PHOENIX – The Footprint Center’s sellout crowd rose to their feet with 5:45 left in the first quarter Thursday night.
Cameron Johnson had just made his return from a torn meniscus, which had kept him sidelined since Nov. 4, and it couldn’t have come at a better time.
The Phoenix Suns have limped into the new year, thanks in part to Devin Booker and Chris Paul remaining out due to injuries. Heading into this week, the Suns ranked dead last in the NBA with only 100.4 points per game since the calendar flipped to 2023 and hosted the Brooklyn Nets riding a three-game skid and a 1-7 record in January.
Johnson needed less than two minutes to hit his first shot attempt, a 3-pointer at the top of the arc. Soon after, he hit another 3-pointer, this one from the left wing. Johnson hadn’t missed a beat and would end his night with 19 points and six rebounds while going a perfect 9-9 at the free throw line in the Suns’ 117-112 victory.
“It just shows how much this arena, this city, these fans care and I appreciate it so much,” Johnson said after the game. “It was pretty special, just to show that people care. And that means a lot to us players.”
A unique energy, perhaps feelings of joy, permeated throughout the arena from fans and players when Johnson checked into the game for the first time.
“To have your fans emotionally wrap their arms around a guy … and have him check in the game and feel that love from the community and our fans, I thought that was awesome,” Suns coach Monty Williams said. “He’s been working his tail off, and we’re grateful that he’s out there on the floor.”
In addition to his offensive spark, Johnson contributed to the defensive end with a key steal and a block late in the fourth quarter to help halt a late Nets run. Williams spread out Johnson’s 22 minutes of action throughout the win, which allowed the Suns to boast their best lineup for the Nets’ late-game charge.
“Being able to play, being able to log multiple stints out there, just helps me process the game as a whole and build upon everything,” Johnson said.
Ideally, a team’s point total isn’t equivalent to Phoenix’s average high temperature during September. Johnson’s return will help bolster an anemic offense and adds another three-point threat to an already deadly lineup from behind the arc (the Suns boast the third-highest 3-point percentage in the NBA).
Johnson’s first full-time foray into the starting lineup this season saw him perform well in eight games before suffering the injury. His small sample size produced career-high averages in points (13.0), assists (1.8), steals (1.1) and 3-point percentage (43.1%) – all numbers Johnson hopes to maintain or improve with his newfound health.
“I feel really good,” Johnson said. “I feel normal, probably better than normal now. I don’t think about my knee. I don’t think about planting on it, twisting on it. It feels good.”
Without Johnson, the power forward spot had been a skeleton crew for Phoenix, only compounded by Jae Crowder’s self-imposed exile before the season. Once Johnson went down, the Suns resorted to starting Torrey Craig to fill the void while Ish Wainwright provided Phoenix with stellar defense as Craig’s backup.
Still, the team missed Johnson’s talent and welcomed his presence.
“Most guys come back and try to feel their way into the game or they’re more hesitant to keep shooting the ball, but that’s never been Cam’s problem,” Williams said. “If he ever turns down shots, he’ll probably come out of the game. I didn’t think he’d have that kind of production and we needed it.”
More than halfway through the season, Phoenix sits with a 22-24 record in the 11th seed in the West and faces an uphill battle toward championship contention. In the history of the NBA, only two teams have ever won the title with a seed lower than third in either conference. If the Suns are to make a real push at winning a championship, getting healthy will be paramount.
Johnson’s return is the first step in the right direction.
“Storms don’t last forever,” guard Damion Lee said. “There’s a silver lining somewhere. The sun’s gonna shine at some point. It’s just weathering that storm.”