PHOENIX – Even before Devin Booker set his feet and swished the go-ahead 3-pointer that beat the Dallas Mavericks Monday night, Phoenix Suns guard Chris Paul had “all the confidence in the world” the shot was going in.
Separated in age by 11 years and teammates for just 16 games, Paul has quickly gained trust in Booker’s abilities. The pair have daily shooting games with forward Jae Crowder and guard Cameron Payne, where Paul has noticed Booker has “the same looking shot” each time, much like Golden State Warriors guard Klay Thompson.
As competitors, Paul said he and Booker push each other, a level of accountability that stems throughout Phoenix’s locker room. As an All-Star who is looking to lead his team to the playoffs for the first time, Booker said he has been “a sponge” around Paul, absorbing what he can from one of the most established players in the NBA.
Ultimately, Paul’s ability to relay his experience will be key to Phoenix’s quest to make the postseason and change the tone of its franchise from the last decade. That has been evident during the Suns’ last four contests, as they responded from a three-game losing streak with a blowout win over the Golden State Warriors and consecutive road victories over the Dallas Mavericks.
Paul’s Suns currently rank sixth in the Western Conference with an 11-9 record, the franchise’s best start since the 2014-15 season.
“I’m learning from him every day,” Booker said. “He’s been in every situation that I want to get to, so I have the cheat code of being alongside him, his backcourt mate.”
With Booker sidelined for four games from Jan. 23 to Jan. 30 due to a left hamstring strain, Paul took charge of Phoenix’s offense, averaging 23.8 points, 8.5 assists and 5.0 rebounds on 18 shots per game. He recorded a season-high 34 points on 14-of-20 shooting with nine rebounds and nine assists against Dallas Monday night, consistently exploiting its pick-and-roll defense with his mid-range jumpshot.
Chris Paul, making it look easy.
— Trevor Booth (@TrevorMBooth) February 2, 2021
Even at 35 years old and in his 16th NBA season, Paul said he felt fresh while competing in games that rapidly swung his emotions.
“I was telling the guys in the locker room, ‘I don’t know if I can ever retire,’” Paul said Monday. “Because the emotional roller-coaster you go on during a game, like – for real, for real – there’s no high like that. The energy. When you’re pissed and mad and then the joy of winning the game.”
Paul’s energy was clearly felt by his teammates, specifically Phoenix’s bench unit. Facing double-digit second-half deficits in each of his team’s games against the Mavericks, Suns coach Monty Williams trusted that group – specifically guards E’Twaun Moore and Langston Galloway, forward Jae Crowder, who returned to the bench when Booker rejoined the team Monday, and center Frank Kaminsky – to bring them back.
The reserves helped Phoenix dig out of a 15-point hole Saturday and then an 11-point deficit Monday night, using a 9-1 run to cut the Dallas lead to 78-75 with 2:14 remaining in the quarter. The Suns trailed 82-77 heading into the final period, built a five point lead and then held on at the final buzzer after Booker’s shot.
“When we needed to make plays, we showed a level of resiliency and there was never any quit in our guys,” Williams said. “That’s what stands out to me.”
Saturday, Paul’s poise was crucial down the stretch, as he recorded two of his four steals and five of his 12 assists in the fourth quarter, including the assist on a 3-pointer from Crowder that gave Phoenix a 105-96 lead with 1:05 to play. His scoring output was a differentiating factor Monday, totaling nine of his points prior to setting Booker up for the go-ahead 3-point shot with 1.5 seconds to go.
Even while adding offensive responsibility during the four games Booker missed, Paul’s presence loomed consistently, leading the Suns to the three-game win streak that was snapped Wednesday against New Orleans.
“He controlled the game,” Crowder said following Sunday’s shootaround. “He was putting everybody in position to close the game, he was getting guys in pick-and-rolls that he wanted. He just showed you what he’s capable of doing with the ball in his hands late in games.”
Despite winning three of its last four games, Phoenix has some issues it will need to clean up before a seven-game homestand, which begins Friday against the Detroit Pistons. Its miscommunication in pick-and-roll defense led to easy looks for the Mavericks at times, and its struggles to defend in transition and on the interior limited it during its 123-101 loss to the Pelicans.
The Suns have also not performed relative to their expectations offensively, shooting 44.5 percent from the field over their last five games. They made just 8-of-35 3-point attempts against New Orleans, and forwards Cameron Johnson and Mikal Bridges combined to shoot 2-of-14 from that range.
“The shot quality was there,” Williams told reporters Wednesday. “Tonight for whatever reason, we missed so many open shots. And we knew the defense that they were going to implement, where the low-man was going to take (center Deandre) [Ayton] on the dive and you were going to have shots on the weak side. We just couldn’t make them.”
With its next seven games at home, Phoenix has a ripe opportunity to build a rhythm and improve its standing. With Paul leading the way, the Suns expressed confidence they are closer to finding the continuity they are looking for.
“Iron sharpens iron,” Booker said. “We both hold each other accountable. We both have that similar approach where we want to win at all costs. We’re not worried about hurting anybody’s feelings, our team or the other team. We’re going out there to win basketball games and whatever it takes to do that.”
Go-ahead 3 microcosm of execution
Trailing 108-106 with 10 seconds to go against Dallas Monday night, Williams drew up a baseline out-of-bounds play that targeted Booker for the final shot. The Suns inbounded the ball to Paul, who was double-teamed off a slip screen from Bridges, on the right wing, as they ran a decoy flare screen for Johnson on the opposite side.
After Johnson curled to the left corner, Booker came off a screen from Ayton that freed him enough for a good look over Mavericks guard Josh Richardson. Phoenix’s bench waved its arms in celebration after the play, as Dallas called timeout but could only get a long heave from guard Luka Doncic that missed as the buzzer sounded.
Devin Booker called game. #Suns win 109-108.
Booker finished with 24 points on 9-of-19 shooting in his first game back from a hamstring injury. Phoenix improves to 11-8. pic.twitter.com/xQIQHbRUec
— Trevor Booth (@TrevorMBooth) February 2, 2021
“I wish I was bright enough to say I came up with that play, but I’ve seen somebody else run it and it was a play that Chris has run before, so he knew the timing of it,” Williams said. “(Ayton) set an unreal screen and (Booker) came off with the intention of just getting to his spot and raising up.”
Paul, who played for Williams in New Orleans during the 2010-11 season, said he also ran the play as a member of the Los Angeles Clippers under coach Doc Rivers, often used to free New Orleans Pelicans guard JJ Redick for similar attempts.
The play carried Phoenix to the third straight win that followed a stretch in which the Suns lost four of five games from Jan. 18 to Jan. 27. However, Paul said the execution of the play represented the team’s growth.
“Me and (Williams) after the game were talking about another variation of that play, but it’s just growth for our team,” he said. “We always talk about the importance of execution, right? Executing and understanding that the game is never over.”