Game 3 is the make-or-break moment of the 2022-23 NBA season for the Phoenix Suns. A win against the Denver Nuggets Friday night injects new life into this second-round series, giving them a chance to even the score at home in Game 4. A loss drops them to a 3-0 deficit, which no team in NBA playoff history has ever come back from.
There’s enough adversity there already, but the Suns will be facing this challenge without Chris Paul, who’s been ruled out due to a left groin strain he sustained in the third quarter of Game 2. His status is still considered “day-to-day,” but he’s been unable to do anything on the practice court so far.
“He’s frustrated, for sure,” coach Monty Williams said. “You train your whole career for these types of moments, but he’s also optimistic about our guys and how well we can play and where we’re trending.”
Despite coming up short in Game 2, the Suns’ offensive process was better, and their defense held Denver to 97 points. A horrific shooting night dropped them to 0-2 in the series, but Phoenix had built an eight-point lead up until Paul’s injury. The Suns are optimistic he’ll return before their season is over, but for now, they’ll need to harness the game plan that was working right before they lost the Point God.
“That was the tough part about the injury, when, before he got hurt, you could just see the offense starting to figure out a few things, and then he comes up with an injury that he can’t control,” Williams said. “So that was a bit of a downer, but we’ve always had the mentality of bouncing back and regrouping and doing whatever we can to be productive on the floor.”
The question is, what can the the Suns do differently in Game 3, on top of the correct adjustments they showed in Game 2? Here are their five biggest keys to surviving Friday’s do-or-die matchup without Paul.
1. Suns get a vintage Kevin Durant game
For all the talk of adjustments and bench rotations after Game 2, the biggest takeaway was the Suns needed to make shots. And nobody needed to make shots more than Durant, who shot 10-for-27 from the floor and 2-for-12 from 3-point range.
“They were good looks, just didn’t go down,” Durant said. “I couldn’t knock ‘em down. Felt like they were good leaving my hands, but it is what it is.”
Even an average Durant performance would’ve assured the Suns a win in Game 2, and while Aaron Gordon deserves a ton of credit for making life difficult, this is arguably the purest scorer of all time we’re talking about here. He’s capable of making a few more of these:
“He just missed a ton of shots, but we got a lot of the shots we wanted,” Williams said. “He and Book took most of the shots, we just didn’t shoot a great percentage.”
In Game 2, it was an off shooting night. In Game 1, it was 7 turnovers that offset his 29 points and 14 rebounds. Heading into Game 3, with their backs against the wall and Paul sidelined, the Suns could use a major bounce-back game from their two-time NBA champion.
For his part, Durant’s extensive playoff experience has taught him to not overreact to one bad result.
“I just stick to the same routine,” Durant said. “A lot of times, I’m playing a mental game, so usually when I miss shots or am struggling to shoot the ball, it’s just an approach thing. It’s how I’m approaching the game, where are the spots on the floor where I need to be aggressive from? So it’s all about surveying the game and seeing where I fit.”
Williams isn’t in the business of making predictions about what to expect from KD in Game 3, but he remains a big believer in results eventually validating the process for guys who put in the requisite work.
“I wouldn’t want to make quotes about what I sense, I think that just gives you a quote and makes me look stupid,” Williams said with a smirk. “But I just know the guys that put the work in, I know that confidence comes from work. And I see these guys every day. I see their intentions, I see the work they put in. We’ve always had a group that is a bunch of sore losers, and that pushes you to get in the gym and look at what you can do better. And he’s at the highest of the high on that list.”
There’s an inordinate amount of pressure on both Durant and Booker to perform at a high level, and that increases with Paul out. They’ll be asked to take on more playmaking duties, and fatigue could be a factor, considering Booker (42.9 per game) and Durant (42.8 per game) are No. 1 and No. 2 in the NBA in playoff minutes. With the odds stacked against them, it’s time for KD to remind everyone why he’s in the conversation for the title of best basketball player in the world.
“I know K, that man, he cash,” Cam Payne said. “I know he’s a great shooter, so I know he definitely gonna have a bounce back.”
2. Cam Payne harnesses that 2021 WCFs energy
Everyone remembers the Valley-Oop from the 2021 Western Conference Finals, but no one should forget that without Cam Payne’s playoff career-high 29 points, the Suns wouldn’t have even been in position to win that game.
With Paul out and Payne presumed to start, the Suns could use that type of performance again — or at least, the confidence of someone who can draw from that type of experience with stepping up in a high-pressure situation.
“That definitely gives me a lot of confidence, but I’m just geeked to be out there,” Payne said. “I’m just ready to go. I think all the things I do is something that I can help my team win, just like back then. My speed and all them things like that.”
The odds are stacked against Payne. Aside from having a bit of an up-and-down season, the fall he sustained in the Suns’ penultimate regular-season game sidelined him for their first four playoff games. He barely played 3 minutes in Game 5 against the LA Clippers and 5 minutes in Game 1 against Denver before Paul’s injury forced Williams’ hand in Game 2.
So in addition to barely having worked his way back from injury, he’ll have to shake off the rust quickly. That was a struggle in Game 2, as he shot 1-for-7 in 17 minutes. Payne responded “shoot better” when asked about where he can improve for Game 3, but just having someone who can get downhill and put pressure on the rim might help open things up.
“I know Cam Payne’s gonna step up big-time and bring that energy and that motor,” Deandre Ayton said. “And just putting more pressure on the rim in pick-and-rolls.”
The Nuggets played in a drop against Payne in Game 2, so using his speed to come off those screens aggressively will be huge. Because as much as the Suns will miss CP3, they also don’t want Payne to try too hard to replace what he does.
“We want Cam to be Cam,” Williams said. “He’s obviously playing with a different group, and he understands that. It’s not something I have to sit him down like he’s 12 years old and tell him whatever. He understands. He has a reference point. If you look back at our second year against the Clippers and the Lakers, he played a much bigger role because Chris was out. So he can rely on that and the growth that he’s made over the last few years.”
The blueprint is there for Payne: In 15 starts this year, he averaged 14.9 points and 7.1 assists per game on 38.8 percent shooting from 3-point range. In 12 starts last year, he put up 14.0 points and 9.0 assists per game on 35.5 percent shooting from deep.
All season long, the Suns have touted their ability for guys to step up at a moment’s notice and fill a necessary role. At practice, Williams reminded his team of the NBA Bubble, Payne’s first stint with Phoenix, where they had to win every game to even give themselves a shot at the playoffs. The Suns missed the cut, but they went a perfect 8-0. It’s that same sense of urgency and “next man up” mentality they’ll need to harness now.
“We just listed out the things that we’ve been through the last four years, again, from the bubble to injuries second year, last year, all year this year,” Williams said. “That’s something that we can look back on and say we know what we’re capable of, even in these situations.”
3. Suns must play with pace
This one goes hand-in-hand with Payne taking Paul’s place in the starting lineup: The Suns need to play with more pace and purpose on the offensive end like they did for most of Game 2.
“The thing that was working was kicking it on the backside and just playing in 0.5,” Williams said. “Kind of got away from it a little bit, and we missed a ton of shots. You can see the shooting numbers aren’t that great, but we figured out a formula to run an action, kick it and then play out of that. And that’s something that we gotta stick to against this team, the way they play in pick-and-roll.”
Paul leaving Game 2 changed the course of that one, and the Suns hope that having three days in between games has given them time to prepare Payne for that playing style. His up-tempo nature should help lay the groundwork, and hopefully this time, the shooting numbers will follow suit.
“I feel like the pace kind of generates us with more shots,” Payne said. “Don’t let them set their defense up. I feel like when they’re playing kinda in scramble mode, it kinda helps us out in our favor.”
Williams mentioned the Suns’ need to make more “hit-ahead” passes as a way to increase the pace, and with Payne running point, that will be his responsibility. But sometimes it’ll come down to him forcing the issue off the bounce as one of the Suns’ lead ball-handlers.
“We’re hopeful that a few adjustments to the lineup, not just Cam Payne, but a couple of the guys that play in 0.5, space the floor a little bit more can help us,” Williams said. “But for sure, Cam Payne, his ability to get down the floor and get into stuff quickly certainly helps.”
In the pick-and-roll in particular, the Suns need to use Payne’s ability to get downhill to attack Nikola Jokic playing at the level. Payne acknowledged speed is the one advantage he has over Paul in those situations, and that drastic change of tempo could throw a wrench into Denver’s coverages.
“Touching the paint is just big-time,” Payne said. “If anybody can get their foot in the paint, the defense always will converge ’cause the ball scores. The recipe, man, is try to converge them and try to get some good open looks.”
4. Let Terrence Ross and T.J. Warren get buckets
The moment Suns fans have been clamoring for may finally be here: Monty Williams confirmed Terrence Ross and T.J. Warren are two guys who could see “significantly more time” in Game 3 in order to ease the scoring load on Book and KD.
“I can do a better job of putting more scorers on the floor and living with whatever warts may come with that, just to free those guys up so they don’t have to do it every single time down the floor,” Williams said. “And we’ll make those adjustments accordingly.”
So far in the playoffs, Ross has appeared in just two games — Game 1 of each series — and logged a grand total of 9 minutes while going 0-for-4 from the field. Warren got a total of 6 minutes between Games 2 and 3 of the Clippers series, going 0-for-1 from the floor. The key will be having enough confidence to contribute in whatever limited minutes they receive.
“The playoffs are high-pressure situations, every possession counts, but you can’t allow that to restrict your game,” Williams said. “And we’ve preached that from day one — let it fly, 0.5, but our best offense is a stop. And when we can get stops, all that other stuff is somewhat more efficient.”
Defense has been the biggest drawback to giving Ross and Warren minutes, but at this point, the Suns desperately need offense. Their second unit has managed just 28 points combined on 10-of-37 shooting across the first two games of this series, and those numbers would be even lower if not for the garbage time minutes in Game 1. Ross and Warren are last-ditch efforts to add some much-needed scoring punch off the bench.
“Them dudes are scoring machines,” Ayton said. “Two guys that can really score the ball, that are really big threats, especially when these teams are helping. And especially when we’re generating offense as bigs rolling to the rim, those guys can knock down weak-side corner shots for us.”
5. Punish small-ball lineups with Jock Landale
Game 3 may be the Suns’ last opportunity to punish Denver’s small-ball bench lineups with size. It shouldn’t be Ayton, who needs to match his minutes with Nikola Jokic. It shouldn’t be Bismack Biyombo either, since he’s always been the more defensive-minded backup.
It’s Jock Landale.
“I match up really well with Denver, and I think that the coaching staff’s realizing that,” Landale told PHNX Sports.
It hasn’t worked through the first two games, but as Williams pointed out, Phoenix has missed some opportunities to do so with Landale.
“I don’t think we’ve been as efficient as we can be,” Williams said at practice on Wednesday. “I think we’ve missed opportunities to hit Jock and drive the ball. Our 0.5 hasn’t been as high level in that group, for whatever reason. So that’s something that we talked about today. Jock’s done a good job of getting the screen and sealing and getting fouls, but I think we can do more as far as driving the ball or hitting him quick so he can score.”
Landale managed 7 points and 2 rebounds on 2-of-5 shooting in Game 1 but didn’t get a single shot attempt in Game 2. Against this matchup with Aaron Gordon or Jeff Green at the 5, if the Suns want to pummel those lineups with size, they need to stick with Landale over Bismack Biyombo, and then, they need to actually get him the ball when he does the dirty work in the paint.
“There certainly were some times where I was wide open under the basket or I had a guy pinned in a really favorable position last game, and we didn’t capitalize on that,” Landale said. “The guys who didn’t get me the rock came up and said something, so I think that everyone realizes that that opportunity’s there and it’s going to continue to be there. So then it kinda comes down to me making sure I get them in the right position and just kinda punish those opportunities.”
If the Suns can’t find the right formula in Game 3, it’ll be time for Williams to go nuclear and match Denver’s small-ball lineups with Kevin Durant at the 5. For now, though, Landale’s ability to attack those mismatches has been tempered by Biyombo’s first-half minutes and the Suns’ general lack of ball movement.
Landale said he’d never hold it against someone for making what they feel is the correct read in real-time, but those reads have to be better in Game 3. The openings are brief, but they’re there:
“It’s a split-second decision, but at the same time, this is playoffs,” he said. “The margin for error has to be tiny, and you can’t afford to make mistakes like that, otherwise you find yourself in the hole that we’re in. So it’s definitely something that is a focal point, and Mont’s right, there was a couple missed opportunities last game. But I don’t hold that against anyone, and we kind hashed it out in the last couple days.”
In his limited minutes, Landale has been a force attacking the offensive glass. If he finds himself matched up against Jokic for a few minutes, that weardown effect could pay dividends. If not, punishing those smaller lineups in the non-Jokic minutes — which Denver has won as a +7 in 22 minutes so far — would be extremely helpful.
“If it’s not getting a deep seal and scoring, it’s someone putting up a shot and then I’m kinda battling on the boards with a small,” Landale explained. “So it’s something that’s favorable for me, and I think that I’ve done a great job of hitting that all year.”