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The Phoenix Suns didn’t play their finest game in Wednesday night’s season opener, and neither did their most-heralded new pieces from the offseason.
Chris Paul finished with just 8 points, 5 assists, 4 rebounds, 2 steals and 3 turnovers, shooting 3-for-9 from the floor, 0-for-2 from downtown and posting a minus-10 overall. Jae Crowder’s first and only field goal didn’t come until there were five minutes left in the fourth quarter, and rookie Jalen Smith predictably struggled at times to adjust to the NBA game.
However, even on a rough night for CP3, when the Dallas Mavericks threatened to turn a game that had been all-Phoenix into an unlikely road win, the Suns’ star backcourt rose to the occasion.
“I guess that’s just life in the NBA, where guys just step up and make tough shots and you’ve just got to weather that,” Cameron Johnson said. “So I think we did a good job of that, and then we came back on the flip side and made plays to seal the game.”
It wasn’t always pretty. Booker and Paul combined for 11 turnovers (with Book committing eight himself), and the Suns’ star shooting guard was having himself a fourth quarter to forget until the closing minutes. In that final period, Book had coughed the ball up twice, committed two fouls, gone 0-for-2 from the floor and even missed one of two free-throw attempts, which may not sound like much but speaks volumes about the struggles he was having as a guy who shot 91.9 percent from the charity stripe last season.
Paul was having a forgettable night as well, but as the Mavs were in the middle of a 12-5 surge that chopped Phoenix’s lead down to two points, CP3 showed exactly why the Suns got him, picking off a Josh Richardson pass and taking it back down the court to draw a foul for two easy free throws.
When the Mavs once again closed the gap, Paul’s clutch pull-up jumper off a pick-and-roll with Deandre Ayton put the Suns back up by three points with 1:20 to go.
“It’s huge, because most times, I’ve been on the opposite end where he makes a big play and you’re trying to find a way to get back into the game, but to see that on our side, that’s huge,” Langston Galloway said. “That’s something that you learn over time and being through so many different battles, so it’s something that, being a veteran in this league, CP really brings that to our team, and it kinda goes out through the rest of the team and we just feed off his energy.”
Following CP3’s lead, Booker — who finished with 22 points on 8-of-15 shooting — hit the kind of shot he’s been hitting his entire career in Phoenix (when the Suns were actually good enough to be in close games, that is). Book’s jumper gave Phoenix a five-point lead with 40.6 seconds left, effectively icing the game and proving that the clutch gene has a short memory.
“I’ve said it before, I like guys who are willing to take shots, and we’ve got a few guys that will take those shots, but Book and CP have been in those situations before,” head coach Monty Williams said after the Suns held on for a 106-102 win. “So I’m just grateful that those guys were able to make plays when we needed. It wasn’t a play schematically, it was just those guys making plays.”
Take a closer look, and Monty appears to be right: Booker’s dagger was set up by a simple pick-and-roll with Paul, allowing Book to get the mismatch he wanted on Jalen Brunson and go to work in the mid-range.
And therein lies the beauty of Phoenix’s crunch-time offense: How do opponents stop not one, but two ice-cold killers who can get their shot off at any time in the mid-range, where they’re both lethal?
In the clip linked above, you’ll notice the Mavs defense hesitate to send anyone over to double-team Booker after he catches the ball. Why? Well, aside from Booker’s shot falling off after the first quarter, it’s because Paul is spreading the floor right in the vicinity, as are reliable shooters in Mikal Bridges and Cameron Johnson in the corners. Meanwhile, Deandre Ayton’s gravitational pull near the rim further discourages doubles from any direction.
“We have guys who are talented enough to get their own shot and create for others, and you’ve just gotta be ready,” Bridges said.
Bridges had 18 points on 4-of-7 shooting from downtown in the Suns’ season opener. Cam Johnson 15 points off the bench, going 5-for-9 from the field. And although Crowder only went 1-for-6 from the floor, his five 3-point attempts were all good looks. There will be wide-open shots for teammates, and that’s a dangerous prospect for a team that already has Paul and Booker to rely on for big buckets late in games.
After all, just last season Paul led the NBA in scoring during crunch-time minutes, which NBA.com defines as five or fewer minutes remaining in a game where the score is within five points. CP3 scored 150 points in 168 crunch-time minutes. His new teammate, Devin Booker, was not far behind, ranking 11th in the league with 106 points in 113 crunch-time minutes.
Booker and CP3 are the only teammates anywhere near the top 15 crunch-time scorers from last year, and the danger lies in their ability to create off the bounce in the mid-range.
Last season, Paul attempted 9.4 pull-up field goals per game (eighth-most in the NBA) and posted an effective field goal percentage of 54.4 percent on those looks, per NBA.com. Booker took 9.2 pull-up jumpers per game, boasting an effective field goal percentage of 48.1. Considering Paul shot a career-high 52 percent from the mid-range last season, and has topped the 45 percent mark 13 times in his 15-year career, it’s safe to say he’s elite from that area of the floor.
What’s scary is Booker is not far behind, hitting 45.6 percent of his mid-range looks last year and hitting a career-high 48.9 percent of such shots the season prior.
So when you mix dual mid-range threats, ball-handlers and facilitators with complementary shooters, versatile lineups and a coach who knows when to trust his star players to make plays, that could result in a very dangerous crunch-time unit.
“Well it’s one game, I don’t want to make any declarations about this team, but we’ve shown since I’ve been here and have brought in guys that we feel like are resilient,” Williams said. “There’s a resiliency about our group to just stay the course, so that’s something that we can hang our hat on and grow from.”
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