Prior to the start of Wednesday night’s game against the Minnesota Timberwolves we learned that Chris Paul would spend his time not on the court, but in street clothes on the bench. The injury he suffered against the Philadelphia 76ers – soreness in his right heel – negated his availability for the game. This meant that Cameron Payne would get the start against the Wolves.
Payne has been more than a pleasant surprise. Thus far this season, he’s reengaged, refocused, and once again utilizing his speed and quickness to be a productive backup point guard. When you look at his scoring average relative to other backup guards in the league (those who have played at least five games in that role), Payne is 18th at 9.5 points per game. He is 22nd in plus/minus at +13.
Entering the season, the performance of Payne was one of my primary concerns. Did he still have it? Were the Orlando Bubble and 2021 postseason run an aberration? Or was it sustainable? I am happy to eat some crow, and I’ll even eat the feathers and the eyes. But not the beak or the feet. That’s just gross.
The Phoenix Suns have been successful thus far this season with Chris Paul at the helm, despite his career low in scoring (9.5 points). The team is 7-3 with him in the lineup, but the method of attacking to opposition is much slower and methodical.
Entering their game against Minnesota, the Suns played with the 29th overall pace in the NBA, averaging 96.2 possessions-per-48 minutes.
One thing that has made the team successful through their first 10 games was the way that, when Cameron Payne entered the game, that pace changed. Chris Paul plays with a pace of 97.9 possessions-per-48. It is a deliberate and disciplined mode of basketball.
Then Cam Payne enters the game. You don’t necessarily want your back a point guard to play the same exact style as your starting point guard. If that is the case, the opposition can institute a defensive game plan that lasts the duration of an entire game. Think back to the Steve Nash and Leandro Barbosa combination. What made that duo successful was the style in which Steve Nash played which was complemented by Leandro Barbosa’s speed and quickness. Sound familiar?
That is what the Suns have been attempting to do with Chris Paul and Cameron Payne for the past three seasons. Last season it wasn’t necessarily successful, because Cameron Payne found himself oft injured and, seeing as it was lower extremity issues, he lacked the speed and quickness that had the season prior. This equated to a player who lacked confidence, had a career high in turnovers, and a substantial drop off in three-point shooting percentage.
In his appearance off of the bench this season, Payne has played with a pace of 100.2. Take that, defense!
The pace in which Phoenix played vastly improved with Cameron Payne at the helm on Wednesday night. The ball was popping, and after every turnover or Minnesota made a field goal, the ball was coming out of bounds with fury, and being pushed up the court aggressively. Not every possession was a fast break – this wasn’t a Seven or Seconds or Less Suns, shooting with 20 seconds left on the shot clock – but when you push push the pace in the manner that Cameron Payne did, forcing the ball up court quickly, it forces the defenders to get back and play on their heels.
"Oh it was huge."— Duane Rankin (@DuaneRankin) November 10, 2022
Cameron Payne on playing with pace as he finished with a season-high 23 points and zero turnovers in 35 minutes . pic.twitter.com/anal9e9zcw
Devin Booker and Mikal Bridges took advantage of this fact. If the matchup was right, they would cut to the cylinder and execute at the rim. If the defense got back, Phoenix ran their offense, many times implementing Point Booker. But due to their awareness to play at a high pace, which is what Minnesota likes to do (they are third in the league and pace of play at 102.6), they put themselves and plus matchups and exploited them.
The other pleasant surprise was the lack of turnovers from Cameron Payne. Thus far this season, he had an assist to turnover ratio of 1.6. Not necessarily pretty. We saw what Payne can bring as a point guard especially when he’s not turning the ball over. And I know, you could say that if any player. But Payne executed, and it was a pleasant surprise. Is it sustainable? Time will tell.
Seeing the pace of play increased was fun. Not gonna lie. I too grew up watching the 7SOL Suns, and it was exciting basketball. What Chris Paul does with this team, methodically taking apart defenses in the half quart set, it’s an enjoyable watch. It translates to clutch time ideally. Winning basketball is fun.
But seeing some fast break opportunities, seeing the ball pushed up the core at a frenetic pace, seeing schoolyard basketball was fun to watch last night.
Devin Booker and Mikal Bridges each dropped 30+ PTS to power the @Suns to the win! #WeAreTheValley@DevinBook: 32 PTS, 4 REB, 10 AST, 2 STL, 5 3PM@mikal_bridges 31 PTS, 9 REB, 5 AST, 4 STL pic.twitter.com/W7E0jKDD5Y— NBA (@NBA) November 10, 2022
The Suns finished playing at a pace of 103.5 possessions-per-48 against the Wolves. They jumped from 29th in the league to 25th as they now are at 97.8 on the year. What a difference a game makes!
What we saw on Wednesday night was promising for Payne. Does it spark a conversation about him potentially being a starting point guard in this league? Is this an overreaction to one game? 100%. After all, this was the Minnesota Timberwolves. This is a team in disarray, still trying to figure out how to unlock their team following the addition of Rudy Gobert. They have a defensive rating of 115.6, which is 15th in the league.
Sure, Cameron Payne could be a starter in the NBA, if the situation was right. Maybe as a Laker, or as a member of the Orlando Magic. We are blessed in Phoenix to have somebody of his caliber, taking the reins when Chris Paul cannot.
It will be interesting to see if his performance is sustainable based on the availability of Chris Paul. Knowing that Payne has this ability still left in his bag of tricks allows Monty Williams and the Phoenix Suns the luxury of resting Chris Paul, often and keeping him as fresh as possible for the playoffs.
It is a nice one-two punch to throw at opposing teams, keeping them on their heels defensively and thrashing their game plans. We have a long way to go in the season. I know this is only one game. But I’d rather see this version of Cameron Payne than having him turn the ball over five times to the Timberwolves.
We’ll see if Chris Paul is available for Friday night’s game against the Orlando Magic. And if not, given that the Magic are 21st in defensive rating, we could expect to see Cameron Payne running the show and fast paced basketball once again.