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Suns X-Factor of the Conf. Finals could be little-used E’Twaun Moore

2021 NBA Playoffs - Denver Nuggets v Phoenix Suns Photo by Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images

The Phoenix Suns are 8-2 in the playoffs, winning games by a league-best 10.2 points on average. They’re so good, they finished off their second-round opponent almost a week before anyone else could finish off theirs.

They will continue their playoff push in the Western Conference Finals, starting either Sunday or Tuesday against the winner of the Jazz-Clippers series (Game 6 is tonight).

As you’ve heard, though, the Suns may begin that series without Point God Chris Paul, who is currently in quarantine because he tested positive for COVID-19 this past Monday (and presumably since then) and will need consecutive days of negative tests to be cleared to return to the team. He is reportedly asymptomatic, so really they are just waiting for the virus levels (load) to diminish enough in his system to clear him to play.

That puts the Suns into yet another situation over which they have no control. First, they don’t even know their opponent yet. The Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Clippers are very different in their personnel and playing styles, so the game plan to beat their WCF opponent cannot be finalized.

And second, they don’t know their own lineup situation thanks to COVID. We have covered potential minutes distribution for you here, and head coach Monty Williams’ comments on the situation here.

In a small sample size, considering Paul played 80 of the 82 games so far this season, the Suns tread water when he’s off the floor. Through the regular season, they were still a plus overall when he was off the floor (+3.6 points per 100 possessions), though they were better with him on the floor (+6.5). The disparity has widened a bit in the playoffs: +13.1 with him, +5.3 without him.

The Suns tread water without Paul because they have some depth at the playmaking position next to All-Star Devin Booker, who’s proven an ability play big minutes in big games.

Still, even if Booker plays all 48 minutes at his position, there’s still the other 48 minutes of a playmaker next to him that need to be filled. Usually, it’s a mostly three-guard tandem of Paul, Booker and Payne for those 96 minutes.

Backup point guard Cameron Payne has played a lot of minutes with the starters this season in the Suns rotation, and E’Twaun Moore — the likely beneficiary of Paul’s absence — has been effective when given the chance to play.

Cameron Payne

2021 NBA Playoffs - Phoenix Suns v Denver Nuggets Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

Payne won’t snake around screens to get an open mid-range shot over the big or, if the big steps up, feed the ball to the rolling Deandre Ayton for a score. He won’t dance around the perimeter, probing for mismatches while his teammates screen and re-screen for him and each other.

What Payne does do well is to attack the basket off the dribble, ending with either a floater in the lane (if the big drops) or hard-driving layup (if the big steps up to contest). And he’s fearless — almost as fearless as Jae Crowder — in taking the catch-and-shoot three.

Payne is also a distributor in his own way. No one runs an offense like Chris Paul of course, but Payne gets the ball moving into the offense and squirts around off-ball with boundless energy.

Among all that energy and movement, he’s dependable. You can trust him with the ball and with the shot. He’s posting excellent shooting numbers (44% on threes, 48% FG overall) and has a 3.6 to 1 ratio on assists to turnovers.

And as I said before, he’s played a lot of time with the starters this season. He comes in with the starters about halfway through the first and third quarters, staying until Chris Paul runs the second unit at the beginning of the second and fourth quarters.

Payne even stepped it up in the playoffs when Paul was ailing (shoulder). Against the league’s best defense this season (Lakers), Payne kept up his production on bigger minutes. He averaged 12.5 points, 3 rebounds and 3 assists in 23 minutes per game in that series.

Game 2 against the Lakers was Payne’s coming-out party as Paul was mercifully benched for being unable to dribble, pass or shoot. In 32 minutes (to Paul’s 22), Payne had 19 points, 7 assists, 2 blocks and a steal and scored 11 in the fourth quarter to help the Suns pull within one point (93-92) with 4:04 remaining.

Unfortunately, it was clutch time that the Suns missed Paul terribly. The Suns failed to score over the next three minutes (4 bad offensive possessions, 2 missed shots, 2 turnovers) and eventually lost the game 109-99.

That’s the good and bad of missing Chris Paul. With Paul, the Suns are good all game and at their best in clutch time (game within 5 points in the final 5 minutes). The Suns had the West’s best clutch record (25-12) this regular season but failed in their only clutch minutes of the postseason without Paul.

Cam Payne is not the X-factor. We know what we will get with Payne.

The X-factor is who plays the non-Payne, non-Paul minutes.

E’Twaun Moore

Phoenix Suns v San Antonio Spurs Photos by Logan Riely/NBAE via Getty Images

Your best memory of E’Twaun Moore should be his game winner over the Spurs in the season finale, just three weeks ago. In that game, he scored 22 points on 9-for-10 shooting and dished a pair of assists.

Unfortunately for E’Twaun, that was the highlight of his Suns career so far.

The 9-year veteran developed into a very nice rotational player with Chicago and New Orleans. Over his last five seasons, Moore averaged a very respectable 10.1 points (with 41% 3P, 54.5% eFG), 2.4 rebounds and 2 assists in 25 minutes per game over 323 games (166 starts).

But after signing a deal in the hectic ‘decide NOW’ off-season to play for the Suns, he’s been buried on the end of the bench. The Suns health has played a part — Chris Paul (80 of 82 games), Devin Booker (77 of 82) and Payne (70 of 82) have been largely healthy, leaving the rest of the guards with little opportunity. And even then, head coach Monty Williams rotated through long spot-minute stints with veterans Langston Galloway, Abdel Nader, Jevon Carter and Moore to see who would fit the best in that 4th spot.

Galloway provides shooting, Nader teased a good two-way skillset and Carter has a proven ability to defend smaller guards and make open threes. Moore provides a little of everything, but isn’t great at any one thing.

In the end, Moore only played in 29 of a possible 82 games this season, averaging just 4.9 points (31% 3P, 50% eFG) and less than 2 rebounds/assists in 15 minutes per game when he takes off the warmups.

Now that the playoffs have rolled around, however, E’Twaun Moore is the most likely to get those extra minutes, especially if Chris Paul is unable to play. That’s because he’s the most reliable ball-handler and has the most playoff experience (21 games) among the Galloway/Carter/Moore trio (Nader is out with knee surgery).

Moore has never been a full time ball-handler, but he’s got a positive assist-to-turnover ratio for his career including a 2-to-1 ratio this season — a must for Monty’s trust. He’s also been a starter in 9 of his 21 playoff games (2018 with the Pelicans), so he knows the pressures of playoff basketball.

Bottom line

I would not even be surprised to see Moore in the starting lineup in Game 1 if Paul is ruled out, so that Payne can stay in his proven role coming off the bench mid-way through the first quarter and then just seeing how the game unfolds from there.

Starting with the fellas gives Moore a bit of cover for his un-spectacular skillset. He would not have to be stellar or game-changing if he’s sharing the ball with Booker and working his way into spot-ups.

While Moore is the X-factor in terms of filling in for some of Chris Paul’s minutes, the real true X-factor will be the play of All-Star Devin Booker. Without Paul running the show, both Payne and Moore will play more off-ball than on-ball because of Booker’s ability to run the team. He will have to manage his turnover issues (3.1/game, highest on the team) and control his foul count (2.7/game, second highest on the team).

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