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Coming off Friday’s thrilling, last-second home win over the New York Knicks, the Phoenix Suns have embarked on a three-game road trip.
Sunday features an early-afternoon matchup with the Milwaukee Bucks in their second NBA Finals rematch of the season. After that, the Suns head to Orlando and Miami for a back-to-back in Florida on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Since yours truly will be on the road covering all of it, here are a few minor updates from Saturday’s practice.
The latest on Cam Johnson
We already waxed poetic about Cam Johnson’s career night, but it might already be time to go back and appreciate what an awesome performance it was considering how banged up he was the entire night.
Aside from taking not one, but two shots to the stomach/chest from Julius Randle, Johnson also rolled his ankle late in the game on the Mitchell Robinson tip-in, and he suffered a Charley Horse from a Robinson contest on his second-quarter layup attempt that actually drew a foul call:
Johnson mentioned both injuries during his postgame presser Friday night, but with the excitement of the night, they quietly flew under the radar. Lo and behold on Saturday, he was listed as out for Sunday’s game due to a quad contusion, and his words about playing through the pain thanks to the adrenaline proved prophetic:
Coach Monty Williams provided a few details at practice on Johnson’s current state.
“Yeah, he got kneed in the thigh, I think, and the adrenaline was flowing and he was able to keep it loose,” Williams said. “Then he woke up today, and he couldn’t even bend it, and he had some inflammation. They’re gonna try to do everything they can to get that out, get him back on the floor as soon as they can, but right now, he’s just dealing with that.”
Considering Johnson was playing through two shots to the ribs, losing his wind, a turned ankle and a charley horse, his career-high 38 points and game-winning buzzer-beater are even more remarkable in retrospect than they were 36 hours ago.
Deandre Ayton, who raised his arms in celebration and chased Johnson down after his banked-in 3, was fully on board with how special the moment was.
“Yeah, I think I ran, I sprinted by him, ’cause I couldn’t believe it,” Ayton said. “It felt like a dream. I’m like, ‘Yo, this kid really did that.’ You know? It’s only his third year, dropping 38 in, what, 28 minutes? We see it in practice every day. Cam got the opportunity, and he carried us all the way.”
Like Jae Crowder and Cam Payne, Ayton reiterated the Suns weren’t going to get caught up in the drama of the Julius Randle incident, but rather, took it upon themselves to match the competitive fire it ignited in Johnson.
“Yeah, he’s quiet but deadly,” Ayton said. “That’s the one thing about this team. We got the dogs who bark, but we got the quiet ones who are very deadly. We got some huskies out here and we just snap.”
Unfortunately, the Suns will be without yet another member of the pack now that Johnson is sidelined. Williams said it’s just that time of year for most teams around the league.
“We’ve had more than our share, but it is that time of the year,” he said. “But we’re grateful that we have depth. We may have to play a little bit differently tomorrow with our big guys, but we feel like our system, and the talent we have will give us a chance to win. Nobody’s feeling sorry for us because we have injuries when you have as many wins as we have. So we just have to do our best to be solid, and just like last night, have mental stamina and poise and give ourselves a chance to win. But we’ve gotta be solid, especially when we have this many guys out.”
The latest on Devin Booker
Speaking of which, Devin Booker remains out for Sunday’s matinee game and did not travel with the team, given that he’s still in health and safety protocols. That doesn’t necessarily mean he’s out for the entire road trip, though. If he were to register the requisite two negative tests, he could conceivably rejoin the team in Orlando or Miami later in the week.
In the meantime, Booker has been forced to watch his team from home, which is a new experience. Williams noted this is the first time Book hasn’t been able to be in the gym or be around the guys while he’s recuperating, so it’s been “weird” taking everything in from afar.
“Now he’s at home, and he’s screaming at the TV, that’s something totally different for him,” Williams said. “And Book’s so doggone competitive, I hope the TV was out of reach and guarded by a gate or something. But he said when [Bismack Biyombo] came into the game, he was down in his stance just like Biz. He was excited to see Biz out there, changing the game the way that he did, and then we just talked about our team.”
Ayton said the Suns called Booker after the game on Friday, in keeping with how they FaceTimed Chris Paul after Game 1 and Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals when he was in health and safety protocols.
“Book is always tuned in, and I’m pretty sure he was super happy from Cam, ’cause he’s always telling Cam to shoot,” Ayton said.
Booker’s continued absence dulls the luster of Sunday’s Finals rematch, but even as the injury report gets longer and longer, Williams isn’t stressing over Phoenix’s current situation.
“I just want him to rest,” he said. “Some of this stuff is a blessing in disguise. He gets a chance to rest, and once he gets back, you guys know me, he’s going to be full bore Book. So all of this stuff I think is going to help us become stronger going forward.”
Return to Milwaukee
Sunday’s matchup would’ve held a bit more weight if both teams were healthy, but these are hardly the lineups anyone would expect from either side if they were to meet again in the Finals.
For the Suns, Booker and Johnson join Chris Paul (right thumb avulsion fracture), Frank Kaminsky (right knee stress reaction) and Dario Saric (right ACL rehab) as being out. The Bucks, meanwhile, will be missing George Hill, Wesley Matthews, Brook Lopez and Pat Connaughton.
This may be the Suns’ first time being back in Milwaukee since dropping Game 6 of the Finals, but Williams and Ayton both believe there’s been more than enough time to get past those sorts of unpleasant memories.
“It is what it is,” Williams said. “You think about it a little bit, but so much of that has been digested, for me. I think it was a bit more emotional the first time we played them. Now, it’s like, our focus is so much different now. I think that comes with experience. It does bring back memories when you come back, especially the way we played, the way we lost, the way our guys competed — like, all of that comes back to mind. But it’s not like I’m ready to cry or write a poem about it. It’s just like, you remember it, but you just want to focus on the game and win tomorrow.”
“The last time was the Finals, and we know it’s going to be loud,” Ayton added. “We just ready to play, man. That’s about it. We got our scout, we just came out of practice and we’re locked and loaded on what we need to do, and now we’re gonna finish this game. No matter who’s on the court, we still gotta play Suns basketball.”
Jae Crowder’s own return
Since the Bucks and the Marquette men’s basketball team share the same arena at Fiserv Forum, the Golden Eagles’ Saturday game moved Phoenix’s practice to the Al McGuire Center on Marquette’s campus — Jae Crowder’s old stomping grounds.
As a Golden Eagle from 2010-12 and former Big East Player of the Year, Crowder’s image could be seen throughout the building, which made for quite a remarkable backdrop as the 10-year NBA veteran hoisted shots in the practice facility.
Pictures of Crowder and Jimmy Butler, a quote from Crowder about what it means to be a Golden Eagle, and a banner of Crowder and other Marquette alums who went on to the NBA adorned the walls. I didn’t get a chance to talk with him about his latest return to Marquette, save for asking him whether it was good to be back.
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