As the playoffs approach, the Phoenix Suns are doing their best to be healthy and conditioned for what they hope is a long playoff run.
Especially during the playoffs, the best ability is availability.
The Clippers are starting to get healthier (Paul George had 34 point in his winning return on Tuesday night), Anthony Davis is targeting his return this week for the reeling Lakers, the Nuggets hope to get Michael Porter Jr. back soon and the Grizzlies hope Ja Morant’s knee starts feeling better.
Meanwhile, the Suns have the top seed in the West locked up, are relatively healthy now, and would love to get through these final seven games over the next two weeks intact.
The problem is competing priorities: there’s tendency to sit players out as a protection against fluke injury, or play them fewer minutes to keep them fresher, but there’s a downside to that.
“The one thing we don’t want to do is de-condition,” Suns head coach Monty Williams said after practice on Tuesday. “We’re trying to strike a balance, not quite sure if we’re going to get that achieved.”
The players want to play. As Deandre Ayton said so colorfully the other day, they’ve all already gotten ‘time off’ this season due to injuries and COVID and they’re ready now to just play all out.
Four of the five starters and the three top bench players have each missed at least three weeks this season. Chris Paul (thumb) just returned from missing five weeks, and chuckled at the thought of a minutes-restriction while he gets back into game shape.
“I’m just grateful that our guys love to play,” Williams said. “I’ll have conversations with a few of them to make sure that we’re doing the right things by them and by us. But I don’t think there’s a right answer, for sure.”
The only player still out is Cameron Johnson, who hasn’t played since scoring 38 points and hitting the game-winner for the Suns against the Knicks almost four weeks ago. In that game, he suffered a deeply bruised thigh from Mitchell Robinson’s knee on a drive to the hoop.
Johnson is the league leader in three-point shooting (44.8%) and is averaging a career high in minutes (26.3), points (12.8), rebounds (4.1) and assists (1.5) per game this season.
Finally, Johnson returned to practice on Tuesday and has been upgraded to ‘doubtful’ on the injury report for tonight’s game. He almost certainly won’t play against the Warriors, but could be back sooner than later.
“He’s doing better,” Williams said after practice. “He’s progressing, in a good place. We’re hopeful to see him in the next week.”
“I’m getting there,” said Cameron Johnson himself. “Just trying to move and gain some comfort with moving. Cardio and comfort with movement, trying to gain a little flow with that.”
Tuesday’s practice was Johnson’s first with the team since sustaining the injury, so how he feels today will be a big indicator of his readiness to return to action.
“It’s gonna be a gradual building process,” Johnson said.
Monty Williams is excited to have his full rotation available soon. You might be surprised to know that the Suns projected playoff rotation — including Torrey Craig, who was acquired at the trade deadline just as Chris Paul suffered the thumb injury — has never even suited up yet this season as a full group.
“I think we want to try to get a few games with the whole team,” Williams said of Cam Johnson’s return. “We haven’t had that. With the inclusion of Torrey, it’s been in and out. If we can get Cam back, we have a chance to get our normal rotation together and that would be a good thing.”
On the subject of players scaling back their minutes per game, Williams has other ideas. He does not want players to get out of shape by playing lesser minutes only to play them a ton more minutes when the games really matter in the playoffs.
Chris Paul, at 37 years old, has only played two games in the past six weeks. No matter how much you run on a treadmill or play pickup, nothing matches the actual adrenaline and effort involved in a live game.
“I think he’s (Chris Paul) still building the capacity to play in the mid-30s,” Williams said of Paul’s minutes. “You have to build the capacity to go past that, in case you have one of those games where he and [Devin Booker] and [Mikal Bridges], who are pretty much our high-minute guys, and even [Deandre Ayton], building those guys up to where they can play high 30s and maybe even 40s. Not that you would do that consistently, but I think you have to build towards that.”
Last year, Chris Paul, Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton all saw big increases in their playing time in the playoffs. Book jumped from 32 minutes per game in the regular season to 40 per game in the playoffs while DA jumped from 30 to 36 per game and Chris Paul jumped from 31 to 36 per game as the Suns made it all the way to the NBA Finals.
This year, they don’t want to come up short again, so they’re all planning on doing whatever it takes to walk off the court in that final game with a win.
When you suddenly extend your minutes, you run the risk playing tired at the exact time you can’t afford to be tired: late in the fourth quarter of an important game.
There’s the dilemma Monty and his staff have been wrestling with. Williams said the other day that he asked each of his staff what they would do, and got four or five different answers. There’s no one proven way to be in optimal condition for the playoffs.
In the meantime, they have one or two more big hurdles to clear: (1) setting the franchise record for wins in a season; they have 61 right now and need two more to set that record and (2) to beat two big Western Conference rivals who beat the Suns the last time they played: the Warriors and Grizzlies.
“I do believe that this team wants to be the new standard, as it relates to Suns basketball, and they have an opportunity to do that,” Williams said of what’s still motivating the Suns after clinching the playoffs’ top seed. “But you can’t skip steps.”
The Suns, riding an eight-game winning streak, play the Warriors (currently 3rd in West) tonight and the Grizzlies (currently 2nd in West) on Friday. Before the season is out, they will also play the Clippers (currently 8th) and Jazz (currently 5th).
Check out our preview of Suns-Warriors here.