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Stephen’s Study: Paul, Lee shine bright in Suns win over Lakers

The Phoenix Suns seemingly finding their stride as Christmas approaches

NBA: Los Angeles Lakers at Phoenix Suns Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Missing playmakers Devin Booker as well as Cameron Payne, this game, albeit against a severely underhanded Los Angeles Lakers squad, could’ve been a “trap game” of sorts for the Phoenix Suns if the standard wasn't upheld.

That would not be the case as, behind multiple individual efforts, including a strong punch from the starters, the Suns would garner a solid win, maintaining their sustained advantage over the Lakers. They haven’t lost a game to the Lake Show since the mocking postup in the 2021 playoffs, across playoffs, preseason and regular season.

The latest win was a 130-104 pasting of the Lakers on Monday night.

Lakers head coach Darvin Ham had some high praise for the banged-up Suns, saying “Without Devin Booker, Cam Johnson, their other pieces, Cam Payne, they are still a formidable ball club with CP3 (Chris Paul), (Deandre) Ayton and (Mikal) Bridges out there along with their role guys... They are just solid. That’s a well-oiled machine out there and my hat’s off to them. They took care of business tonight.”

1.) Prolific Paul?

Chris Paul certainly looked like his All-Star self again last night. The first step was solid. Patented deceleration, change of pace, and change of direction were on display. The middy was falling. His balance on his shot felt more stable, in alignment with his typical. He was in great flow, for the games entirety.

He even reprised his early-fourth scoring prowess, dropping 12 of his 28 in the first half of the fourth to close things out. He did so on five-of-eight shooting, and two-for-two from deep.

“I knew we was without Book,” Paul said afterward, when asked about his season high in scoring. “I mean I had a guy on my team score 58 last game. What you think I am going to do? It is a balance, trying to figure out when to be aggressive, when to find other guys. My instinct is to find other guys because I know I can get a shot whenever.”

“I was just happy to see him aggressive and taking shots,” head coach Monty Williams said after the game. “Everybody on the team, we all tell Chris to shoot the ball. It’s like the most unbelievable thing ever having to tell a Hall of Fame player to shoot, which is mindboggling, but we need him to do that because that’s what he works on and he’s an unreal shooter and scorer.”

With Thomas Bryant and Damian Jones in drop coverage, it naturally enabled the “drop destroyer” to do what he does in maneuvering the mid-range, playing seek and destroy for his own looks or to make plays for others. What’s not understood about having a mid-range jumper is, when maneuvering inside the arc, you still remain a dual threat. That impacts the urgency of attention (or extra attention) applied, enabling a unique type of tugging of strings from the defense.

If you’re going to play drop against Paul and [insert any big man he’s played in his career with here], whoever’s navigating the pick on-ball defensively has to be able to contain or stick to Paul’s hip. If they can’t do so effectively, and he’s enabled a “clean pocket” to pass or look to score from via his pace changes or snake dribbling to freedom, it’s going to be a long night.

Lakers also threw some “ice” coverage (funneling pick-and-roll roll action towards the sideline) at him, as well as some switching. All of which, he was able to operate efficiently against.

Even more, if you add in two of his three makes from deep being enabled by Max Christie attempting to go under screens, you can see just how dialed Paul was in here.

He also had his passing and ball security catalog on full display, via passes out of pick-and-roll, advantage-creating passes as defenders would gap off of their responsibility to give hand-help on him, as well as passes to beat rotations.

Eight assists created 22 assist points, with no turnovers in his 31:29 minutes of play.

This is the optimal version of Paul (6-13 from 2 and his signature feel), with the obvious potential for more to be done on any given night, that the Suns need. He finally looks to be in a sustained rhythm while also proving he most certainly has the “enough is enough” switch in him when fourth quarters come around and he’s ready to get the game over with.

They also thoroughly won the minutes he was on the floor, finishing at a plus-18. This was the general feel and flow that has made him the “Point God” for over a decade now.

He’s now at 15.9 PPG on 42.7/42.9/81.0 shooting, with 8.3 APG, 5.3 RPG, 1.3 SPG in seven games since returning from heel soreness.

2.) Damion Lee is a Sniper

The Suns picked up Damion Lee in an ‘under the radar’ fashion over free agency, on a league-minimum deal after four years with the Champs in Golden State.

He was seen as nothing more than an experienced rotation player that’d likely see sporadic deployment in the rotation.

That has not been the case.

He’s been a stellar addition and firestarter within the rotation, as the quintessential offensive weapon to have around creators the likes of Devin Booker and Chris Paul (and Mikal Bridges when he puts his foot down as a creator).

Lee knocked down a season-high five shots from range last night.

“He spaces the floor,” Williams said. “And it allows for Chris to have space to do what he does.”

Chris Pauls says it feels so comfortable with Lee on the floor, it like he’s played with Lee for 10 years now.

A catch-and-shoot specialist, he’s at 49.6% on said attempts from deep, on 3.8 attempts per game.

He’s spent the majority of the season near the top with that efficiency, and presently ranks second in that department.

Strapped with a quick release, great feel combined with an IQ for when to shake or sink in creating both space from his defender, as well as improving the angle of a pass to him, making him the perfect weapon to stash weak side or strong side.

He’s really good with the little things and is always ready to make the next play.

“With what we are trying to do, he fits right in,” Ayton said. “Especially playing in point-five action to where the ball is just moving; whether it is a drive or holding the ball for too long. I told coach, watch him when I was subbing in. I had to whisper D-Lee (Damion Lee) is what we need for this offense; he fits in perfectly.”

Also being able to hold his own defensively one-on-one and especially as a team defender, makes him surely deployable in a potential playoff rotation without having to worry about how much he can play because of any given weakness.

He’s been a bright spot all season, and it’s been in an impressively sustained manner.

3.) Wing Production

This committee of wing players is an active, versatile bunch.

Looking specifically at who all played last night, there was Bridges (20/2/1/1), Craig (17/8/4/2), Wainright (8/5/2/2), and Okogie (3/3/1).

Torrey Craig was nearly perfect on his birthday, turning 32 that morning and draining 6 of 7 shots that night.

“Torrey Craig kills you,” Lakers head coach Darvin Ham said. “He saw the ball go in over and over again from three and he is who he is on the offensive glass.”

Excluding Bridges, who does things at the point of attack defensively that are absolutely elite, the rest of the guys are all stronger, wide-wing-spanned, ever-active bodies that unlock plenty of versatility and optionality for Monty Williams within the rotation.

In this present construct, the latter three names mentioned are the unsung heroes of this strong start the Suns have seen.

The multiple efforts defensively, activity, time on task-ability, and general method of operation from these players are a big-time driving force in addition to all that the top-end guys do on a game-to-game basis.

“It was good to see [Craig] knock down shots,” Suns head coach Monty Williams said, after joking he’d fake a lot of brith certificates if that meant a good shooting game. “But I thought his defense and his ability to crash the boards like he and Josh (Okogie), like that is huge for us and even when he doesn’t get it. It slows down the break because you got to box him out.”

Wainright sees more sporadic minute distribution, nonetheless, he still fits the bill here.

When these three are getting the job done at the same time, there’s a different energy and activity about the team that pushes the needle.

In the discourse that goes on about this roster's best players, let’s be sure to shine light on the efforts of these guys. They’re just solid at what they do as swiss army knives for this team.

Up Next: The tail end of a home back-to-back tonight will be against the Washington Wizards. They will come to the Footprint Center 0-3 on this six-game west coast road trip. They’re currently reeling, on a league-worst 10-game losing streak.

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