The young Suns proved themselves under the bright lights, stepping up & executing in their playoff debuts

Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges and Cameron Johnson showed consistent effort all season, preparing them for the bright lights. They lived up to the moment in Game 1 and, in some cases, churned out historic stat lines — even during an intense game complete with the magnitude of the franchise’s first playoff game since 2010, a jarring injury to their Hall of Fame point guard and a scuffle that resulted in a teammate being ejected.

MONTY'S MANTRAS

A frontrunner for NBA Coach of the Year, Williams’ immense impact on these Suns is woven throughout his motivational catchphrases, and how they resonate with his players.

There are enough “Montyisms” for Monty Williams to write a compilation book — which Devin Booker has publicly and privately suggested to his coach. Even while repeating them to players, Cam Johnson said, Williams will preface by acknowledging some might call them “corny” or “goofy” or “coach speak.” Yet Johnson says those mantras are “big-time anchors” that have kept the Suns emotionally centered during the franchise’s emphatic rise to the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference. They create personal connections with players by instilling belief and relaying constructive advice. They provide reminders that resurface in the head and heart when one least expects it, and can apply to both basketball and life.

RALLY THE VALLEY

Here's how Suns supporters have celebrated this resurgent season and return to the playoffs.

Suns.com gathered personal stories from 13 people connected to the organization. Some are longtime fans, and others are long-time employees in behind-the-scenes roles. Some are community partners who work with the Suns to make residents’ lives a little brighter. Some are natives, and some have returned home.

TOGETHER

How these Suns have created a team spirit that threads the needle between intensely competitive and endearingly fun-loving.

“You look around the league at some teams, and not everybody has a vibe like this or an energy like this throughout,” Booker said. “I always say it’s a great environment to get better in. When you have everybody supporting you, everybody being honest with you — those are the same people that can give me constructive criticism at any point in the game, and I’m listening to them — that’s the name of our group, man.”

Culture, chemistry and overall spirit are intangible qualities that cannot be measured by traditional stats or advanced analytics. But players and coaches know it — feel it — when those attributes have manifested within a team.

UNCANNY PARALLELS CONNECT FOUR PHOENIX ICONS

Chris Paul’s impact in The Valley has rejuvenated Suns basketball with an MVP-caliber season

Through his team’s journey to out-perform external expectations, his league’s-most-efficient playmaking and the leadership and passion he’s provided to the organization, Paul has entered the NBA Most Valuable Player conversation. And while making Paul’s case, one can draw parallels to the other Phoenix basketball icons who have won the award: Charles Barkley, Steve Nash and Diana Taurasi.

WE'RE BACK!

Phoenix Suns clinch playoffs, another step in franchise's resurgence.

The Suns’ full playoff berth is the latest benchmark in a historic turnaround. In less than two seasons, the Suns have transformed from a team that tied for the NBA’s second-worst record to one that currently possesses the league’s second-best record. Should that standing hold, the Suns would become just the third team since the NBA-ABA merger that jumped from bottom-two to top-two in two seasons or less, joining the Boston Celtics in 1979-80 and 2007-08.

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