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Suns’ starting lineup change brings an increase in tempo

Phoenix Suns forward Cameron Johnson (23) is fouled by Sacramento Kings forward Marvin Bagley III (35) while scoring during the second half of an NBA basketball game in Sacramento, Calif., Sunday, Dec. 27, 2020. The Suns won 116-100. (AP Photo/Randall Benton)

Starting lineup changes always create a stir despite the magnitude of the switch varying case by case.

The Suns moved forward Cam Johnson in for forward Jae Crowder before Monday’s 108-104 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies. Johnson wound up playing only 20 minutes while Crowder was at 27, closing both the first and second halves with the starters.

Head coach Monty Williams told Arizona Sports’ Bickley & Marotta Tuesday that practice in Houston was their first of 5-on-5 with the new groups, meaning it was their first full practice in over a week.

Williams after the loss said that the change gives the Suns a better chance of finishing games with Crowder out there, which could be interpreted as an effort to get Crowder’s minutes down a little. Crowder is currently at 28.7 minutes per game. That’s around the career mark the 30-year-old has been at, but with him in the first season of a three-year deal and coming off a long run in the bubble, the logic is certainly there.

There are also stylistic tweaks there that Williams has mentioned.

When it comes to Johnson, he brings more pace and space to the starting five.

When Williams talks about pace, your mind likely naturally goes to Steve Nash running it past half-court off a make and whizzing the ball to Leandro Barbosa or Raja Bell in the corner with 20 seconds left on the shot clock.

But what Williams speaks on with tempo is often just as much about what happens in the half-court, where Johnson will speed things up.

Being the proficient shooter that he is, Johnson is also useful darting around screens in quick off-ball movement. That’s where Johnson can create more functionality and movement within the offense.

This was the Suns’ first play of the game with the new five:

It’s difficult to imagine Crowder in Johnson’s spot there.

Crowder is a better passer and reader of the floor at this stage of his career, but Johnson is a fine 0.5 player in his own right. He’s just good enough to be trusted in situations like the one below, to make the right play off a screen by Deandre Ayton.

Watch two things here: 1) Memphis’ Brandon Clarke has to go over Ayton’s screen in case Johnson flares out to a shooter’s spot on the right wing. 2) Grizzlies center Xavier Tillman initially hops to his right as Johnson comes around the screen because the looming threat is a pick-and-roll between Chris Paul and Ayton.

Now observe Grizzlies guard Grayson Allen in transition defense:

If Johnson’s consistent improvement continues, eventually he can even provide a bit of this:

Williams said Tuesday that he obviously doesn’t feel as good coming off a loss, but that there were some encouraging things he saw on the film in regards to that new five.

As for Crowder, Williams mentioned all the way back in training camp that he likes the way the veteran fits in with both units.

Crowder will bring more stability to that group, not making it as volatile as Johnson, who at the end of the day is a second-year player. Williams said Tuesday that Crowder with the bench will evolve with the return of Dario Saric, and taking those two plus Cameron Payne gives Williams three rock-solid reserves. Johnson will have to prove there won’t be a big drop-off defensively, where he’s been reliable thus far.

One of Williams’ best qualities as a coach is that he’s never been afraid of making these types of changes when his team needs one. Remember, when all else failed last season, he even started Ayton with Aron Baynes at one point.

This one sounds more permanent, which can’t really be too criticized with the inefficiency of the offense. A lot of that is on Paul and Devin Booker making progress in building synergy with each other and the flow of the offense. Which will, in turn, make them much more effective as well. Perhaps this slight adjustment is a jolt that can spark them going forward.


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