The Phoenix Suns looked poised to improve to 2-0 on the new season Friday night against the Portland Trail Blazers. Instead, they let a five-point lead with 1:40 to go in overtime shrivel up into a 113-111 defeat on the road.
For the second game in a row, the Suns were torn up by an incredible individual performance from one of the NBA’s elite scorers. Damian Lillard led Rip City with 41 points on 12-of-25 shooting, while Devin Booker (33 points on 11-of-23 shooting) and Deandre Ayton (26 points on 12-of-22 shooting) carried Phoenix’s offense.
However, because that production came in a loss, because Chris Paul didn’t wow people offensively, and because the bench, Cam Johnson and the team’s overall start to the season have all been causes for alarm, it’s worth going through each concern to figure out which ones are flukes…and which ones are probably real.
The team’s record
For real? Y’all are worried about a 1-1 start when this team started the 2020-21 campaign 8-8 and then went 1-3 to start last year? Considering those teams went on to reach the NBA Finals and then win a league-best 64 games, let’s not waste time on this one.
Chris Paul’s lack of scoring punch
Through two games, Chris Paul hasn’t been as much of a threat as a scorer. He’s still got the second-most assists in the NBA so far, with 21 total, but he’s only got 16 points on 6-of-17 shooting (including 0-for-3 from deep). Even in his prime, CP3 only had two seasons where he averaged 20 points a night, but 8.0 per game would be a sharp decline from even last year, when he posted 14.7 points a night.
Fortunately, there’s plenty of time to turn this around. Working with a new starting lineup that includes burgeoning offensive weapons in Ayton, Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson, and then spending minutes anchoring the bench unit, Paul has mostly deferred to his teammates. The Point God has always focused on getting his teammates comfortable before taking over games late, but in two crunch-time scenarios so far, he’s A) taken a grand total of four shots and B) not played in the first scenario at all.
Paul hit a jumper with a 1:40 left in overtime to put the Suns up by 5 points, but over those next 100 seconds, he didn’t take a single shot as the Blazers closed the game on a 7-0 run.
However, even if Paul was having a rough game against the Dallas Mavericks, his DNP down the stretch wasn’t planned; it came from a selfless place that speaks to the Suns’ current mentality of putting the “other guys” in new, uncomfortable situations.
That approach goes especially for Ayton, Bridges and even Booker. No one should be shocked; the team has been telling us this for weeks and even months now.
During exit interviews back in May, coach Monty Williams hinted at this necessary change, highlighting how he regretted not putting the ball in the hands of perimeter guys like Bridges, Johnson and Landry Shamet to help them learn to create their own offense.
During training camp two weeks ago, Williams credited Paul and Booker for being willing to play off the ball more this year.
“The ability to say, ‘Okay, I’ll do that’ says a lot about them and how badly they want to win,” he said. “And what I’ve stressed to them is, as a team, we have to get comfortable with uncomfortable change. These are things that we feel like we have to do to be a better team.”
Williams also compared Paul at this stage of his career to Peyton Manning’s tenure with the Denver Broncos. That’s probably not reassuring for Suns fans, considering Manning was mostly washed at that juncture, but his larger point about adjusting one’s game to suit his team and win a championship is what matters.
“I think the great ones, if they want something they’ve never had, I think they figured it out a long time ago, but they implement it maybe later in their careers: ‘This is what I gotta do if I want to get something that I’ve never gotten before,’” Williams said. “If you think about Peyton Manning, when he was in Denver, he probably didn’t throw any pass more than 20 yards the whole year long. He was checking down like every play, and a lot of it was because he couldn’t with his neck situation, so he had to adapt. I just think great ones figure it out, that they have to sacrifice to get something that they’ve never gotten before. And I think Chris is in that mode right now.”
So it’s worth asking: If people wanted Chris Paul to take more of a backseat this year to help DA and Bridges grow, and if we already knew the Suns needed to be less dependent on the Point God, and if everyone involved already told us he’d be playing off the ball more…why are we freaking out about him not taking over games, exactly?
We knew this was coming! We knew it was necessary! And we knew the Suns might take some lumps in the process!
It’s not like Paul has been bad either. He was subpar against Dallas, but his performance against the Blazers wasn’t terrible: 10 points, 12 assists, 4 rebounds and 5 steals on 5-of-11 shooting. For all the concern over him looking “washed” or “a step slow,” he’s still quick enough (and smart enough) to rack up 5 steals at age 37!
In regulation and overtime Friday night, Paul went 2-for-4 in crunch-time, not to mention that he assisted on five of the Suns’ nine field goals in the clutch. His scoring output was only noticeable because A) it came in a loss and B) he didn’t take over late like he did so many times last year.
The good news is, that appears to be by design. Take a look at the play-by-play from overtime, and it’s filled with Booker, DA and Bridges down the stretch — a lot of misses that cost the Suns the game, to be sure, but that’s the whole point.
Phoenix needs to take this regular season to explore all possible avenues for improvement, and sometimes, that will involve taking a loss here or there to allow Book, Ayton, Bridges and Johnson to grow from failure.
“Overall I think it’s good for us,” Booker said after the loss. “We have a lot to learn from. Been in two close, late-game situations to start the season. I told you before the season started, I think we need to keep getting better, in wins and losses. So just take it with a grain of salt, regroup, watch what we need to work on and go from there.”
Having Paul bail the Suns out and putting more miles on his odometer helps no one. Losing games is never fun, and CP3 really needs to stop passing up open catch-and-shoot 3s, but Ayton’s 44 points through two games or Bridges’ assertiveness with the ball are encouraging signs that Paul’s sacrifice will start paying dividends soon.
So far this season, the Suns’ bench players have posted a -3.8 point differential. They shot a combined 10-for-25 against the Mavs, followed by 7-for-19 against the Blazers. Take out Damion Lee, who’s been playing starter’s minutes with Cam Johnson banged up in both games, and the Suns’ bench has shot a combined 11-for-30 through two games.
Outside of that encouraging fourth quarter against Dallas, Cam Payne has been a non-factor. Jock Landale hasn’t made much of an impact yet, Josh Okogie hasn’t done enough offensively to earn more minutes despite how good he is on defense, Torrey Craig is just sort of there, and Dario Saric hasn’t seen the floor for more than two minutes.
Once again, though, we knew that would be the reality. Jae Crowder’s absence hurts the Suns’ depth, especially with Johnson’s scoring punch no longer anchoring the second unit. Now take him out of the equation, and suddenly Lee — who would’ve been an asset to the bench group — is playing with the starters and closing out games.
Considering Landry Shamet hasn’t played yet, and that Shamet, Okogie, Payne, Johnson and Saric have all been in and out of the lineup over the last few weeks, it’s understandable this group hasn’t been able to build much chemistry yet. The bench was always going to be this team’s Achilles heel, but with more time together, guys getting healthy/comfortable and hopefully Shamet returning soon, it won’t be as bad as it’s been.
Verdict: Real, but it’ll get better
Cam Johnson’s durability
In the season opener, it was cramps. On Friday, it was apparently a tailbone injury, as Monty Williams relayed to AZ Central’s Duane Rankin.
“Nah, nothing right now,” Williams said when asked for an update on Cam Johnson. “He fell on his tailbone or something like that, so we just gotta wait and see.”
This was the biggest sticking point for those worried about giving Johnson a new contract extension, and through two games, it’s obviously been a concern. “Injury-prone” doesn’t seem fair, considering all of Johnson’s absences have stemmed from contact injuries of some sort, but it does seem fair to question his durability when it comes to logging full-time minutes as a starting 4.
Through his first three seasons, Johnson has missed 15, 22 and 16 games, respectively, due to injury. From taking shots to the thigh against the New York Knicks (twice) to bumping his tailbone trying to take a charge Friday night, the 26-year-old is developing an unfortunate reputation of being brittle.
The first two games are feeding into the fears and narratives about whether Johnson can hold up physically, and to be quite honest, there’s no way to guarantee he will. But missing one-fourth of a season feels pretty on par with most players in the league at this point. It’s an unfortunate start to what should be a career year for Johnson, but until we know more about this tailbone injury and see more of Cam with the starting unit, we’re going to err on the side of optimism with 80 games still to go.
Verdict: Fluke…we hope?
We’ll keep this simple: The Suns foul too much, and they don’t draw enough fouls. Whether it’s because they don’t attack the rim enough, don’t sell contact well enough or referees downright don’t like Phoenix’s most prominent players, well, that’s a debate for Twitter to decide.
But no matter which way you slice it, the Suns can’t keep fighting an uphill battle against math, especially since this free-throw discrepancy usually goes hand-in-hand with being out-shot from 3-point range. Phoenix is a very good shooting team; they need to start zigging with the rest of the league and put that skill to good use.
Through two games, the Suns trail their opponents 70-43 in free-throw attempts and 52-34 in made free-throws. The 70 attempts and 52 makes they’ve surrendered are both the worst marks any team in the association has given their opponents so far. These are small sample sizes, but being a -27 in attempts and a -18 in makes is dreadful, especially since it was a concern coming into the season.
“I think we need to keep them off the free-throw line a little bit, especially in the first half,” Devin Booker told AZ Central’s Duane Rankin. “Those are the easiest looks that they’re gonna get, so try to limit those.”
The Suns ranked 29th in free-throw rate last year, and with Crowder out, their defense has to tighten up without fouling. Phoenix will never be an elite free-throw shooting team given their makeup, but closing this gap as the season wears on will be essential.