EMPIRE OF THE SUNS
There are big takeaways for Suns’ Lee, Payne in season opener
Oct 20, 2022, 11:38 AM
Phoenix Suns head coach Monty Williams has done this before.
To end the fourth game of last season, Williams pulled point guard Chris Paul out of the lineup with 6:55 left and their team trailing the Sacramento Kings, 95-84.
Paul had been struggling with a 1-for-10 shooting line, six points and eight assists. He returned at the two-minute mark but didn’t record another statistic as the Suns rallied only to lose at the buzzer, when a Harrison Barnes three broke a tie to drop Phoenix to 1-3 on the year.
That game — an early opportunity to push the panic button on what ended as a 64-win season — looked a lot like the 2022-23 season-opener for Paul.
He finished Wednesday with six points on 1-of-6 shooting and nine assists.
But unlike a year ago, the substitution out midway through the fourth, with that exact same 95-84 deficit, didn’t lead to Paul coming back into the game.
In the 107-105 comeback win against the Dallas Mavericks, new Sun Damion Lee and backup point guard Cam Payne rolled with starters Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges in the final 6:41.
Lee hit threes, a go-ahead fadeaway and, while on an island, stopped Mavs star Luka Doncic on a final heave to help the Suns steal one.
But maybe the most important play to earn the trust of his new teammates and coaches came on Lee’s worst decision of the night.
Phoenix led by three with 33 seconds left when Lee got pump-faked by Doncic, who converted a shot in the paint and drew the foul for an and-one to tie things.
“We called a timeout, and coach just looked at me and said, ‘Hey, go make a play,'” Lee said of his mistake, unprompted.
Williams mentioned that moment and Lee’s response as an important thing moving forward. With trust being a thing that goes both ways, it reaffirmed Williams’ decision to put Lee into the clutch-time lineup and Devin Booker’s willingness to twice pass to Lee out of a trap on that game-winning play.
It also sure reaffirmed the belief that Lee, a former Golden State Warrior and NBA champion, brings that experience to his new home.
“To be able to come back and the willingness to take that shot, let alone make it, says a lot about who he is,” Williams said. “I just feel like guys who have been in those environments, been in those practices, been in those games, they handle it a lot better than guys who haven’t.”
In a different way, Wednesday was an important moment for Payne, who last season failed to carry the weight he seemed capable of during the Suns’ NBA Finals run a year before.
“It felt good. That was a big opportunity for me. I’m just glad I answered the call,” Payne said.
Payne was the only Suns bench player to finish with a positive plus-minus (+15), and he added seven points, an assist and a steal in 19 minutes.
Williams was asked if he originally planned to sit Paul. As in, is this something we’ll see from the Suns often as they attempt to manage a 37-year-old point guard who in the past two offseasons has broken down?
“I had no (intention) — I’m always open-minded in those situations and I think as much as you want to have Chris out there, I know Chris wants to win,” Williams said.
“I didn’t think it was that big of a decision, but I guess it is because it’s Chris.”
Maybe it was a one-off, that Paul was knocking off rust in a season-opener. Time will tell whether Williams is truly more conscious of managing Paul’s minutes this season.
That is the main storyline as this version of the Suns gets evaluated in the early portion of the schedule.
But Williams’ decision, while easy considering that closing group he stayed with dissected the Mavs on both ends, goes beyond keeping the miles off Paul’s odometer.
It built immediate trust in a new role player — and propped up a player who stands as the best option to keep Paul fresh all year long.
Asked if the opener served to build Payne’s confidence, William said this of defeating the squad that ended the Suns’ 2021-22 season: “I think for everybody. Make no mistake: Today was an emotional day.”