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New Suns starting lineup pushing through learning curve toward consistency

Gerald Bourguet Avatar
November 21, 2022

The Phoenix Suns typically withhold judgment on their rotations until they have a 20-game sample size to work with. They’re only 16 games into the new season, and their new starting lineup hasn’t even had seven full games together yet.

However, with Chris Paul’s sore right heel set to be re-evaluated later this week, and Cam Johnson out for 1-2 months due to a torn right meniscus, the Suns will be rolling with Cam Payne and Torrey Craig in that starting five for the foreseeable future.

The question is, even with such a small sample size, what have we seen from Phoenix’s new starting lineup? The Suns have strived for “stacking solid,” as coach Monty Williams calls it, and the team’s 21-point win over the New York Knicks on Sunday felt like a step in the right direction after a disappointing one-point loss to the Utah Jazz.

“We stepped up, we responded,” Devin Booker said. “After a tough loss in Utah, an early game now is a quick turnaround, and that’s the beauty of the NBA. We get to get right back to it, and we always say nobody likes to lose two in a row — or one game, at that — in this locker room.”

Coming off another road loss, the Suns got things back on track at home, where they’ll be for the next three games and are now 8-1 on the season. As a whole, though, the last six-and-a-half games since CP3 went down look more like a roller coaster.

“This second 10 [games], we’ve been like this,” Williams said, gesturing up and down. “So for me, it’s like, we gotta do it again. The first 10, we were much more consistent. The second 10, we’ve had a number of injuries, guys in and out of the rotation, and we’ve just been a bit inconsistent with that stacking solid deal. So what we’re looking for is putting some games together.”

Suns push for consistency with better starts and finishes

In 142 minutes over 12 games together, the Suns’ lineup of Payne, Booker, Mikal Bridges, Craig and Deandre Ayton has posted a Net Rating of -15.4. They’re 7-5 over that stretch thanks mostly to the bench stepping up and that lineup being used sparingly, and not as a starting five. As the new lineup to tip off games, this group somewhat struggled out of the gate.

Part of the problem was their first-quarter defense. Over a six-game span starting with the Philadelphia 76ers loss, Phoenix ranked dead-last in first-quarter defense heading into Sunday. Their 130.3 defensive rating was atrocious, and they were surrendering a league-worst 33.0 points per first quarter on 53.1 percent shooting, including 54.9 percent from deep.

When they gave up 42 points to Utah in the first period, the Suns’ uncharacteristic defensive miscues were impossible to ignore.

“You’re gonna have lapses like that in the game, can’t play every game perfect, but when you know what you need to do and you still continue to have the breakdowns that you’re having, there’s a release of a little frustration about it,” Craig said. “It’s kind of good to have games like that. You learn from it, you kind of take it to the chin and you move on to the next.”

And yet, as much as the Suns admitted there’s a bit of an adjustment process to working in a new starting lineup, no one made excuses.

“I don’t want to discount that, I think it is a part of it, but over the course of these games where we’ve had guys out, we’ve shown the ability to do a number of things well,” Williams said. “We just haven’t stacked it up the way that we need to.”

Williams, Payne and Craig all stressed the importance of having “game plan disciple,” believing this group’s defensive ceiling was much higher regardless of who’s out there. They proved it on Sunday, holding the Knicks to 95 points on 40 percent shooting for the game.

“It was a point of emphasis for us, so typically when we go into a game with one thing on our mind, we typically do it,” Booker said.

After hearing about that first-quarter defense at practice on Saturday, the Suns limited New York to 22 first-quarter points on 36.4 percent shooting.

“They just did us, you know what I mean?” Williams said. “I’m well aware that our group is always intentional about the things that we bring to their attention, and when we talked about it yesterday, to a man, they were all like, ‘Those numbers don’t look like Suns defense numbers.’ And Kevin [Young] made a great point about we should never be in the last place of any category when it comes to NBA defense and offense. And so our guys just took the challenge. Probably wanted to shut me up about it.”

They did that and more. The starting five posted a +12.1 Net Rating against the Knicks, and for the third straight game, all five starters scored in double figures. Now the next step will be learning to close games, which has been an unfamiliar struggle for this team.

Last year, the Suns were historically dominant in the clutch, boasting an NBA-best 33-9 record and an astronomical +33.4 Net Rating. So far this year, in five games involving crunch-time minutes, they’re 1-4.

They’ve lost two separate games by one point, and four of their six losses on the season have come by a combined six points. The good news is, the Suns still boast a +5.6 Net Rating in the clutch. Williams said Phoenix’s larger focus is avoiding the “my bads” in the meat of the game that lead to close finishes, but these narrow defeats still serve an educational purpose for guys who wouldn’t normally be out there.

“When you end up in those situations, you try to learn from it,” Williams said. “So I think it’s great for all of us, because it teaches me how to use [Payne] better and Torrey better in those situations. I’m hopeful that it’ll pay off for us as we progress.”

“It’s gonna be huge,” Payne agreed. “I know later on in the season, we’ll get put in these positions again, and we’ll probably handle it even better. But right now, it’s just like a little learning curve for us, figuring it out how to navigate end of the games.”

Cam Payne getting comfortable

Against the Miami Heat, Payne missed a layup on the final possession. Against the Jazz, he traveled in the game’s final minute with Phoenix down three.

That’s not meant to scapegoat any one player, but as one of two new guys in the starting lineup, and as one of two main ball-handlers in the starting lineup, Payne has to be a reliable floor general. At practice after the Jazz loss, Williams pulled him aside to talk about it. Payne was beating himself up at first, but his coach told him to keep his head up. Those struggles would benefit him in the long run.

“I sat with Cam yesterday and just talked to him and walked through a few situations on how you gotta let plays develop, especially in end-of-game situations because teams are trying to take away primary and secondary options,” Williams explained. “Sometimes it’s a tertiary option that’s the only thing you got, and he’s not been in those moments with us outside of playoffs versus the Clippers when Chris was out. That’s not a lot, even though it was a high-level moment.”

Payne thrived in the spotlight in that memorable Western Conference Finals Game 2 — much like he did last season when Paul missed time, and much like he’s doing again now.

“He’s just taking it game by game, and to me, he’s getting better and better each game,” Booker said. “It’s a different responsibility, it’s a different role. You’re playing against a different unit, so it’s all brand new, but we’re telling him just be aggressive, play his type of basketball, and we feed off that energy.”

Over the last seven games, Payne is averaging 19.3 points, 6.1 assists and 3.4 rebounds with only 2.3 turnovers per game, all while shooting 45.3 percent from the floor, 43.8 percent from 3 and 85.7 percent from the foul line.

Payne thriving in the starting role is nothing new, and he’s been upfront about how extended minutes allow him to settle into the flow of games more comfortably.

“I feel like just being out there longer, you get to see the full game of how I play,” he said. “You see the full game instead of just a snippet, like 12 minutes. So being out there on the floor longer definitely has been helping me.”

It’s not a “growing up” process for a veteran of eight seasons now, but for a guy who’s also been out of the NBA, who would get pulled right away if he messed up during his first few seasons, the chance to play through those mistakes isn’t something he takes for granted.

What’s more, learning from and improving upon those mistakes has boosted his coach’s confidence in him.

“He’s gotten to a place with us, with me, where there’s a trust level now,” Williams said. “He’s had this time now with Chris being out to get settled in that role, and what I don’t want him to do is back off at all when Chris does come back. We want him playing the same way he’s playing right now.”

“He ain’t on me like he used to be, and it’s kind of relieving,” Payne laughed. “But man, that’s how I am, who I am now. He coached me hard. And I’m a very coachable player, so I just learned from my mistakes and just got better over the years.”

Payne’s increased responsibility and desire to keep improving has made him more of a student of the game too.

“Instead of just playing, I’m just kinda slowing the game down when I watch the film,” he said. “I see the low man come over, I hit the corner. It’s just little things like that. And I would probably say, like, humbly, I didn’t watch film as much as I did now, and it’s helping me a lot.”

Granted, sharing the backcourt with a guy averaging a 28-6-5 stat line like Booker makes everyone’s life easier. But even as Payne joked about Book taking all that pressure off, he stumbled upon a kernel of truth that will keep the Suns’ engine humming until Paul is back behind the wheel.

“I don’t really feel no pressure,” Payne said. “I mean, D-Book got all the pressure in the world, I just gotta come in there and be solid.”

Torrey Craig fills the gaps

Much like Payne, Torrey Craig — and his incredible, borderline deranged offensive rebounding — has already been a focus here. However, to simply chalk up his contributions to crashing the glass wouldn’t do him justice.

Craig has now scored in double figures in the last four games, averaging 13.3 points, 7.3 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 1.0 steals and 1.0 blocks on 54.1 percent shooting, including 50 percent from 3. On the season, he’s shooting 43.1 percent from downtown.

Going back over the last seven games, he’s still averaging 10.1 points and 5.6 rebounds a night. Despite ranking 169th in total minutes so far this season, he’s tied for 41st in total offensive rebounds.

“He’s been thrown into a number of situations with us,” Williams said. “He’s just been a maniac attacking the glass this year. When he’s knocking down his 3-point shot from the corners, it just adds to what he brings to the table every night.”

Even before the Point God went down, it was obvious what Craig’s energy, defense, offensive rebounding, cutting and surprisingly potent 3-point touch was doing for this team. Phoenix’s ability to keep winning games without either one of Cam Johnson or Jae Crowder at the 4-spot shouldn’t be lost on anyone, and Craig is the catalyst behind it.

“It’s new, and Torrey’s a pro,” Paul said. “Probably the only guy close in age to me on the team, so Torrey’s played overseas, he’s played all around the league, and he’s very adaptive. We’re lucky to have the depth that we have.”

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