For the third mid-week game in a row, the Phoenix Suns defeated a potential playoffs opponent on national TV. This time their victim was the Minnesota Timberwolves, who are trying to turn the NBA on its head with a twin towers lineup of All-NBA centers, Rudy Gobert and Karl-Anthony Towns.
Now the Suns are riding a five-game winning streak — with Ws over expected playoff hopefuls Mavericks, Warriors, Pelicans, Wolves and Clippers — and are once again at the top of the Western Conference. Quite frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised to see these guys lead the West for a long time to come. I’ve detailed how they’re doing it a bit differently this season, but the main players and the bottom line are the same.
Yes, yes, I know it’s early. But anyone watching this team knows this regular season is no more an obstacle this year than either of the last two years. What they’re doing is trying to set themselves up for a better playoffs, where they’ve been knocked out twice due to over-reliance on Booker and Paul.
That doesn’t mean to take the ball out of Booker and Paul’s hands. It just means other players finishing more plays — so far, mostly at the expense of the 37-year old Paul whose Usage Rate (possessions he ends with a shot attempt, free throw or turnover) but also a little bit at the expense of Booker too.
All of Deandre Ayton (26.5), Mikal Bridges (14.9) and Cameron Johnson (18.2) are delivering career-highs in Usage Rate through seven games, while Paul is at a career low (16.7) and MVP-candidate Booker (30.2) is a tick below his last two years.
Of course, everybody can’t have great games all the time. Ayton (out with sprained ankle at the moment) has had a few big games. Bridges had his big one last Friday, and now on Tuesday night it was the unleashing of Cameron Johnson.
Johnson posted the second-best offensive game of his career, with season highs in points (29), shot attempts (17), makes (10), three-point attempts (11) and three-point makes (7). That was after setting previous season highs in those categories the game before, against the Rockets.
“I just think he is getting more comfortable with the role,” head coach Monty Williams says of Johnson, who moved up to the starting lineup this year.
“I’m excited for him,” Bridges said of his self-proclaimed ‘twin’. “Every time he shoots, I feel like it’s going to go in.”
Johnson was good on the defensive end too, holding up well against the bigger Karl-Anthony Towns in the paint (remember when he used to bounce off guys who hit him in the chest?), while staying out of foul trouble (1) and notching three steals and a block.
“I thought Cam did a really good job of fighting him to getting him out of his sweet spot,” Williams said. “And then the team defense around him made it tough for Karl to see the basket.”
“I think the biggest thing for him,” Bridges said of Johnson. “Is his defense got so much better. He’s taking a lot of pride, and not going sad. He’s locking up, being tough and physical. He’s been hooping.”
In the past, Johnson would let it get to him when a bigger opponent used physicality against him. This year, he’s being played against bigger guys most of the time, as the de facto power forward in the Suns scheme, and he’s doing quite well at it.
“It feels pretty good,” Johnson of meeting those challenges better this year. “It’s a challenge I enjoy taking on.”
The Suns want Johnson to be that guy who shoots with abandon. Any sliver of an opening and the ball should be on the way to the basket. Too often, Cam hesitates if he feels like he’s taking too many. On Tuesday, Johnson missed his first two shot attempts and passed up a third one, only to spark the ire of his team and coach.
“After the second part of the first quarter, we were like, ‘dude, GO’,” Williams said, of wanting Cam to shoot on every catch he’s open. “Everybody was telling him to shoot the ball and then he got going a little bit tonight.”
“I’m happy he saw the ball go through the net a thousand times today,” Bridges said. “That’s definitely going to be good for him and our team.”
Johnson had the fortune of being defended by Towns, who’s playing their power forward position despite having few perimeter defensive abilities. Towns especially has trouble tracking three-point shooters around screens and contesting their shots off the catch. So that was the Suns game plan, making Cam their most frequent non-Book shooter. 29 points, including 10 threes later, the Suns had an easy win.
“We just want him to play free and that’s what we saw tonight,” Williams said.