If any Phoenix Suns fan claimed they felt zero worry when the news dropped that Chris Paul would be re-evaluated in six-to-eight weeks with what’s being called a “right thumb aversion fracture,” they’d be lying. But I’m here to tell you that your worry should be minimal.
First and foremost, let’s remember that Phoenix built a 6.5 game cushion in the Western Conference – and the NBA – in part to provide a margin for error. And it’s not like Golden State is ripping off blowout win after blowout win right now like they were at the beginning of the season. They’re still trying to get Klay Thompson worked back into full strength.
Secondly, the Suns went long enough without a major injury that they had to feel it coming a bit. Yes, Devin Booker was out for a few weeks in December. Yes, Deandre Ayton dealt with an ankle injury in November and missed some games with COVID at the turn of the calendar. But nothing for an extended period of time. They were due and better now than in May.
And thirdly, Phoenix has the talent at the top and the depth at the bottom to handle an absence like Paul. During the fourth quarter of the final game before the break, a 124-121 win over the Rockets, Phoenix ran some lineups that flat-out made me drool, and I want to break down those lineups now.
Aaron Holiday, Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges, Cam Johnson, Torrey Craig: +11 in 7:45
Going small for this period was much to the benefit of the Suns as it really stretched the Rockets defense thin, vertically speaking. That’s why you see so many chances for Booker, Bridges, and Johnson to work out of penetration in the paint. That penetration provided avenues for not only buckets but also passing lanes, as seen here:
Having a small ball 5 also opens up actions in ways that true bigs have a hard time doing. The Suns like to run a play that David at The Four Point Play likes to call “Elbow 52”, which Craig is already familiar with thanks to his time with the squad a year ago. Phoenix got buckets out of the action twice during this stretch against Houston, including this downhill cut by Bridges:
…as well as this read-and-react variation where Johnson uses misdirection in a high-low action to pass to the cutting Craig:
Booker uses center elements during these lineups as well, like this seal under the basket on a baseline out-of-bounds play that he kicks out to Bridges for a good opportunity:
He even gets some rim protection reps, like this play where he goes straight up defending an Eric Gordon drive, eventually leading to a Bridges transition bucket:
Craig got his own defensive highlight later on, when the Rockets brought out Alperen Sengun, a rookie who projects to be one of the most well-suited bigs in the modern era down the road. Even though Sengun beats Craig off the dribble, Craig’s able to recover in time to use his length for the block:
And if there was ever a reason for Suns fans to feel better about the post-Paul era, this eurostep by Johnson was just astounding:
Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges, Cam Johnson, Torrey Craig, Deandre Ayton: -2 in 4:15
Eventually the small lineup started wearing thin from extended Holiday minutes as well as from Sengun having his way on the glass in the first couple minutes of his late-game stint, so Ayton came back in to seal the deal.
He doesn’t take long to make his presence felt either, like getting this putback after a Bridges miss:
During this stretch, it felt like a lot was going against the Suns: a few silly turnovers, shots that felt good that didn’t go, and Rockets finally getting some of their own to go, but Phoenix was still able to close the door thanks to this two-way sequence from Johnson:
…and these two Bridges buckets:
Point being, it’s not time to panic. Paul is important to this team, but he’s certainly not everything. If anything, this stretch will be good for the team to figure out more ways to win games as well as possibly build up Booker’s MVP case.