EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Cam Johnson’s play shows Suns can start building positive momentum

Jan 20, 2023, 6:49 PM | Updated: 7:32 pm
Cameron Johnson #23 of the Phoenix Suns chases down a pass in front of Day'Ron Sharpe #20 of the Br...
Cameron Johnson #23 of the Phoenix Suns chases down a pass in front of Day'Ron Sharpe #20 of the Brooklyn Nets during the second half at Footprint Center on January 19, 2023 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Chris Coduto/Getty Images)
(Photo by Chris Coduto/Getty Images)

PHOENIX — It’s going to be easier for the Phoenix Suns to get back to what they do, both individually and collectively.

The return of players from an injury like Cam Johnson in Thursday’s win over the Brooklyn Nets not only increases the Suns’ chances of winning each night but will take less off of everyone’s workload, eventually getting the players back to playing in the types of roles they were designed to be in.

Head coach Monty Williams has subtly mentioned a few times in the last couple of weeks how Phoenix has had to play differently and change what it does based on the limited personnel.

As guys heal up and finish rehabbing, that is going to help solve a lot on its own.

Johnson’s stellar play in 22 minutes on Thursday showed that.

Johnson is a really freaking good basketball player. Your mind will gravitate toward high-scoring performances and such with a declarative statement like that but it’s more tied to how well-rounded he is across the board. With the absences, there has been finger-pointing toward the $90 million contract for Mikal Bridges and $135 million contract for Deandre Ayton, a demand for them to be better at doing more. There is some justification to that but those guys were worth that money because of what they do well.

For Johnson, one of the signatures for him over three-plus seasons is multiple efforts in an end-to-end sequence you can fill in one clip.

Remember his first 3-pointer? Of course you do! Remember the possession before?

This is sound help to deny Brooklyn’s Seth Curry a driving lane followed by fantastic individual defense on Kyrie Irving.

That set up the triple:

Check out this awesome recovery on a fellow elite shooter Joe Harris after helping in Irving’s direction, forcing Harris to drive on one of the most critical possessions of the game.

The Suns have been a bad defensive team for two-and-a-half months, ranking 22nd in defensive rating since they hit the 10-game mark in the second week of November, per NBA.com.

Having someone like Johnson back, a good defensive player who knows the system as well as any player, is going to help improve that mark slowly but surely.

There is some structural fortification he can provide that few others are capable of.

Johnson and head coach Monty Williams have been in the Valley the same amount of time. All Johnson knows when it comes to an NBA system is Williams’.

The wing is an intellectual dude. That type of voice and consistency from just an execution standpoint alone matters.

“He knows everything,” forward Ish Wainright said Friday of Johnson. “He’s the smartest dude I’ve played with my whole life to be honest with you.”

When the Suns were in the fourth quarter against the Nets’ zone, 10-day contract signing Saben Lee got the play call, one he didn’t know since it’s a unique, rarely used zone-busting play.

Johnson knew, of course. Wainright pointed out how in those moments, Johnson went over to Lee and made sure the guard knew where to be.

“Right away,” Wainright said of it. “You could see their interaction on the court. Cam told him, got him in the right spot.”

Williams elaborated on that.

“I think anytime you have a guy that has been with you from day one and heard the languages but also heard the changes,” Williams said. “And he’s been absorbing a ton since he’s been out. It was really important for him to be traveling with us over that Christmas break. … As we were changing from a 3-2 zone to a 2-3 zone, we’re changing some of our offense — he was there the whole time.”

Damion Lee was with the Golden State Warriors for four of the nine years head coach Steve Kerr was, and he experienced the type of excitement that develops when integral pieces like Stephen Curry or Draymond Green would get back on the court.

Yes, those are players that hold a higher stature than someone like Johnson, but the know-how and steadiness they provide as long-term players under Kerr is similar.

“It’s huge. Just being able to make those reads, make those plays on the fly,” Lee said of it. “Like you said, someone that has been here since coach has been there. Those are guys that are from your core.”

It’s exactly the semblance of some fluidity the Suns needed.

They are 22-24, approaching a part of the schedule where the wheels have to start spinning at a certain velocity sooner rather than later. If they don’t start to play consistent, good basketball in the next month, buh-bye top six seed in the Western Conference and hello extra anxiety of having to qualify for the postseason via the play-in. If it extends even further, there is a question of if the Suns will even make the play-in.

That sets the stage for the level of urgency Phoenix has to play with the rest of the way and it gets a five-game homestand featuring some beatable opponents, even without a consistent ball-handler like Devin Booker (left groin strain), Chris Paul (right hip soreness) or Cam Payne (right foot sprain).

Job done on the first one versus a Kevin Durant-less Nets squad. Next up is a better-than-you-think 23-23 Indiana Pacers on Saturday but they will be missing star guard Tyrese Haliburton (elbow) who is the guy primarily responsible for their surprise turnaround into a potential playoff team.

Phoenix could be the betting favorites, which hasn’t been the case for 13 of its last 14 games. The Pacers will be on the second game of a back-to-back but Johnson has been ruled out to manage his comeback from the meniscus tear and Paul is questionable.

While the loss of Haliburton is felt to a similar degree of the Suns and Booker, Indiana’s still got some offensive firepower.

Guards Buddy Hield and Bennedict Mathurin, plus center Myles Turner, all average at least 17 points per game.

Mathurin, in particular, is the guy to spotlight.

If Suns fans weren’t aware how much it helps an offense to have a constant source of free throws, they are now. Mathurin, the sixth overall pick in the 2022 NBA Draft out of the University of Arizona, is taking 6.0 free tosses a night, a bonkers number for a rookie guard.

Only 16 guards in NBA history have hit that mark as a rookie, per Stathead. The 10 most recent names are worth mentioning: Luka Doncic (2018-19), Tyreke Evans (2009-10), Chris Paul (2005-06), Allen Iverson (1996-97), Jerry Stackhouse (95-96), Mitch Richmond (88-89), Ron Harper (86-87), Michael Jordan (84-85), Isiah Thomas (81-82) and Magic Johnson (79-80).

That’s pretty great company!

“Typically young wings don’t make that adjustment that quickly, as far as trying to get to the line or manipulating a drive to draw contact to the get to the line,” Williams said Friday of it.

Mathurin created some headlines ahead of his first season by saying he wants to see LeBron James prove to him how great he is. I’m serious. He did that.

“I don’t think anybody is better than me,” Mathurin told The Washington Post in June. “He’s going to have to show me he’s better than me.”

It is a ridiculous(ly awesome) thing to say before you’ve even been drafted but don’t look past what you should take away from it the most: That is one confident kid.

For people who really know basketball like Williams, he sees that on the court. When asked about Mathurin, it was the first thing he brought up.

“Just confident,” Williams said Friday of Mathurin. “I remember watching him I think in summer league like, ‘This kid is not afraid of anything.'”

Dwyane Wade is one of my favorite basketball players ever. I’m not saying Mathurin is the next iteration of Wade but he’s the closest reminder I’ve gotten of the physical and skilled fearlessness Wade thrived through from a young player since Wade retired.

Mathurin is shot out of a cannon once he begins slashing to the basket and he does not care who is in his path or waiting for him at the rim.

Peep that last clip again and you’ll see Atlanta Hawks forward John Collins getting ready to launch himself in the air for a contest before thinking better of it, knowing Mathurin will draw a foul, so he just goes straight up and hopes for the best.

Why focus on one player and one player’s specific skill for a whole game?

Well, the force Mathrin plays with is exactly the attribute Williams has highlighted for his team the last month, both when it is and isn’t there. I guarantee it will be there for Mathurin. If the Suns bring it on Saturday, they’ll win.

Speaking of that, they’ll have a much better shot in the fourth and final round of the regular season against the Memphis Grizzlies, winners of 10 straight coming into Friday night.

The previous three have represented the good, bad and ugly of that aforementioned month.

A Dec. 23 blowout loss was awful, followed by a surprising Dec. 27 win when the Suns rediscovered their brand of basketball. Monday’s loss in Memphis was a really good effort for the first half but the Suns weren’t equipped for a shootout, losing their hold on the game in the second half after a strong offensive first half.

If Phoenix can establish some more momentum in the prior matchup with the Pacers, it’s a terrific test versus the Grizzlies on the second game of a back-to-back to truly see how much they’ve progressed.

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