As the playoffs approach, the Phoenix Suns are doing their best to be healthy and conditioned for what they hope will be a long playoff streak.
Especially during the playoffs, the best ability is availability.
The Clippers are starting to get healthy (Paul George had 34 points in his winning comeback on Tuesday night), Anthony Davis is aiming for a comeback this week for the shocked Lakers, the Nuggets are hoping to get Michael Porter Jr. back soon and the Grizzlies are hoping for Le Ja Morant’s knee is starting to feel better.
Meanwhile, the Suns have the top seed in the West locked down, are relatively healthy now, and would like to go through those last seven games over the next two weeks unscathed.
The problem is competing priorities: there’s a tendency to sit players down to protect against fluke injuries, or to play them fewer minutes to keep them fresher, but there’s a downside to that.
“The one thing we don’t want to do is decondition,” Suns head coach Monty Williams said after practice Tuesday. “We’re trying to find a balance, we’re not sure if we’re going to achieve that.”
Players want to play. As Deandre Ayton so colorfully put it the other day, they’ve all already been given ‘time off’ this season due to injuries and COVID and now they’re ready to play anything.
Four of the five starters and the top three bench players have each missed at least three weeks this season. Chris Paul (thumb) just returned after missing five weeks and laughed at the thought of a minute restriction while he got back into shape.
“I’m just thankful that our guys like to play,” Williams said. “I will have conversations with a few of them to make sure we are doing the right things by them and by us. But I don’t think there’s a right answer, that’s for sure.
The only player still out is Cameron Johnson, who hasn’t played since scoring 38 points and hitting the winner in the Suns’ game against the Knicks nearly four weeks ago. In that match, he suffered a deep thigh contusion of Mitchell Robinson’s knee on a drive to the hoop.
Johnson leads the league in three-point shooting (44.8%) and is averaging a career-high in minutes (26.3), points (12.8), rebounds (4.1) and assists (1.5) per game this season.
Finally, Johnson returned to training on Tuesday and was upgraded to ‘doubtful’ on the injury report for tonight’s game. He certainly won’t play the Warriors, but could be back sooner rather than later.
“He’s better,” Williams said after practice. “He is progressing, in a good place. We hope to see him next week.
“I’m getting there,” said Cameron Johnson himself. “I’m just trying to move and be comfortable with the move. Cardio and comfort with the movement, trying to gain some fluidity with that.
Tuesday’s practice was Johnson’s first with the team since his injury, so how he feels today will be a big indicator of his willingness to return to action.
“It will be a gradual building process,” Johnson said.
Monty Williams is thrilled to have his full rotation available soon. You might be surprised to know that the Suns’ projected playoff rotation — including Torrey Craig, who was acquired at the trade deadline just as Chris Paul injured his thumb — never even been adapted this season as a complete group.
“I think we want to try and get some games with the whole team,” Williams said of Cam Johnson’s return. “We didn’t have that. With Torrey’s inclusion, there has been some back and forth. If we can get Cam back, we have a chance to get our normal rotation back and that would be a good thing.
When it comes to players cutting minutes per game, Williams has other ideas. He doesn’t want players warping by playing fewer minutes only to play them a ton more minutes when games really matter in the playoffs.
Chris Paul, 37, has played just two games in the past six weeks. No matter how much you run on a treadmill or play pickup, nothing matches the adrenaline and real effort involved in a live game.
“I think he (Chris Paul) is still developing his ability to play in his mid-30s,” Williams said of Paul’s minutes. “You have to develop the ability to move past that, in case you have one of those games where he and [Devin Booker] and [Mikal Bridges]who are pretty much our high minute guys, and even [Deandre Ayton]building these guys up until they can play 30s and maybe even 40s. Not that you would do that consistently, but I think you have to build in that direction.
Last year, Chris Paul, Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton all saw their playing time increase dramatically in the playoffs. Book went from 32 minutes per game in the regular season to 40 per game in the playoffs while DA went from 30 to 36 per game and Chris Paul went from 31 to 36 per game as the Suns went all the way to the NBA Finals.
This year, they don’t want to miss again, so they all plan to do whatever it takes to leave the field in this final game with a win.
When you suddenly extend your minutes, you run the risk of playing tired at the exact moment you can’t afford to be tired: at the end of the fourth quarter of an important game.
There’s the dilemma that Monty and his team wrestled with. Williams said the other day that he asked each of his employees what they would do and got four or five different answers. There is no proven way to be in peak condition for the playoffs.
In the meantime, they still have one or two big hurdles to overcome: (1) set the franchise record for wins in a season; they have 61 right now and need two more to set that record and (2) to beat two big Western Conference rivals who beat the Suns last time they played: the Warriors and the Grizzlies .
“I believe this team wants to be the new normal, as far as Suns basketball goes, and they have an opportunity to do that,” Williams said of what still drives the Suns after clinching the lead. series of the playoffs. “But you can’t skip the steps.”
The Suns, on an eight-game winning streak, face the Warriors (currently 3rd in the West) tonight and the Grizzlies (currently 2nd in the West) on Friday. Before the end of the season, they will also play the Clippers (currently 8th) and Jazz (currently 5th).
Check out our Suns-Warriors preview here.