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Booker, Payne step up playmaking in Paul’s absence yet again

The two combined for 18 assists and 1 turnover against the Timberwolves.

NBA: Phoenix Suns at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

The injuries are seeming to pile up early for the Phoenix Suns, and Chris Paul’s right heel soreness is just the latest of the bunch. The depth in the guard rotation is being challenged, and Devin Booker and Cameron Payne are ready to answer the call.

Most memorably during the 2021 Western Conference Finals against the Los Angeles Clippers, the two have had a knack for picking up the slack when Paul misses time. That trend continued when the Suns (now 8-3) beat the Minnesota Timberwolves 129-117 on Wednesday night.

  • 2021 WCF: Booker (2 games) — 8.0 assists / 5.0 turnovers; Payne (2 games) — 9.0 assists / 0.5 turnovers
  • 2021-22 during Paul’s month-long injury recovery: Booker (10 games) — 7.0 assists / 2.8 turnovers; Payne (11) — 9.5 assists / 2.1 turnovers
  • Wednesday night vs Minnesota Timberwolves: Booker — 10 assists / 1 turnover; Payne — 8 assists / 0 turnovers

Booker got all of his assisting done in the first three quarters on a nice balanced blend of rim attempts and deep attempts. His manipulation of defenses continues to impress me beyond his initial projections in the league.

It’s always fascinating to me how when Payne starts, he kind of becomes a different player that uses more change of pace and is generally more measured with how he attacks defenses.

I also noticed Payne’s chemistry with his teammates — now nearly two and a half seasons since joining the program — his reaching an elite level, whether it’s with Mikal Bridges on cuts or shooters like Landry Shamet and Damion Lee.

It would be good for the Suns’ second unit if Payne got to spend more time with those three alongside Jock Landale. Per’s lineup finder data, that group has only played one minute together, but had a +50.0 net rating in that one minute, so there’s no reason not to explore it more thoroughly.

Overall, you can’t overstate how important it is that Booker and Payne step up in these moments, because it allows Phoenix to maintain their play style while the rotations adjust. The results were even better than usual on this particular night — 31 assists and 11 turnovers as a team, compared with their prior season averages of 27.6 and 13.7 (both top 10 in the league).

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