PHOENIX – Entering the 2022 NBA All-Star break, the Phoenix Suns had a 6 1/2 game lead over the Golden State Warriors for the top seed in the Western Conference. In a flash, both Chris Paul and Cam Johnson went down with injuries, and the No. 1 seed was in jeopardy.
However, the Suns figured out how to compensate for those injuries and won 14 of their next 18 games to secure home-court advantage and the best regular-season record in franchise history.
Nine months later, the Suns find themselves in a similar situation, missing the same two players. This time, the injuries are taking a toll.
After a 5-1 start to the 2022-23 season, injuries to Paul and Johnson have left the Suns screaming for answers. They are 4-5 since the injury bug bit with losses to Portland without its star backcourt of Damian Lillard and Anfernee Simons, and the Orlando Magic without their recent top overall pick, Paolo Banchero.
Johnson suffered a torn meniscus in his knee Nov. 4 in the Portland game, and Paul exited with an undisclosed heel injury Nov. 7 against the Philadelphia 76ers. The Suns could be without their two starters for quite some time and must find a way to play (and win).
“I feel bad for him, obviously it’s a tough thing to happen,” Suns coach Monty Williams said of Johnson. “He was trying so hard to get ready for the season, and he’s certainly important to our team. It’s a tough blow. It’s easy to say injuries are a part of the game, but it’s an unfortunate part that you wish a guy like that didn’t have to deal with.”
A torn meniscus can be a serious injury, or it can require minor repair. For Johnson, the timing couldn’t be worse. He and the Suns failed to come to an agreement on a contract extension during the offseason, and he will be a restricted free agent at the end of this season.
Based on a shorter timeline of recovery, Johnson had a partial meniscectomy – a common surgery among NBA players – in an effort to recover and return as quickly as possible.
“Within the surgical aspect, there’s two different types of surgery,” said Rajpal Brar, a doctor of physical therapy, who is not treating Johnson. “One is typically a partial meniscectomy when you trim out the damaged piece of tissue. And the other one is a meniscal repair, which is where you repair the damaged piece of tissue. But the repair is not always possible, and it depends on the specifics of the injury.”
Johnson enjoyed a career year in his new role as a starter to begin the season, averaging nearly 15 points per game while making 44 percent of his three-pointers.
With Jae Crowder still away from the team, presumably awaiting a trade, Torrey Craig moved into the starting lineup in Johnson’s place. Craig, who entered the league as an undrafted free agent, has never been a big-minutes player in his five NBA seasons. He averaged a career-high 20.5 minutes per game last season in 78 games he played with the Indiana Pacers and the Suns.
This season, Craig was averaging just 14 minutes a game off the bench before Johnson went down. He is averaging nearly 27 minutes a night since moving into the starting lineup.
Craig is regarded as a high-energy player and strong defender, but he is not nearly the same scorer or shooter as Johnson and is hitting only a third of his 3-point attempts and has scored in double digits only once.
Despite his injury, Johnson is remaining positive knowing that he will return this season. So are his teammates.
“He seems great. I saw him today (and) he seems in great spirits,” Suns forward Mikal Bridges said last Wednesday. “He’s been through surgery before, so I think that’s been helping him out with the whole process. But he’s been great.”
The Suns have been less transparent about Paul’s situation.
Like last season, Cameron Payne has stepped up to the plate to fill in during Paul’s absence. Payne struggled for stretches last season, but he has excelled with Paul out this season, averaging 19 points and six assists. However, it has not led to positive results in the win-loss column.
The Suns won their first game without their two stars at Minnesota but lost back-to-back games to Orlando and Miami to close out a four-game road trip. Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges and Payne stepped up to combine for 79 points in a 130-119 win over the defending champion Golden State Warriors on Nov. 16. Then two days later the Suns dropped their fifth game in November before recovering Sunday to rout the Knicks, 116-95.
The Suns sit in second place, behind the Utah Jazz, in the Western Conference standings with a 10-6 mark going into Tuesday night’s game against the Los Angeles Lakers at the Footprint Center. The Lakers are on a three-game winning streak despite playing their last three games without LeBron James, who is out with an adductor strain. He has also been ruled out for the Suns game.
Even before their injuries, the Suns were struggling to get to the free-throw line. They rank 25th in the league in free-throw attempts per game on the season.
With Paul in the lineup, Phoenix averaged 23 shots at the charity stripe. Since his absence, the Suns have managed only 17 attempts. The team’s four free-throw attempts in the loss to Miami tied the second-lowest total in franchise history.
Paul and Johnson combined to average nearly five free throw attempts per game this season, but Paul’s ability to get to the line in late-game situations is sorely missed.
“When you look at the stat sheet, when you look at situations like that where we only end up with four free throws for the game, that is hard to swallow,” Williams said after the Miami loss.