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Suns desperately need last year’s Cameron Payne to walk through that door for Game 5

Sure, the Suns need Booker and Chris Paul healthy, but Cam Payne has got to play better to survive the first round

2022 NBA Playoffs - Phoenix Suns v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Layne Murdoch Jr./NBAE via Getty Images

What happened to Cameron Payne?

Last year, Cameron Payne was a revelation as a steady force who the Phoenix Suns could count on as Chris Paul’s backup.

He was good in the regular season, averaging 8.3 points (including 44% three point shooting), 3.6 assists and one turnover in 18 minutes per game. He was arguably even better in the playoffs, averaging 9.3 (36%) / 3.2 / 1.2 in 19 minutes per game.

Not earth shattering, but steady and predictable.

That his role even increased a bit in the playoffs was a sure sign of his positive impact. And he had some big games too, including those four in the first round against the Lakers when Chris Paul was a one-armed shadow of himself — 15.8 (45%) / 5.8 / 1.8 in 25.8 minutes per game — that helped keep the Suns alive.

Yes, last year’s Cam Payne could be counted on to keep the train moving when one of the All-Star guards went down.

This year, however is another story and it could kill the Suns chances to go far (or at all) in these 2022 Playoffs.

After a summer in which he got a nice contract (3 years, $19 million) that looked like a bargain for the Suns, Payne has had a difficult year.

His overall numbers are great on the surface, with career highs in points (10.8), shots (10.1), assists (4.9) and rebounds (3.0) — not counting the small-sample 8-game Bubble run — while playing the second-most minutes of his career (22) per game.

But those raw stats have glossed over a season that every Suns fans knows has been the worst stretch of his Suns career, yet now counts as nearly 50% of his time in purple and orange.

First, he’s been hurt a lot. He missed two weeks (5 games) right at the beginning of the season with a hamstring injury, then another five weeks (15 games) with a wrist injury at midseason. He also missed a game with non-COVID illness and a couple at the end of the season with knee soreness. All tolled, he missed 23 games with injuries to his hamstring, wrist and knee this season.

Second, he totally changed his shot profile and lost his range. When Cam and I sat down at the beginning of the season, he said he’d been working on dusting off his midrange floater to change up the timing on defending him. He said defenses, especially the Bucks in the Finals, got too comfortable knowing he would only be taking threes or driving for layups.

Unfortunately, he’s now in one of the worst extended shooting slumps of a career that originally flamed out of the NBA for bad shooting before being resurrected in Phoenix.

His 40.9% field goal percentage is second-worst of his 7-year career, and 33.6% on threes is third-worst. Those worse years were marred by mid-season trades. He’s never shot this bad for a team he was with all season.

To top it off, he’s getting even worse at playoff time. With Devin Booker sidelined to hamstring injury, Cam Payne’s minutes have become full on nightmare.

In four playoff games, he’s making only 29% of his shots, including 0.0% on threes, and dishing only 1.25 assists while taking 6.8 shots per game in only 16 minutes of time.

So many red flags in one sentence!

  • 29% on FGs is second-lowest on the team, just ahead of Torrey Craig’s 28%
  • 0% on 3s is lowest on the team yet his 12 attempts are 5th, ahead of common lineup mates Landry Shamet, Mikal Bridges and Torrey Craig
  • 1.25 assists per game ranks 6th on the team despite being the team’s secondary playmaker
  • 6.8 shots per game is 7th on the team, ahead of JaVale McGee (95%) and Landry Shamet (46%) — you know, the guys he’s supposed to be passing to

We should also mention:

  • 3 total rebounds in 4 games, fewest of all regular rotation players, for a team that’s getting killed on the boards
  • 6 turnovers in 4 games, most on the entire team
  • 11 personal fouls committed, fifth-most on the team

And the coup-de-gras, one of the reasons the Suns are staring at a 2-2 tie against the 8th-seeded Pelicans:

  • 64 minutes played, 7th on the team and just one minute behind Devin Booker, who got hurt in Game 2.

Since Booker got hurt, he’s 6th in minutes played! Though, because his minutes have dropped to 16 per game from 22, that’s about 20 fewer total minutes than he would have played if this were the regular season.

Unfortunately, the Suns have few options if they want to go even further away from Cam Payne than they already have.

So far, Monty Williams has given most of Booker’s (and now Payne’s) lost minutes to Cameron Johnson and Landry Shamet, neither of whom is great at ball handling against the New Orleans Pelicans new-found intense pressure the full 94 feet or playmaking in the half court.

Payne’s primary ball-handling backup is Elfrid Payton. Guess who’s one player I would never put ahead of Cam Payne, no matter how bad he plays? You guessed it. Leave Elf on the shelf.

The other option is mid-season pick up Aaron Holiday. Holiday is undersized and not really a playmaker, per se, but he might be interesting opposite the Pelicans’ tiny backups Devonte Graham and Jose Alvarado. Holiday’s best features — all-out effort, defensive doggedness and okay deep shooting (he’s 1-for-1 this series!) — sound a lot like those Pelicans guys who’ve been wearing down Payne and Chris Paul.

No matter what, the Suns need more.

If Payne can’t deliver in the first half of Game 5, don’t be surprised to see Aaron Holiday get some run in crucial second-half minutes.

For sure, Payne is not the Suns only problem in this series.

Getting killed on threes

Five shoot-first rotation players — Shamet, Craig, Bridges, Crowder and Payne — have combined to make only 6 threes this whole series or, if you like decimals, 1.5 per game against the Pelicans after averaging a combined 7.4 per game this season.

As a team in this series, the Suns are shooting 15.4% on tight threes (closest defender 2-4 feet away), 25.6% on open threes (closest defender 4-6 feet away), and 35% on wide open threes (closest defender 6+ feet away). Their ranks, among the 16 playoff teams: 15th, 15th and 11th.

Conversely, the Pelicans are shooting 41.7% (2nd), 45.7% (2nd) and 34% (12th), respectively. They are absolutely thriving on contested threes.

This is, of course, a complete reversal from the regular season where the Suns ranked near the top on all three and the Pelicans at or near the bottom.

Rebounds, what are rebounds?

The Suns are also just pulling down 35.5 rebounds per game this series after averaging 45 per game during the regular season. They are losing the rebounding battle by 12 per game against the Pels after averaging a ‘win’ on that stat by +0.3 per game in the regular season over all 82 games.

The Pels are a tough matchup after having out-boarded the Suns by 9 per game in 4 regular season games. I’m just pointing out the Suns are even worse than expected.

The list goes on.

And so does the series. Here’s hoping the Suns see some improvement from Cam Payne, or the three point shooting, or the rebounding... or, heavens to betsy, all three in Game 5.

Game 5 will be played on Tuesday night, back in the friendly and raucous home court of Footprint Center.

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