It’s been a long, parched walk through the desert. Every time we think we see water, it turns out to be a condescending oasis. An oasis that not only disappears when you get closer, but laughs at you as it fades to nothing.
And maybe this latest glimpse is just the best and cruelest iteration yet.
But watching new Suns point guard Elfrid Payton find tiny slivers of daylight to get the ball to teammate after teammate in scoring position all game long last night was like finally stumbling over my thousandth sand dune to find a fresh-water pool beckoning me to jump in.
The bar is low, folks. I know this. We weren’t watching Steve Nash last night.
But some of the passes we saw - passes that surprised teammates at times with their creativity and perfection (“It didn’t surprise me,” Josh Jackson boasted afterward, “But I know it surprised some of my teammates!”) - were reminiscent of days gone by when scoring was easier and players looked more capable and athletic.
It’s no coincidence that Dragan Bender and Josh Jackson had the best games of their young careers, given how often Payton fed them the ball in the right spot and moment for a scoring opportunity.
“He is a smart player,” Bender said of Payton. “He knows how to play basketball. His IQ is high. His head is always up. His appearance on the court, he understands the game, just trying to find mismatches on the court.”
Bender, who often appears confused and overmatched in the NBA, transformed into the stretch-five we all dreamed about. He began the game draining a pair of threes to draw Nikola Jokic away from the basket - threes off perfect passes into his hands as he caught, set and fired away. Then, as the game went on, Payton recognized the switch after a pick and roll, and properly fed Bender in post-up scoring position with a smaller defender on his back.
Bender made 9 of his 15 shots (10 of those inside the arc, which Suns fans know is a boon) for a career high 23 points, and could have scored a couple more times if he’d been ready for the lightning quick entry pass from Payton.
But even more oohhh-inspiring to see was Payton feeding Jackson and Warren in the open floor and in half-court on cuts to the basket, putting the ball right in their hands as they were running full speed with time to catch, read the D, and drive hard to the basket for the score.
Warren scored 31 points while Josh Jackson had 20, as they combined to make 23 of 36 shots.
Payton “only” had 9 assists on Saturday night, but could easily have doubled that number had the Suns been ready for each pass.
Watch the highlights to get a glimpse of the oasis in our desert.
Now let’s focus on Payton’s assists and scores. He might not be good enough for the Suns to invest in a huge extension this summer, but he’s the best passer we’ve seen here in a long time.
Now, on Bender’s best game as a pro: 23 points, 8 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 blocks and a steal. This is what you want from your #4 overall pick.
And here’s our other #4 overall pick, Josh Jackson, who showed HIS entire arsenal and a good glimpse of the future: 20 points, 5 assists, 7 rebounds, 4 blocks and a steal.
Mix in T.J. Warren’s 20+ per game on cuts and acrobatic scores in traffic, plus Devin Booker’s 25+ on shots from all over the court, and you’ve got the makings of a very fun lineup.
Payton passing to cutters Jackson and Warren, with Bender and Booker stretching the floor... mmmm. Me like. Me like very much.
The Suns won’t win a lot of games - way too little rebounding, even less consistency from Bender and Jackson, and even Payton - so don’t worry about ping pong balls for that final piece being added to the core puzzle this summer.
The Suns play the league’s toughest schedule from here on out, with only a handful of remaining games against teams under .500 for the season.
But at least maybe we can enjoy #TheTimeline develop with a creative point guard running the show.
You might recall there was a totally unexpected fight early in the game, where Troy Daniels attacked Will Barton soon after Barton came in the game.
Apparently, that was because Barton has joked on a podcast the other day that the Suns should be relegated to the G-League another game by 48. Both Barton and Daniels were assessed offsetting technicals and play resumed.
Here’s Barton’s recount of what happened.
“On RJ’s (Richard Jefferson) podcast,” Barton explained, “I said after Phoenix had lost by 50 to the Spurs, we were making jokes and I said after that game, they should throw the whole team away and throw them to the G League.
“You know, it wasn’t anything personal,” he continued. “I would have said that about us if that had happened to us. I was just being funny. But I didn’t know during the game that’s what it was about. I didn’t find out until I came in.
“I was like, ‘They listen to that?’ Whatever. I didn’t remember I even said that. I’m not thinking about that. When we came back in he told me this was what it was about, it makes sense. That’s why he came on like that, which I respect. You’re supposed to take that personal, I respect that. I’d take that personal. He woke me up, so I thank him.”
Good on Troy Daniels for sending that message.