EMPIRE OF THE SUNS
Here’s one way the Suns could survive, and win, with Chris Paul injured
May 3, 2023, 10:20 AM | Updated: 7:16 pm
Chris Paul will be out for the Phoenix Suns as they attempt to climb out of a 2-0 hole against the Denver Nuggets.
Whether he returns from a groin injury in these Western Conference semifinals will depend on whether the Suns can lean even more on Devin Booker and Kevin Durant, then find enough contributions from a bench unit with little cohesion and coming off an empty offensive performance.
Losing Paul might be viewed as a death blow to this 2022-23 Suns season. We’ll get into the next-season implications when it’s actually time.
For now, Phoenix is very much alive. Just ask those 1992-93 Suns 30 years back after Paul Westphal’s speech.
The Suns are fighting history regardless of considering five- or seven-game series.
There is a 7% rate of teams recovering to win a series after falling down 2-0 in either case.
It has, however, happened three times in the past three years: In this year’s first round with the Warriors over the Kings, in 2022 when the Suns blew a 2-0 lead over the Mavericks to fall in Game 7 and in 2021 when Phoenix lost the NBA Finals after going up 2-0 on the Milwaukee Bucks.
Enough of that painful history lesson. Here’s one person’s optimistic view of how the Suns could recover to make this a series against the Nuggets.
It’s time for Point Book to start
My Empire of the Suns co-host Kellan Olson put it well on Monday night: Devin Booker, like he did on 19-win teams, is still required to put on the cape with Paul and Kevin Durant on his team.
It’s wild how time and circumstance haven’t changed the requirement he bails this team out.
I say, so be it.
At this point, with Kevin Durant and Chris Paul on his team, Devin Booker still has to do it all for the Suns. @KellanOlson is flabbergasted by it all.
Full podcast after Suns-Nuggets Game 2: https://t.co/dsTcxEbgdK pic.twitter.com/olaTJmV3QG
— EmpireOfTheSuns (@EmpireOfTheSuns) May 2, 2023
Booker might have to save the Suns, but moving him to starting point guard will allow for a few things. For one, it’ll flip his switch into playmaker mode, where he thrived in spurts of a first-round series against the Los Angeles Clippers: A 38-point, nine-assist Game 2 and then a 47-point, 10-assist Game 5 especially.
By the way, Booker still scored while in playmaker mode. It’s not putting more on his plate but saving him possessions where he can get the Suns in sets for the team to find some 0.5 cohesion.
The purpose is two-fold.
It empowers Durant to slide into the spot as the No. 1 scoring option. Run him off screens. Use him as a pick-and-roll screener with Booker.
No, the Suns’ offense doesn’t look the same with Booker and Durant sharing the court. But simplifying the game and letting them manage more playmaking will not only help them find a rhythm but give head coach Monty Williams the opportunity to tell them they’ve got to pepper their teammates with touches.
This was more good Booker-Durant co-authoring of good plays, this time to get teammates open.pic.twitter.com/7BKq0c936H
— Kevin Zimmerman (@KZimmermanAZ) May 3, 2023
Yes, there’s a wear-down effect to worry about with Booker averaging 43.0 minutes through seven playoff games.
“I think it’s a lot,” Williams said after Game 2. “He was probably more tired than he would admit. With Chris off the floor, it puts a lot of pressure on him, so I got to figure that out.”
There’s a counterpoint to that worry. Booker doesn’t need to be the point man for the whole game nor be tasked with creating every single shot when he’s the initiator. Get the team in the offense, get rid of it. Payne will surely get more minutes in the starting group or otherwise.
And when there are matchups to attack, focus on swinging it to the other side of the court and letting Durant catch with a rotating defense in front of him, something Phoenix has been a little slow to find a rhythm with.
So who joins the starting group?
Booker is now your point guard. Great.
So who joins him in the starting lineup? If I had to put money on it, I’d be split on Williams going with Cam Payne or Torrey Craig, depending on where Payne’s fitness is at.
Payne might have used the past week and the long break to get his wind and his legs back after missing more than three weeks with a back injury. It would keep the rotations the same as they were before Payne returned, though Damion Lee might be the first guard off the bench instead of Landry Shamet. Payne being able to log heavy minutes also gives the Suns more pace and rim pressure than they had with Paul, all while taking the playmaking load off Booker and Durant.
Craig is trusted and gives the Suns a super switchable lineup. He and Josh Okogie on the floor at the same time is too much questionable shooting — and not enough floor spacing.
So hear me out on this batty idea: Terrence Ross gets the starting nod.
And no, this isn’t a knee-jerk reaction to everybody from Durant to Lee missing so many shots last game.
First off, the Suns can slow-roll Payne as the backup point guard and Craig as the first guy off the bench to retain some depth (you’re losing one starting point guard and adding an entirely new player to the rotation). Ross causes a bit of a late scramble for the Nuggets, who have to worry about his shooting from the corners.
Either Ross gets open opportunities or Denver sticks on him, deleting one help defender from the Booker or Durant — or Booker-Durant — pick-and-roll actions.
Defensively, you can hide Ross to some degree on Kentavious Caldwell-Pope sitting in the corners as the Suns did with Paul to start games. You’d just have to worry about Denver hunting switches to put Ross on Jamal Murray.
The Suns don’t need to hand Ross tons of minutes. Go with Payne or Craig in crunch time if it’s not working, or with Lee as a more well-rounded defensive player. I just like Ross’ ability to fling it with volume and create his own shot a little more.
Use this as an opportunity
To be clear, losing Paul is bad. He is the Suns’ third-best player and a director on the court, who in the third quarter just before his groin injury was starting to put the puzzle pieces together. And then he was gone in a flash.
But as Booker said postgame on Monday, Phoenix can use this as a challenge and opportunity. And as former NBA assistant Steve Jones pointed out in his rewatch thread, the Nuggets really did opt to let Paul cook for the sake of stopping Booker and Durant.
The Suns will either wilt with too much on their two remaining stars or find a way to empower — there’s that word again — Durant and the bench into finding a rhythm. That’s the only way they’ll get beyond this series and perhaps the next, anyway.
These below clips are the goods that the Suns want: Durant gets an open three in the first clip. Even if that second-side skip pass and single swing doesn’t involve Paul and Durant, it’s good offense initiated by Booker.
In the second, a non-CP3 lineup causes problems for Denver, still so worried about Booker and Durant.
Booker again in P&R, holds Jokic showing and keeps two on the ball. KD is spaced in the weakside corner so Braun is there with Ayton and then works to get back out. Ayton wide open. pic.twitter.com/VWZS7JMWJk
— Steve Jones Jr. (@stevejones20) May 2, 2023
“I mean, playoffs is a lot,” Booker said after Game 2. “A lot comes with this. You just have to embrace it, embrace the challenge, embrace the opportunity we have right now even down 0-2.
“A lot is on all of our plates.”
With extended rest and willingness to accept more, the Suns might still have a fighting chance against a team that looks very worthy of the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference.