Full disclosure: I am filled with guilt this Saturday morning on March 5.
During their comeback win against the New York Knicks without either All-Star, I gave up on the Phoenix Suns entering the fourth quarter and turned off the game.
To be absolutely transparent, it was a rough mental day for me, and I was worried that a double-digit deficit could go even further down the drain which would do me no good.
I gave up on our Suns, and I will never make that mistake again. No matter who is or isn’t playing.
But on Saturday, I woke up and I started my morning how I start most Saturday mornings; turning on the YouTube app on my TV. First thing I saw was the following video recommended to me, and when I saw in the title “Suns beat the Knicks”, the guilt started setting in:
I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m an emotional Suns fan at times. When I heard Johnson say: “Makes me happy to be a Sun today, proud to be a part of this team”, I knew I had messed up, and the waterworks started thanks to a mixture of love, appreciation, and guilt.
So I went back and watched the whole fourth quarter — which I should’ve watched live — and couldn’t be anything but impressed with Johnson, who finished the final frame with 21 points, including the game-winner banked in at the buzzer.
Let’s go back to that scuffle late in the third quarter. Knicks built up a nice double-digit lead by this point with Julius Randle leading the way at 24 points on 18 shots in 28 minutes.
Randle decided this was a good time to throw that good performance out the window, in order to get at Johnson again, who Randle had already given several hard — and dirty, if you ask me — shoulders to the chest area.
Johnson at this point was having a decent night by his standards: 14 points through almost three quarters. But for the under-15 minutes that remained, Johnson turned things up a few notches.
He was flat-out unguardable for a lot of this final frame. The way head coach Monty Williams schemed up open shots for him through off-ball relocation was gorgeous, and I hope they continue to lean heavily on that going into this final stretch of regular season ball (19 games) and into the playoffs even as Chris Paul and Devin Booker make their returns.
Not only did Johnson finish the quarter with 21 points, but he did it on just 8 shot attempts, blowing away any notion of efficiency from his star counterpart (ESPN’s words, not mine) with the Knicks, Randle, who as I mentioned earlier took 18 shots to get to his 24.
In total, Johnson’s career-high 38 came on just 16 shots and in just 28 minutes, including nine three-pointers tying the franchise record. Per @co_dhunt, he’s the first Sun not named Booker to reach 38 points since Kelly Oubre Jr. over two years ago.
Related: Mark Schindler of Basketball News did a great profile on Johnson’s leap recently as well, and you can read that here.
My guilt would grow if I was unable to mention the other guys who stepped up in a big way tonight as well:
- Cam Payne had a career-high 16 assists in his 32 minutes; his previous career-high was 10.
- Mikal Bridges — who was the first to check on Johnson after the initial hard blow to the chest in the first quarter — finished with 20 points on just 11 shots.
- Jae Crowder made some huge plays when he needed to, including a four-point play and a three to take the lead with 0:30 left, and finished with 14 points and a team-leading 7 rebounds.
But this isn’t a one-game thing for Johnson.
- He’s now reached 20-plus points in four of the five games since the break (Suns are 3-1 in those games)
- While the playmaking wasn’t a huge part of his game against the Knicks, he’s reached 4-plus assists in three of the five games, and he’s shooting 58.5% on — and here’s the important part for me — 8.2 attempts from three per game
- All while playing under 30 minutes per game since the break.
- After last night’s incredibly high usage-rate of 31.7 — which would sandwich him between Donovan Mitchell and Devin Booker if it were a season total — his usage since the break is up to 21.96.
Even dating back to some real creation flashes back in the Finals, Johnson is throwing a pie in the faces of all the non-believers with his unheard of trajectory for a 26-year old, as well as in my face for the non-believers when the Suns face a 14-point fourth quarter deficit.
(No, we will not be accepting contract questions at this time regarding Johnson’s extension eligibility this upcoming summer, but know that things may get ugly as a result of a good problem to have)