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2021 NBA Finals - Milwaukee Bucks v Phoenix Suns

Suns humming without Chris Paul, but a buzzsaw looms ahead

Suns can win easy games without the Point God. Now they have to win tougher.

Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

Admit it. You were worried.

We were all at least a little bit worried that, without Chris Paul leading the show as the point god, the Phoenix Suns would fall on their faces.

The only positive memories we have with any of these players in Suns uniforms pre-Paul are:

  • a potentially unrepeatable 8-game stretch in the Orlando ‘Bubble’ in the middle of a pandemic with no fans in the stands
  • a two-game blip in the Western Conference Finals against a Kawhi-less LA Clippers

Could either of those stretches accurately predict a two-MONTH run without the Point God?

The short answer: no.

You had to be at least a little bit worried that a Paul-less Suns would struggle to win half their games the rest of this season. I even wrote about it! I wrote how, thanks to Paul, the Suns had such a lead that a mere 11-10 finish would almost guarantee holding onto the top seed in the West. That’s not me predicting a tepid finish — but it WAS me just a teensie bit worried we needed to know this information.

Lo and behold, the Suns are doing pretty well without Paul, after all.

They are 8-4 in 12 games without Paul, and a quick glance at the numbers tell us the drop-off has been surprisingly slim.

In Paul’s absence, the Suns have surprisingly improved a bit on offense, shooting lights-out all over the floor.

That’s even with their two leading Paul-less scorers — Devin Booker (27.9 ppg) and Cameron Johnson (23.4) — missing at least four of those 12.

The only regular starters to have played in all 12 Paul-less games are Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges, who have both stepped up their production of late. Ayton is posting 18.8 points on 67% shooting while grabbing 8.9 rebounds in the last 12, while Bridges is posting 17.1 points, 4.3 rebounds and 3.3 assists.

It helps that those 12 games only included four winning teams and a collective opponent win percentage of 44%. The Suns are 1-3 against winning teams (Jazz, Bucks, Heat, Raptors) without Paul versus 7-1 against losing teams.

The schedule gets much more difficult now, with 6 of the next 7 games coming against winning teams (Bulls, @Wolves, @Nuggets, Sixers, @Warriors, @Grizzlies) all by April 1 before closing out the season with only one winning team in their last five. Paul is not expected to return to the Suns lineup until April.

You can throw out the Suns season-long record against winning teams — league-best 24-10 — until Paul returns. What they are at the moment is 1-3 against winners without Chris Paul. Let’s parse it out.

  • One of the losses (Bucks) was missing Devin Booker and Cameron Johnson too
  • All three losses saw the opponent have outlier efficiency on threes
  • All three losses were ‘clutch’ losses, where the Suns had the game close in the final minutes but just couldn’t close it out

We will see over the next two weeks if a Paul-less Suns can win against playoff-level talent. He is slated to return healthy before the playoffs start in mid-April, but in the meantime it sure would be nice to know how good they can be without him.

The Suns have proven all year that they can mix and match to win games. Their preferred starting lineup — Chris Paul, Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges, Jae Crowder, Deandre Ayton — has only played 32 games together this season of a possible 70. Yet the Suns have almost the same winning percentage (30-8, 79%) without at least one starter as they do with all of them together (26-6, 81%).

Four of the Suns five starters have missed at least 10 games this year, and the Suns have won anyway:

  • 8-4 without Chris Paul, and counting
  • 8-3 without Devin Booker
  • 18-3 without Deandre Ayton
  • 8-2 without Jae Crowder

They’ve even been pretty good without 2 starters at a time:

  • 3-1 without Booker AND Paul
  • 1-1 without Booker AND Ayton
  • 4-2 without Ayton AND Crowder
  • 1-0 without Paul AND Crowder

Take a look at the mixing and matching and you’ll see only one losing record in there

  • 3-0 with Cam Johnson and Bismack Biyombo for Ayton and Crowder
  • 3-1 with Cam Johnson and Jalen Smith for Ayton and Crowder
  • 11-1 with Cam Johnson and JaVale McGee for Ayton and Crowder
  • 1-2 with Cam Johnson for Paul **Suns were missing both point guards, Paul and Payne**
  • 3-1 with Cam Payne for Paul
  • 4-1 with Landry Shamet for Booker
  • 3-1 with Payne and Shamet for Booker and Paul
  • 1-1 with Shamet and JaVale McGee for Booker and Ayton
  • 1-0 with Payne and Torrey Craig for Paul and Crowder

On Wednesday night, Torrey Craig got his first start of the year for an injured Crowder (sore groin) and just happened to throw down 21 points and 14 rebounds.

“That’s indicative of the kind of year we’ve had,” Monty Williams said. “With guys not being able to play, and somebody else stepping up.”

From CamJ to Payne to Shamet to McGee to Biyombo to Stix to Craig, the Suns have filled holes with backups who knew exactly how to perform in their role as a starter with the big boys.

Depth has been incredibly important. They added Biyombo, Craig and Aaron Holiday mid-season to help mitigate the losses of other important role players in Dario Saric, Frank Kaminsky and Abdel Nader. Every one of those players has made important plays at important times.

Over the next two weeks, we will see if these mix-and-match Suns can beat winners without Chris Paul helping them close it out.

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