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Cam Johnson's value to Suns more apparent than ever after career night completes banner week

Gerald Bourguet Avatar
March 5, 2022

Cam Johnson may have started his week with lemonade, but he closed it with a peach.

In a career performance Friday night, Johnson provided a superhuman effort that pushed the Phoenix Suns past the visiting New York Knicks at the buzzer. Finishing with a career-high 38 points on 11-of-16 shooting, the 26-year-old sniper supplied all the offense this team could’ve hoped for with Devin Booker and Chris Paul out.

Johnson made nine of his 12 3-pointers, tying Aron Baynes, Channing Frye and Quentin Richardson for the most 3s made in a single game in franchise history. He battled through getting banged up all night, and oh yeah, he also made the Suns’ first game-winning buzzer-beater since Booker’s iconic moment on the hardwood floor of the NBA bubble in Orlando.

Coach Monty Williams wasn’t surprised the shot went in, but his initial thought as it sailed through the air perfectly encapsulated a night that seemed preordained by a higher power: “Please, Jesus.

Cam Payne called it the biggest shot of the season for Phoenix. Johnson admitted it was the biggest shot of his career…so far.

“Hopefully I can top it eventually, but for now, I’ll put that one at the top,” he said.

Hollywood couldn’t have scripted a better ending to Cam Johnson’s night, or even his birthday week as a whole. It even served as redemption in a way, because on the Suns’ prior possession, Payne was supposed to kick it back out to Johnson, who had the hot hand. Payne opted for a layup, just narrowly missing.

But when Alec Burks only made one of two free throws and the Suns collected the rebound, down two, in another last-possession scramble, Payne knew he had to make up for his last mistake. He pitched the ball back to Johnson and let him take care of the rest.

“I looked at the clock, saw I had enough time before I caught it and just tried to let it go — and tried not to be short, ‘cause the ones I missed tonight were short,” Johnson said. “And I did definitely shoot it long, but just very thankful that one went down, and I really love my guys. They really fought today, top to bottom. I’m just so proud of the effort they gave. I know the stats say one thing and the last play says one thing, but we are not in that situation without the group of guys that we have. So all the credit goes to them, it goes to coach, and it makes me happy to be a Sun today. I’m proud to be a part of this team.”

If you’re wondering why Cam Johnson randomly shifted from talking about his own game-winner to showering his teammates with praise, well, it wasn’t entirely random. Everything about this week — Cam’s Lemonade Stand, his impressive performances without the Suns’ starting backcourt, his career night, his game-winner, his first-ever technical, the win in general — all of it points to a player with immense value to this group, and one the Suns absolutely cannot afford to lose when it comes time for new contract extensions.

A career night

Let’s start with Friday’s performance. By dropping 38 points, Johnson scored the second-most points in franchise history for a player coming off the bench, trailing only Jamal Crawford, who dropped 51 points back in 2019 in Phoenix’s meaningless regular-season finale. Johnson also ensured Phoenix moved to 10-0 this season when the bench scores 50-plus points.

But in game where the Suns were missing their two best players and trailed by 14 points with 11 minutes to go, it would’ve been easy for this group to pack it in, make excuses and take another loss. After all, they were already up 7.5 games on the Golden State Warriors for the NBA’s best record.

The only problem was, the Suns decided they were going to win this game the moment Johnson got the first technical of his NBA career in an altercation with Julius Randle.

“We’re always together, but then it was like, ‘Let’s win the game. Don’t worry about that stuff, let’s win the game,’” coach Monty Williams said. “And that’s been our mentality since I’ve been here. There’s things that happen, and there’s in-fighting and in-game stuff, but there’s no column for it. We want to put the win number in the column, and that was our mentality.”

And at that point, Cam Johnson could not be stopped.

He matched his previous career high of 24 points with the same exact amount in the quarter-and-a-half after Randle got ejected. Cam Johnson went hard. He went in on the Knicks.

He became Ham Johnson.

Except there was plenty of beef to be found too, and it traced back to the start of the game and beyond.

The mental stamina

On the first possession Johnson found himself matched up on Randle, the Knicks star lowered his shoulder right into Cam’s ribs, but no foul was called.

“I didn’t like that first play of the game that I was in,” Johnson said. “To me, it felt cheap. And it hurt. Really hurt. Knocked the wind out of me, I didn’t even get it back.”

Mikal Bridges took one look at Johnson and called for Williams to sub him out. Johnson had to exit the game to try and catch his breath, heading back to the locker room to apply a pad to the sensitive area so he wouldn’t take another direct shot there.

It’s a good thing, too, because not long after his return, Johnson took another lowered shoulder to the chest, once again from Randle.

When Randle once again located Johnson and stuck him with another brutal bump on a box-out, enough was enough.

“If you look back into earlier in the season against New York, I went to box him out, just playing basketball, and he hit the heck out of me,” Johnson explained. “I went from block to block, no call. And to me, that was just very frustrating, so the emotions were very high. Just as a man, you’re not just gonna take that. Bully, 5-foot tall person, it don’t matter. It’s just an emotional moment, very emotional moment, and to me, it just seemed very out of pocket.”

Randle didn’t care for Johnson standing his ground and the two went face-to-face, with Randle ultimately losing his cool and shoving Johnson. But when confronted with his bully, who had banged him up multiple times in this game and in their last meeting, Johnson didn’t retaliate. He kept his composure, letting Randle’s anger carry him all the way back to the visitor’s locker room via ejection.

Both received double technicals, but Randle got hit with a second tech and was no longer a factor for the Suns to worry about.

Jae Crowder said the Suns fed off the look in Johnson’s eye after that skirmish, which was the first time they had seen him like that.

“I just told him probably like 8-10 times, ‘I’m proud of you, bro,’” Jae Crowder said. “I just told him in the locker room, I couldn’t stop saying, ‘I’m so proud of you,’ because he could’ve folded. Julius Randle coming at him, pushing him, he could’ve been rattled. He could’ve been off-kilter a little bit, but he just stayed the course and he had that fight. He had that look in his eye, like, ‘I’m here. I’m here, and I’m stepping up to the plate.’ And I think it was contagious.”

It’s very rare to see Cam Johnson upset. This is the same guy who raised $5,000 for Suns Charities to start his week, running a family-friendly lemonade stand that brought out over 2,000 people. While fans from all over the Valley crowded the stand, asking for autographs and selfies and keeping him there well past the originally planned, hour-long appearance, Johnson remained as courteous as ever, humbled by the love shown at an event he never expected to be that big.

“This is what you dream of when you dream of playing in the NBA,” he said. “All of the camaraderie with your team and then additionally, the support of a city. And that’s so big. It gets a little bit of attention, but I think it should get more that I think we have some of the best fans in the league.”

The camaraderie

On the court, that same gracious attitude is typically Cam Johnson’s M.O.

“I like to think I remain very, very level-headed throughout games,” Johnson said. “And that’s kind of what I’ve hung my hat on for 26 years now is just remaining level-headed and being able to deal with those things with a level head. But for better or worse, sometimes you gotta adjust, and sometimes you just can’t let stuff fly. ‘Cause people will keep continuing to take advantage of that.”

On Friday night though, the usually even-keeled Johnson gave way to an angry, walking blowtorch who incinerated New York’s hopes of pulling out an impressive road win.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been that angry when shooting a basketball,” he admitted.

Maybe the Suns should find ways to get under his skin more often, because the results were incredible.

“It’s not only about shot-making,” Crowder explained. “Obviously that’s what we’re talking about, but at the same time, he was just in the game, never wanting to come out the game. He had a look of, like, fight. As your brother, fighting, it’s contagious. You see him fighting, you’re like, ‘All right, I gotta fight too. I gotta step my game up.’”

In a sign of solidarity, the Suns did exactly that. Despite being outscored 38-23 in the third quarter and trailing by double digits entering the fourth, they rallied in a collective effort. Payne dished out a career-high 16 assists, including the final dime on Johnson’s game-winner. Crowder drilled two massive 3s — one that was a 4-point play, and the other to give the Suns the lead with 30.5 seconds left.

Johnson may have supplied 21 fourth-quarter points, but when Phoenix saw the altercation with Randle in the third, Williams told his team they were going to win that game. And that was that.

“I kinda fed right back off of that,” Johnson said of his teammates matching his fire. “And that’s kind of what won us the game there was guys just hanging in there and making gritty plays.”

Cam Johnson’s value

Whether it was watching Mikal Bridges, Frank Kaminsky, Cam Payne, Chris Paul and Ish Wainright all show up to support his lemonade stand; the sheer amount of fans who showed up to such an inauspicious event; the amount of money he raised for the community; his teammates responding to a pissed-off Cam Johnson for the first time; or the crowd’s bonkers response to that banked-in 3 at the buzzer, one thing became even more fundamentally clear over the last week: The Phoenix Suns need to do everything in their power to keep him around.

We’ve talked about this before with both Deandre Ayton and Johnson, and yes, it will incur an astronomical luxury tax bill to give them both extensions. But anyone who’s been paying attention over the last week understands how crucial Johnson is to this team, how beloved he is by this community and how essential he is to keeping Phoenix’s championship window propped open for the next half-decade.

This is the guy whose initial drafting at No. 11 was met with a heap of skepticism, yet he’s continually proven people wrong, turning lemons into lemonade at every turn. He’s flashed immense potential all season long as Crowder’s eventual replacement in the starting lineup, and while his scoring punch is too important to remove from the second unit right now, the Suns understand how deserving he already is of a starting job.

“He puts the work in, and he’s accepting the role that, over the course of the season, has changed,” Williams said. “He’s been a role guy off the bench, he’s been a starter, now he’s back on the bench, but the thing I like about Cam is his mentality doesn’t change. I think our guys look at him as a starter, and I think he’s accepted that responsibility. We don’t feel like when he comes off the bench he’s a role guy or a rotation guy off the bench, we feel like we’re bringing another starter in the game.”

Starters hit big shots, which Cam did Friday night. Starters step up their games when their stars are out, which Cam has done all week, averaging 23.4 points, 3.0 rebounds and 3.0 assists per game on .603/.585/.958 shooting splits since the All-Star break. And starters become vital cogs on their team and in their community, which Cam had a banner week in both respects.

The game-winner and hearing the roar of the Footprint Center’s 20th consecutive sellout was just the cherry on top.

“It was a cool moment,” Johnson said. “It was one that I probably won’t forget for the rest of my life.”

If the Suns are smart, they’ll give him the chance to add plenty more moments just like that to his memory banks for years to come.

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