The popular question following Phoenix’s trade for Kevin Durant was simple: who is the fifth-best Sun? Durant is as safe a bet as exists in the modern NBA. Devin Booker is quickly joining him on that short list. Chris Paul is a future Hall of Famer. DeAndre Ayton is a former No. 1 overall pick who just signed a max contract. Phoenix’s plan relied on having four sure things in their starting lineup. The questions were supposed to start with No. 5.
But through three games against the Denver Nuggets, it’s becoming clear that Phoenix’s depth questions have been far more severe. Right now, the real question is who Phoenix can rely on as its third-best player? Paul and Ayton have now combined for 49 points in three games against the Nuggets. Paul sat out Game 3 due to injury and likely will miss at least another game or two.
Ayton was available for Game 3, but you wouldn’t know it looking at the box score. He scored just four points on six shots in 26 minutes. More distressingly, he was benched down the stretch in favor of Jock Landale. He wasn’t happy about it.
Ayton left the arena without speaking to the media. Paul didn’t need to because of his injury. Yet with the two of them combining to give the Suns almost nothing in Game 3, Phoenix still managed to pick up a sorely needed victory and now trails in the series 2-1. Booker and Durant were the obvious heroes Friday night. The pair combined for a ridiculous 86 points, representing 75% of Phoenix’s total of 114. In all likelihood, the Suns are getting a repeat of that performance. Odds are, Devin Booker won’t shoot 80% from the floor again.
Yet the absence of Paul and the downplaying of Ayton might be meaningful as this series progresses. Phoenix is so short on bodies that the Suns will need both of them involved if they plan to make a serious championship push, but there’s an argument to be made after Game 3 that their roles could stand to be minimized.
The Suns are the slowest team in the NBA. They ranked 22nd in the NBA in pace during the regular season, but dead last in fast-break points per game at 10.5. They scored 23 in Game 3, and it’s not hard to tell why. Replace Paul, one of the NBA’s slowest, most methodical offensive operators with Cameron Payne, a speedy reserve, and the Suns suddenly played with pace for the first time all postseason.
That’s a valuable tool against a relatively slow Nuggets team. Two years ago, Paul carved Denver’s defense up in pick-and-roll by shooting mid-range jumpers against their drop-coverage. He’s aged so much in that time that the Nuggets are comfortable letting him take those shots. But Payne’s speed is a bit more cumbersome for Denver’s defense, particularly Nikola Jokic, to handle. Phoenix shoots so few 3-pointers and layups that easy transition points are an absolute necessity on nights when Booker doesn’t make 80% of his looks. Payne is a source of those looks.
Landale looked much more comfortable with the physicality of Game 3 than Ayton did. Phoenix needs a big man who can be the aggressor against Jokic, and Landale embraced that role willingly. The Suns won his minutes by 10 points. They lost Ayton’s by four. Ayton struggled on point blank looks, with even the diminutive Jamal Murray forcing a missed layup at one point. Landale may have only taken three shots, but he made all of them. If neither are going to create offense for themselves, the bare minimum is making the easy stuff Booker and Durant create.
The Suns can’t win 11 more playoff games without Paul and Ayton. They are simply too thin. But Game 3 was evidence that their roles might need to be adjusted. Bringing Paul off of the bench, for example, might make life a bit easier on all parties involved. The starters would be forced to play a bit faster, and Paul could come into the game fresh against opponents already tired from the opening stretch. Playing him more minutes against bench units might make up for the shortcomings of his age.
Benching Ayton is a riskier proposition. After the discomfort of last season’s debacle against the Dallas Mavericks and his attempted escape via free agency, Monty Williams might risk losing him entirely by electing not to start him. Ayton has held his own against Jokic in the past, and was a big part of Phoenix’s 2021 sweep. Landale played only 15 minutes in the first two games of this series. Denver might be able to scheme him out of Game 4 Sunday night now that they know he’s coming.
But Williams took a bold step by benching Ayton down the stretch. He proved that he is willing to close games on merit over reputation. Landale outplayed Ayton in Game 3. He might again in later games of this series. The margins are too thin for Phoenix to trust Ayton blindly in this series. Odds are, Booker and Durant won’t be able to bail them out like this again.