The Phoenix Suns finally won a game on Friday night, creating fourth quarter separation behind the offensive exploits of Terrence Ross and T.J. Warren, a pair of veterans added last month in a flurry of moves designed to give the Suns more scoring creativity outside of Devin Booker and Chris Paul.
On Friday and Saturday, they delivered. First, they combined for 45 points off the bench in a loss to Sacramento that Warren and Ross made closer than the Suns deserved to be. On Saturday, it was a combined 31 in a much-needed win over the 76ers.
“T.J. made a number of plays tonight on the backside and Terrence (Ross) is just going to get better and better,” Phoenix Suns head coach Monty Williams said after the win. “I’m just glad we won.”
Ross had been delivering offensively since he arrived, and now T.J. is joining the party.
No one has seen much of T.J. Warren since he went nuts in the 2020 Bubble, averaging 26.6 points and 6.3 rebounds in 10 games for the Indiana Pacers — making the All-Bubble team — a year after being traded away from the Suns for cap space used to sign Ricky Rubio.
He’d spent his first five NBA seasons in the Suns’ dark timeline — averaging 14.4 points and 4.1 rebounds per game — and left under a mutually agreed need to find a new home. He was a proven scorer, but wasn’t a great fit defensively next to Devin Booker and the Suns needed his contract space to finally get a point guard to run the show.
Tony Buckets was great in Indiana, upping his production to 19.1 points during the 2019-20 season, including the Bubble-splosion. He’d finally added a consistent three-point shot to his mid- and close-range game, and was a dark horse to make an All-Star team.
But then he suffered a stress fracture in his foot and missed nearly two years before coming back on a minimum deal this season for the Brooklyn Nets. He played sparingly for the Nets (18 minutes per game, appearing in half the games) and was a throw-in to the Kevin Durant trade as a warm body not expected to do much for either team.
Suns head coach Monty Williams barely played him for weeks, even after Kevin Durant went down with an ankle turn. He averaged just 6 minutes per game, appearing in 8 of 13 Suns games since the trade. He and Ross were just completely lost in the Suns switch-heavy, shift defense, too often leaving shooters wide open on bad rotations, when they weren’t just getting beat one-on-one in isolations.
Williams had a conundrum on his hands. Warren, Damion Lee and Terrence Ross could score a bit but couldn’t defend. Torrey Craig, Josh Okogie and Ish Wainright could defend a bit but couldn’t make a shot. Landry Shamet could do a little of both, but is the second-smallest of the seven and is just coming off a foot injury of his own.
Something had to give. Finally, T.J. Warren got a “real chance”. He’s played 19, 28 and 26 minutes in the Suns last three games, averaging 12 points and 5 rebounds off the bench. He’s still not making all the right decisions on defense, but he’s getting better each game.
“Sometimes when you go through adversity, it forces you to learn things that you wouldn’t have learned had you not gone through it,” Suns coach Monty Williams said after Saturday’s win. “As I said in pregame, I probably wouldn’t have played T.J. (Warren) this much had Kevin (Durant) not been out because we felt like we had a bit of a rhythm and a lineup that I was just used to and that may have been a bit closeminded.”
For the first two weeks of Durant’s absence, Williams went deep into the bench, playing a dozen guys a night, looking for a spark. But 5-10 minute stints weren’t enough for anyone to shine who wasn’t already comfortable in the system.
As I mentioned earlier, Warren looked lost since joining the Suns on both offense and defense. His 6-minute shifts were a disaster. At least Ross was taking and making shots when given a chance.
But Warren’s aggression returned this week, after getting a promise from Williams to give him a real chance.
“With Kevin being out and the coaches getting on me a little bit,” Williams said. “We’ve given T.J. a look and he’s producing. I’m hopeful that all of these things that we are learning through the adversity, through the injuries will pay dividends for us later on.”
Williams said before and after the game that Warren, Ross and Shamet’s minutes would be pinched when Durant came back, but that they would stay in the rotation the rest of the season ahead of those who’ve been put on the back end of the bench, including Lee and Wainright.
Even more dividends could be realized if Warren can get more consistent on defense. Imagine him being able to productively take some minutes from Craig and Okogie too, especially on nights they can’t make a shot.
Warren and Ross bring an element of creativity to the second-unit offense that’s been missing, and could help the Suns tremendously come playoff time.