The Phoenix Suns have won three games in a row, so you might think all is well. They are now 4-3 on the season, back up to mid-pack on most offensive and defensive categories. And on Thursday, the lid finally came off the rim from long range as they drained 14 threes at a 45% clip to win the three-point battle for the first game this year.
But all is not well. Those three games were at home against a young Cavaliers team on the third game of a 3-games-in-4-nights and a pair of rebuilding teams with an aggregate 2-12 record coming in. The deck was stacked in the Suns favor, yet they were behind by double digits in each game in the second half.
They needed one big spurt of energy each game — a 50-12 run vs. Cavaliers, 31-11 run vs. Pelicans and 40-19 run vs. Rockets — to take control of the outcome in the second half. In those stretches, the Suns have needed their All-Stars to lead the way.
Why does it have to be so hard?
The Suns starters have been struggling all year. Chris Paul seems to be picking his moments to excel, saving energy for later in the season. Devin Booker appears to be rounding into shape with live games. Jae Crowder can’t hit the broad side of a barn.
The second unit has been in shambles too. With Cameron Payne on the shelf (hamstring) since game two, the second unit has four new players in it if you count Abdel Nader as ‘new’ since he was not a rotation regular a year ago.
Offseason signees Elfrid Payton, JaVale McGee and Landry Shamet have been fixtures off the bench along with Cameron Johnson. As a group, they appear disjointed and mostly a bad fit.
Some of that would get ironed out with time. Some will be solved by the return of Cameron Payne to the lineup in place of Elfrid Payton, who tries hard but is not a clean fit in the point-five offense. He is deliberate, drives hard to the paint for short shots or dumps to JaVale, but does not set up shooters on the outside.
Payne is nearly ready. He says he has not felt pain in his hammy for over a week, but that the team is just taking it easy so he does not have a setback when he suddenly goes full-speed in a game.
He’s been watching from the sidelines just like the rest of us, and he knows how he can impact the team once he’s healthy again.
“I know what I have to do when I come back,” Cam Payne said. “Just change the pace of the game, need some more energy in there. The fans are rocking, but we need to take it to another level just to get back going, to get back on that high horse we were at in the playoffs.”
Payne was instant energy in the second unit last year, a jarring contrast to the plodding Chris Paul. He keeps the ball moving, keeps his head up for open shooters, and makes sure the Suns are always on the attack. It also helps that Payne is a good three-point shooter, whereas Payton won’t even take them.
On an individual level, Payne set up more players, scores better and commits fewer turnovers than Payton. On a team level, Payne had a +10 net rating last year (60 games) while Payton is currently sitting at -2 (seven games).
This year’s second unit is arguably more talented than last year’s. Cameron Johnson returns along with Payne. Landry Shamet (19 points, including 4-8 on threes, on Thursday) is a better wing option than Abdel Nader, Jevon Carter, Langston Galloway or E’Twaun Moore. And JaVale McGee is at the least more productive than Torrey Craig and Frank Kaminsky, and maybe even Dario Saric (though I’d still love to see Dario return by the playoffs!).
Payne wants to get in there to help that second unit gel.
“Obviously I’m the voice for the second unit,” Payne said this week. “So I kind of have to coach everyone up. And we don’t really have the same second group, so we got a lot of learning to do still. Now the season starts, and the refs calling different, we have to find different ways to score. We are just learning from each other, trying to pick up different things to get easy baskets.”
Indeed the referees are calling things different.
They are allowing a lot more contact to go uncalled that is instigated by the offensive player, whether the defender truly fouled back or not. Frank Kaminsky got away with a lot of bodying on Jonas Valanciunas on Tuesday night because the refs were letting the physicality go unchecked.
On the outside, they are not calling fouls on three-point shots that are intentionally initiated by the offensive player. So, again, there is more physicality even on pick-setting and back screens than in years past.
The Suns need to adjust, and Cam Payne wants to get back to help.
Payne was upgraded to ‘questionable’ these last two games, and he’s been looking good in warmups before the Tuesday and Thursday games before showering and watching from the sidelines.
Don’t be surprised if Payne makes his return against the Atlanta Hawks on Saturday. The Suns need him.
The Hawks made the Conference Finals a year ago and look poised for another run this year, but are off to a 1-4 start in road games as they incorporate more players into their rotation with the returns of De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish from injuries.