Cam Johnson returned to the court Thursday night, and not so coincidentally, the Phoenix Suns felt more like the Phoenix Suns again. While Devin Booker, Chris Paul and Cam Payne were still sidelined, Johnson’s first bit of action in 37 games fueled the Suns’ 117-112 win over the Brooklyn Nets.
It was closer than it should’ve been thanks to Kyrie Irving’s last-ditch efforts in the fourth quarter, but Phoenix did what it needed to down the stretch to eke out a precious win and help make up ground in the Western Conference standings.
The Suns still have work to do at 22-24, but after spending 20 of the last 27 days on the road and watching guys go down left and right, Johnson’s return and this much-needed home win came at a pivotal time.
Here are five observations from the feel-good win.
1. The return of Cam Johnson and joy
So much for tempered expectations!
There was a different energy in the gym at practice on Wednesday and especially at Thursday morning’s shootaround. After being out for two and a half months, Johnson was making his long-awaited return, and his teammates’ enthusiasm matched the occasion.
Guys were messing with him, the speakers at the practice facility played “Welcome Back” by Mase in his honor, and Johnson’s joy in anticipation of his first game back was contagious.
“He had it on his face today in shootaround,” coach Monty Williams said. “It’s been building for a while. The guys miss him, he misses playing. When you see a guy working as hard as he has worked, he’s traveled with us, he’s been in the gym — I’ve stayed after a few practices on the road and just watched him work, and I think everybody’s just wanting to see him do well.”
The stars aligned for a special kind of night when he checked in midway through the first quarter to a rousing ovation from the home crowd:
Suns fans give Cam Johnson a huge ovation as he checks into a game for the first time since November 4: pic.twitter.com/XU2n9M8qA7
— Gerald Bourguet (@GeraldBourguet) January 20, 2023
Johnson didn’t expect it, but he certainly didn’t take the moment for granted.
“It just shows how much this arena, the city, the fans care, and I appreciate it so much,” he said. “It gave me juice, I think it gave the team a little juice.”
Even Williams, who is typically honed in on the game, had to acknowledge how special it was for the arena to show that kind of support.
“To have your fans emotionally wrap their arms around a guy that’s grown up in this city and watched him battle through a tough injury and have him check in the game and feel that love from the community, from our fans, I thought it was awesome,” Williams said. “It was one of those moments where, I try to stay as focused as I can on the game, but in that moment, I felt it. And it was really cool.”
It wasn’t just intangibles and butterflies that Johnson produced in his first game back, though. Despite not playing for more than two months, he drilled his first shot, scored 10 points in the first quarter and finished with 19 points, 6 rebounds, 2 assists and 2 blocks off the bench.
Although he only shot 4-for-10 from the field and 2-for-6 from 3-point range, he set career highs in both free-throw attempts and makes by going a perfect 9-for-9 from the line.
Managing all that in just 22 minutes was impressive…even if he played a bit more than expected.
“I’m not saying to anybody,” Williams joked when asked whether Johnson went over his predetermined minutes limit. “Next question.”
The Suns are now 7-2 this season in games Johnson has played. Williams said his ability to hit the ground running in his first game back speaks to his conditioning and keeping himself mentally right.
For his part, Johnson focused more on the shots he didn’t put home, but said he felt “better than normal” and wasn’t thinking about his knee while he was out there. Being able to mentally overcome the fear that comes with rehabbing a serious knee injury is something his teammate Damion Lee alluded to earlier in the day.
“One thing that I think gets lost in all of what we do in life and the media, the cameras, traveling, the planes, everything is, like, we’re real people at the end of the day,” Lee said. “Thinking on my own viewpoint of being injured in the past and coming back, just the joy that you have of something that’s being taken away from you, you see the light at the end of the tunnel, and you’re able to get it back and you see it’s there.”
For one night, at least, Cam Johnson got to feel that joy again, surrounded by teammates who needed some light at the end of the tunnel almost as much as he did.
2. Cam Johnson provides spacing for DA
Johnson wasn’t the only one who looked like himself again on Thursday. It’s mostly been tough sledding for Deandre Ayton over the last few weeks, but he finished with 24 points and 14 rebounds on 11-of-20 shooting against Brooklyn.
The Nets like to switch on defense, which puts the onus on the guards to reward Ayton’s seals in the paint when he gets mismatches out of pick-and-rolls. But with shooters like Johnson, Damion Lee, Mikal Bridges, Dario Saric, Duane Washington Jr. and Ish Wainright flanking him on the perimeter, DA had a lot more space to work with.
“I think when you have Mikal, Cam, D-Lee, it helps DA,” Williams said. “He had some jump hooks early, and he had some situations where he was punishing their switches, and most of it was because there was shooters all around him, so you can’t help as much.”
Ayton credited the Suns’ ability to target mismatches to the way they played in 0.5 and didn’t hold the ball for too long. He’s used to having shooters around him, but it was good to have Johnson — a guy who’s made 42.1 percent of his 3s this season and finished fourth in the NBA in 3-point percentage last year — to spread the court out even more.
“Oh yeah, I missed that,” Ayton said. “I’m still surrounded by shooters when Cam wasn’t there, but having him now? I’m surrounded by the shooter, you know what I’m saying?”
With Johnson and other shooters spacing the floor, Brooklyn’s switch-heavy defense got abused by Ayton in the first half. DA had 17 points on 8-of-9 shooting by the break, capitalizing on the openings in front of him without having to worry about defenders cheating off to double-team as much.
“Cam being on the team definitely gives us a breath of fresh air, I should say, where teams aren’t so focused on certain players in the game and just play the game honestly,” Ayton explained. “Having Cam, I know for sure teams are gonna play honest.”
And when teams don’t stay honest and collapse on one of the game’s most efficient scorers around the basket?
“DA is a willing passer, and so if you help too much, he’ll find guys,” Williams said. “So it’s something that we have to continue to grow, because they’re not the only team that goes to switching defenses to try to take our offense out.”
Ayton proved this pretty quickly, racking up four assists on Thursday. Three came from locating the right 3-point shooter when he felt defenders collapsing on him:
The Nets’ zone clearly slowed him down, as Ayton shot just 3-for-11 in the second half, but Johnson’s return undoubtedly opens lanes up in the paint.
“Once a team starts switching, we’re gonna try our best to get the best high-percentage shot,” Ayton said. “One or two of those, I started passing the ball after that. They were telling me to score, I’m like, ‘Man, these 3s are open.’ I think Dario [Saric] had one, and I threw one far in the corner for D-Lee. It’s just that type of fun play, especially when a player like Cam is on the floor.”
3. Mikal Bridges has grown as a playmaker
Johnson and Ayton fed off each other’s strengths, but nobody in a Suns uniform had a better performance than Mikal Bridges. Finishing with a team-high 28 points on 9-of-19 shooting, Bridges tied his career high with 9 assists. He also got to the free-throw line 10 times while holding Kyrie Irving in check for three full quarters.
His growth as a playmaker stood out the most, however, even as his own coach joked that the team thought it was “impossible” for him to get that many assists again.
“Mikal is just finding different ways to grow his game,” Williams said. “A lot of it was in pick-and-roll and attacking the paint.”
Most of Bridges’ assists were lobs over the top to Ayton, but he also mixed in a solid diet of pick-and-roll reads, as well as lasers to 3-point shooters in the corners:
For his part, Bridges said he’s getting more comfortable in those actions by running them more often, watching a lot of film…and, of course, having his “Twin” back on the court.
“One of the best shooters in the damn league,” Bridges said of Johnson. “Trust me, there’s a lot of space out there, and it makes it easier in a selfish way for me to drive and not have no help getting to my spots.”
Down the stretch, when the Nets made their push, the Suns were once again in an uncomfortable place without Booker and Paul, their two leading playmakers and clutch shot-takers. But Bridges and company were able to do enough to keep their cushion intact, and there’s obvious value in these trials by fire.
“Whether he’s off-ball, on-ball, the ball finds him, comes to him, and he’s making plays,” Johnson said of Bridges. “I think that’s just his growth, and he worked on that all summer. To see it coming into play, making plays in games, continuing to defend at a high level, his potential from there is unlimited in what he can become. And I think it just sparks positive growth throughout the whole team.”
Now if only the Suns could stop teasing him long enough for Bridges to enjoy these types of performances.
“Yeah, they made fun of me again,” Bridges lamented. “They said, ‘Wow, look, Mikal had nine assists today!’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, I’m a dimer.'”
Ayton, who overheard the conversation, responded:
"MIKAL HAD NINE ASSISTS. THE LORD COMING."
— Duane Rankin (@DuaneRankin) January 20, 2023
4. Saben Lee has earned a deeper look
Four games is a small sample size, but even four games’ worth of playing time on a 10-day contract speaks to how quickly Saben Lee has made an impression on the coaching staff.
In his four games, Lee has averaged 11.3 points and 3.8 assists in his 21.7 minutes, all while shooting 14-for-27 from the field and 3-for-7 from downtown.
“Energy, speed, he can defend, he scored the ball today,” Johnson said of Lee. “He played great — 29 minutes and six assists, one turnover. Like, this a 10-day. He just got here, and he’s seamlessly getting in and making a big impact in a game. That’s impressive, and he’s quickly become one of us.”
Lee has stolen Duane Washington Jr.’s minutes lately, and Williams said before Thursday’s game that he and general manager James Jones have spoken about how much they like what Lee brings to the table.
“I’m hopeful to keep him around, just ’cause he brings something that we need,” Williams said. “He’s able to defend and stay in front of the ball, and since we had him last, he’s getting to the paint in pick-and-roll and gets the ball down the floor even when you try to pressure him, which is something we’ve struggled with without Chris and Book in the lineup and Cam Payne. Getting the ball down the floor, he’s been able to do it pretty well, so we’ll see how it goes.”
No doubt that his performance on Thursday — 15 points and 6 assists off the bench while shooting 6-for-11 overall and 2-for-4 from deep — cemented those feelings. His drives have felt like oxygen, whether it’s him scoring or finding somebody else for a bucket:
“That’s definitely my strength,” Lee said of getting downhill. “But if the team’s are gonna leave me open like they did tonight, I gotta shoot the ball and I’m gonna shoot it with confidence.”
Lee has more familiarity with his surroundings than the normal 10-day signee, given that he spent time with the Suns as a training camp invite. But it’s still been a lion’s den situation for the 23-year-old, and even with guys like Chris Paul, Bridges and Ayton in his ear, it’s remarkable how composed he’s looked running the offense.
“It’s definitely a learning experience,” Lee said. “Just watching a lot of film, spending a lot of time with the coaching staff, and continue to just be a sponge while I’m here.”
There are still necessary teaching moments on the fly, of course. When Brooklyn switched to zone, the offense stalled a bit with Lee running point. Williams had to pull him aside to explain the Suns’ zone reads to make sure he wasn’t getting in too deep.
But Phoenix clearly values his ball-handling, poise, playmaking and defensive mindset, as well as his ability to put pressure on the rim and improved willingness to take shots.
“I just like guys that, when the work pays off for them, they get an opportunity and they take advantage of it,” Williams said. “That’s what you want to see from guys. Every time he’s been in our gym, he’s been the same guy. He gets after it every day, and so you like to see those guys succeed.”
5. Cam Johnson may be the first domino
It was only one game against a Nets team playing without Kevin Durant, but Thursday felt like the turning of a page.
Williams said even during the team’s three-game losing streak, it was starting to feel like the Suns were getting closer to their brand of basketball again. Having Johnson back and actually getting back in the win column nudged them further in the right direction.
“Book said it on the bench, like, ‘Way to get back on track,'” Williams said. “This is what we’re used to doing. We’re used to winning games. And I’ve said it, it may sound like coach-speak, but I feel like all of the stuff we’ve been through helped us win tonight’s game.”
Despite being 22-24, the Suns are only one game behind the 6-seed, two games behind the 5-seed and 4.5 games out of the 3-seed. They still need to get healthy, but starting off a five-game home stand with a win is the right way to start making up ground.
“It’s just part of our journey right now,” Bridges said. “Injuries are part of the game and it’s sad that we have a lot of guys banged up, but they’re getting better and coming back. Cam’s the first one and then more’s gonna start coming in and hopefully we can stay healthy and make a run.”
The rest of the Suns share that same sentiment about just weathering the storm until they’re fully whole again.
“Storms don’t last forever. There’s a silver lining somewhere. The sun’s gonna shine at some point, it’s just weathering that storm.”
Damion Lee on the Suns helping Cam Johnson through his rehab process and a new potential mantra for the team: pic.twitter.com/6q2zvLMeBb
— Gerald Bourguet (@GeraldBourguet) January 19, 2023
“That’s what I see, and it’s just a little bit of adversity, but I think we’ll pull through,” Johnson said. “Guys have kept their spirit. One thing is I’ve been on teams that have won, I’ve been on teams that have lost, and I think what this group is doing a good job of right now is just staying together.”