PHOENIX – Entering last week, the Phoenix Suns were coming off a disheartening Game 1 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers. The Valley went from a fever pitch to a hushed silence from the shocking defeat as Phoenix lost home-court advantage and was forced to feel the wrath of playoff Kawhi Leonard.
The difference a week makes.
The doomy clouds have cleared over Footprint Center just in time for Tuesday’s potential close-out game with the Suns taking a 3-1 series lead over the Clippers into Game 5 in the first round of the NBA playoffs.
To get to this point, many factors turned the series in Phoenix’s favor. Superstars Devin Booker, who since Game 1 is averaging 37.7 points per game, and Leonard, sidelined the past two games due to chronic knee issues, are two of those fundamental reasons for the Suns’ recent success.
However, a name that goes under the radar is Suns forward Torrey Craig. Since the beginning of the playoffs, pundits and Valley residents engaged in a rabid debate questioning Suns coach Monty Williams about his decision to insert Craig in the starting lineup. The choice was met with skepticism after Josh Okogie served in that role for the final 26 games of the regular season.
The sudden change from the bench to a starting role could throw off any player’s psyche, but not for Craig.
“Nothing really changed for me – the same mindset for every game,” Craig said last Monday. “Just coming in and trying to figure out what you’d like to contribute. Be as solid as I can [and] stick to the game plan and try to get a win.”
Despite the outside criticism, Craig’s play has been stellar. Through four games this postseason, the six-year NBA veteran has averaged 15.5 points per game, the highest during any four-game span of his career.
In the first three games, he scored at least 15 points for the first time in his professional career while topping out at a career-high 22 points in Game 1.
“I knew (Ivica) Zubac was going to be guarding me, yeah,” Craig said. “Just trying to read the defense, see how they were playing us and the matchups. They were trying to tweak it a little bit. It was a little weird, but we made adjustments for that.”
The Clippers tried to hide Zubac on Craig to avoid mismatches with the Suns’ more athletic starters. The plan hasn’t worked. In Game 1, Craig attacked the 7-footer off the dribble and took advantage of Zubac’s slower lateral movement. While the career performance came in a loss, it was an indicator of the 32-year-old’s versatility in the series.
“[Craig] did great just playing in that pocket. If teams are going to play like that and put the fives on him, then he can do just like that,” Booker said after Game 1. “He played unbelievable tonight on both ends. Hell of a game by Torrey.”
Craig has illustrated his willingness to do the dirty work. Craig takes on the assignment of guarding Clippers superstar Leonard with a smile. He enjoys the physicality that comes with defending a player at the level of Leonard – and how it helps elevate his own game.
“[Craig was] being aggressive on the defensive side of the ball,” Suns forward Kevin Durant said after Game 1. “He had five fouls, but I liked his aggressiveness.”
In Game 2, Craig dropped 17 points, and while impressive by itself on the stat sheet, the context and the timelessness of those shots showed their true worth. The Clippers made multiple late runs to try and steal another home game away from the Suns, but the maturity and composure of Craig to knock down critical shots halted the opposing team’s momentum.
“Craig made just about every big shot for us tonight,” Suns guard Chris Paul said after Game 2. “If you watch the game, it is the timing of his shots. Sometimes when a team had a chance to cut it from six to four or three, Craig would hit a three to put us up to nine. It was the timing of his shots that he made that is big in the series.”
The Suns are Craig’s fourth NBA team, which has improved his adaptability. Since coming from South Carolina Upstate, the former Spartan has played with the world’s premier basketball players such as former MVPs like Nikola Jokic and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Through his experiences, he has learned the role of being a spark plug.
Now in his second stint with the Suns, he finds comfort in the Valley and in the starting role with his new MVP-caliber teammates. The starting five of Paul, Booker, Durant, Craig and center DeAndre Ayton has played together for 84 minutes this postseason, the most of any other lineup. They have an offensive rating of 125.1 and a defensive rating of 102.3, equating to a 22.9 net rating overall, the best of any starting five among the playoff teams.
The Suns’ offensive rating is the best of any lineup with more than 21 minutes together on the floor in the playoffs. After seeing the results of the starting lineup switch, it’s clear Williams made the correct decision.
Now, with the tipoff of Game 5 on the horizon, the Suns can clinch a series on their home court for the first time in their past three postseason appearances. If Phoenix can close out Tuesday, Craig’s former team, the first-seeded Denver Nuggets, will likely be its next opponent and his past experience again will prove valuable.
There’s no guarantee that Craig would start in the second-round series with Williams claiming the last spot in the starting five will be based on the matchup, but he’s certainly made his case to be in the conversation.
Regardless of starting status, Craig and the Suns have one goal in mind, and that’s to survive and advance.
“I mean it’s a good feeling, but we have to do it. That’s what it’s going to come down too,” Booker said Monday about the chance to clinch the series. “I think we’ve been in this situation before versus [The Clippers], and they came out in Game 5 and beat us last time. So we got to come in ready to go from the beginning and protect home court.”