It’s a good thing the Phoenix Suns have built a comfy cushion for themselves atop the NBA standings, because the injury hits just keep on coming.
According to the team, Suns star Devin Booker has entered COVID health and safety protocols as of Wednesday, ruling him out for their home game against the Portland Trail Blazers. Phoenix is already missing Chris Paul for the next 6-8 weeks due to an avulsion fracture in his right thumb, as well as Frank Kaminsky (right knee stress reaction) and Dario Saric (right knee rehab from ACL tear).
“We’ll figure it out, man,” JaVale McGee said at Wednesday’s shootaround. “We knew this season was gonna be crazy just ’cause of COVID alone, and injuries happen, so it’s just something that you have to go through. Luckily we’re the best team in the world right now, so at least we have some space for error, just a little bit.”
Wednesday’s game should’ve been something closer to a return to form for the Suns, who have a 6.5-game lead over the Golden State Warriors for the league’s best record. Phoenix will most likely be getting Cam Payne back from a 15-game absence due to a right wrist sprain after he was upgraded to “probable” on Tuesday afternoon. Forward Torrey Craig inadvertently let slip that the Suns expected him back for Wednesday night.
“Cam, especially when he’s on that second group, he’s a major factor, and definitely in the first group,” McGee said. “Just that speed, that I.Q. as a point guard and that natural point guard position of just knowing all the plays and that position. So it’s gonna be real good having him back.”
Now, instead of starting a more traditional starting lineup with Payne filling in for Paul, and Booker no longer being expected to shoulder the load in a “Point Book” lineup, Phoenix will be missing its top two players. The pressure on everyone else just went way up.
“It definitely increases,” McGee said. “Chris out, that’s 10-11 assists out there that needs to be accumulated. Book out, that’s a lot of points that needs to be accumulated. So a lot of people are gonna have a lot of opportunity if both of them are out, but we also gotta play smart. The thing about Chris is, his basketball I.Q. — and not just athleticism or putting points on the board — it’s the brains of the game and thinking the game. So some people are gonna have to think the game more also.”
Booker fully participated in practice on Tuesday, so now the team will be hoping there won’t be any further absences to report in the coming days. Book entered health and safety protocols back in late September as well, forcing him to miss training camp and the Suns’ first three preseason games.
In his absence, expect more minutes for Landry Shamet and Aaron Holiday. Shamet is averaging 7.3 points in 19.6 minutes per game while shooting 36.7 percent from the field and 34.9 percent from 3-point range — all career lows. With the Suns’ starting backcourt out, this is as good an opportunity as any for him to step up.
For his part, Shamet is not going to try and fill Booker’s production singlehandedly.
“It’s not about me,” he said. “My job is to come in and do the same thing every time, and that’s my approach regardless of if I’m playing 40 minutes or not playing or whatever. So it’s not about me, it’s about us. As a collective, how do we handle this and find a way to get better and beat a team who’s been playing all right lately?”
As for Holiday, the Suns’ trade deadline acquisition has fit in fairly seamlessly, averaging 7.8 points and 3.2 assists in 17.2 minutes per game over his first five appearances with the team. He missed one game against the New Orleans Pelicans last week due to ankle soreness, but coach Monty Williams said he felt better on Tuesday after the team had the day off on Monday.
So far in his third All-Star season, Booker is averaging 25.6 points, 5.2 rebounds and 4.6 assists per game, shooting 44.8 percent from the floor and 36.8 percent from 3-point range.
From the NBA’s last-known health and safety protocols, a player must submit two consecutive negative tests in a span of 24 hours to return to action. It is currently unknown whether Booker tested positive or registered an inconclusive test, but players who test positive must isolate for at least six days — down from the previous 10 days, as of Dec. 28.
The Suns have hit their first bumpy patch of the season without Chris Paul, going 1-2 since the All-Star break. With Booker out, it’s yet another opportunity for the NBA’s best team to put role players in positions with more responsibility, which they hope will only make them better down the road.
“I don’t want to say we’re dependent on those two guys, but those guys add a lot to our team, so I feel like this is a practice just in case in the playoffs something happens, to where we’ll be able to understand what we can do without them also and realize that we’re all part of this team and we’re all major pieces in this puzzle,” McGee said. “So we need everybody, ’cause injuries happen, with this season COVID happens, protocols happen, so you never know what’s gonna happen. But everybody has to step up and be ready.”
“It’s a good opportunity to try to beat a young, hungry team without those two guys and with kind of a wrench thrown at us real late,” Shamet added. “So cherish them, because you know that it might be a little bit uncomfortable, but it’s making us better. It’s fortunate for us to deal with something now that’ll hopefully make us better in the long run.”