With the window rolled down, Cameron Payne had one hand on the steering wheel of his red Ferrari, throwing the other in the air while singing a rap song on his car radio as the Phoenix Suns celebrated their berth to the 2021 NBA Finals as the team drove by fans in their return to the airport.
Cam Payne bopping and signing a jersey for a fan pic.twitter.com/oOXSpC2a4a— Trevor Booth (@TrevorMBooth) July 1, 2021
It was a peak moment of life for Payne, who bounced in-and-out of the NBA to that point and finally found a home with the Suns. He was a key part of their run to the championship round that season and had fans gushing over his one-handed floaters, finger rolls and other key moves that propelled the Suns to that point.
Since that point, however, Payne’s confidence has seemingly lowered on the floor. The Suns’ backup point guard averaged a career-best in assists (4.9) during the 2021-22 regular season but struggled in the playoffs, averaging 4.2 points on 29.7 percent from the field. Payne’s struggles were a microcosm of the Suns’ as a whole and part of the reason why they did not reach championship expectations after a franchise-best 64 wins in the regular season.
Payne’s performance in the Suns’ 116-113 win over the Orlando Magic Thursday night at Footprint Center was more indicative of the man we all know by his former Instagram name: ‘Smooth CP.’
Payne was second on Phoenix’s team in scoring (18 points) as he shot 7-of-12 from the field and 3-of-5 from 3-point range. Payne, who might be the energizer bunny of the Suns’ team with his pregame handshakes and mannerisms, found his groove on the court finally, which is to no fault of his own this season.
CAM PAYNE.— Bally Sports Arizona (@BALLYSPORTSAZ) March 17, 2023
4-POINT PLAY! pic.twitter.com/eKaW6DCseb
Payne returned from a foot sprain multiple weeks ago and had a performance similar to those that earned him a three-year, $19 million contract with the team in free agency two summers ago.
“He’s starting to get back to the Cam Payne that we all know and love and appreciate and it takes guys a while,” Suns coach Monty Williams said. “He’s had some nagging injuries this season and when you take that time off, sometimes it takes you a minute to get going again especially playing the point guard position. He’s starting to score the ball and pass, his interior passing has started to pick up and I thought he had a really nice find to (backup forward) Ish (Wainright) in the corner, making a read, his speed and his juice. I think it elevates our team.”
Payne’s performances in the 2021 playoffs were key, especially as Suns starting point guard Chris Paul battled a shoulder injury and later had two missed games in the 2021 Western Conference Finals due to health and safety protocol.
The Suns’ backup point guard role is perceived to be one of its weakest entering the postseason, in which it will be favored to win the Western Conference with Kevin Durant expected to be available. Durant is out for at least a week-plus due to an ankle sprain suffered in what was anticipated to be his home debut last Wednesday against the Oklahoma City Thunder, which ended up as a 132-101 win for the Suns.
Paul has battled injuries in the past during the postseason, and it is conceivable to think at age 37 he could have some issues in the future. Payne, a jovial and lively 28-year-old, could be relied on for heavy minutes if that happens.
Thursday’s win was a positive sign for Payne and the Suns moving forward. If they are going to reach the championship round again, they’ll need ‘Smooth CP’ at his smoothest.