PHOENIX — Late in a 117-112 win over Brooklyn, injured guard Devin Booker turned to his Phoenix teammates on the bench and said simply, “Way to get back on track.”
While one win doesn’t erase the Suns’ recent slide, the energy at Footprint Center was different Thursday night.
Mat Ishbia, in the process of buying the organization from suspended owner Robert Sarver, was in the building. Ishbia sat next to interim team governor Sam Garvin near the baseline, elbows on knees, hands clasped, looking more like a basketball coach than a billionaire mortgage lender.
Of greater importance, Cam Johnson was back. The fourth-year forward had been out since Nov. 4, recovering from surgery to remove part of the meniscus in his right knee. Seven minutes into the contest, Johnson checked in and got a standing ovation from a sold-out crowd. Ninety seconds later, Johnson hit his first shot, a 3 from the key.
Things you love to see! 💜🧡
Welcome back on the floor, Cam Johnson 👏 pic.twitter.com/PAprLWxtCt
— Phoenix Suns (@Suns) January 20, 2023
“He brought a level of juice to the arena that we haven’t felt in a while,” coach Monty Williams said.
“Cam definitely gave us a breath of fresh air,” big man Deandre Ayton said.
“I can’t tell you how good it felt to be out there,” said Johnson, who scored 19 points in 22 minutes.
With Booker (groin) and Chris Paul (hip), as well as rotation guards Cameron Payne (right foot) and Landry Shamet (right foot), still out, the Suns are weeks from total recovery. But for the first time in a while, even as Brooklyn cut a 24-point lead to two in the final minutes, Thursday night felt like a step in a different direction.
In small steps.
At Thursday morning’s shootaround, guard Damion Lee said Johnson’s return brought joy to the locker room. People don’t realize how much work goes into a recovery like this, Lee said. He played “Welcome Back,” a song by rapper Mase, in honor of the occasion.
“Storms don’t last forever,” Lee said. “There’s a silver lining somewhere.”
He realized this applied to the entire team.
“I’m not big into putting new things out there,” Lee said, “but that’s kind of like the mantra of this team — storms don’t last forever. There’s been storms before the season. First couple weeks, all right, we have a good patch, (then) another couple storms. But the sun’s going to shine, man.”
That’s the hope here. That once Booker, Paul and everyone else returns, the Suns (22-24) will turn into the championship contenders of last season. On this date a year ago, Phoenix was 34-9 and on its way to a franchise-record 64 wins and the West’s No.1 seed. With the same core, the Suns, who currently sit 11th but are two games out of sixth, could make a similar surge and capture a favorable postseason seed.
But even at full strength, nothing will be guaranteed. Throughout Phoenix’s struggles — the Suns are 7-18 since Dec. 1 — an occasional lack of competitiveness has been alarming. Some of this has been due to the injuries, a development the Nets are experiencing, having lost four in a row since Kevin Durant injured his right knee.
But losing five games by 25-plus points (to Boston, Washington, Denver and Memphis twice) has been head-scratching. To put that into context, Houston, the NBA’s worst team with 10 wins, has lost by 25 or more only once this season.
Remember the 2016-17 Suns? Coached by Earl Watson, Phoenix was overmatched nearly every night of a 24-58 season, lining up with a backcourt of Booker and Eric Bledsoe, and a frontcourt of TJ Warren, Marquese Chriss and Tyson Chandler. Twenty games below .500 in March, the organization sat Bledsoe and Chandler the final weeks in hopes of securing better draft position. And that team still lost by 25 or more only five times all season.
On Jan. 4, before a close loss at Cleveland, Williams told reporters that nobody wants to hear about Phoenix’s problems. “It’s like Captain Obvious for $500, Alex,” he said. His point was that the Suns couldn’t use injuries as a crutch. That they had to fight through adversity. “Guys have to grow,” Williams said.
That’s what he saw Thursday.
Just like they did in a Jan. 10 win at Golden State, the Suns struggled late, making fans nervous, but they didn’t crumble. They forced turnovers. They survived. Mikal Bridges scored 28 points, the third game in a row he topped 20, only the second time he has done that over his five-year career. (He also had nine assists.) Ayton had 24 points and 14 rebounds. Lee chipped in 16 points.
With Brooklyn charging in the final seconds, Johnson stepped to the foul line with a chance to seal the win. The Suns forward made both free throws, a good omen for a team that had lost nine of 10. Or maybe just a sigh of relief.
The Suns still have questions. When Booker returns, can he return to All-Star form quickly enough? Can Paul, who hasn’t looked like himself for much of this season, cheat Father Time and become an offensive threat? Can Phoenix get something for Jae Crowder, a valuable piece the team has agreed to move, before the Feb. 9 trade deadline?
This will take weeks to figure out, but every reversal needs a starting point.
“It may sound like coach speak, but I feel like all the stuff we’ve been through helped us win (Thursday) because we’ve been in these moments on the road,” Williams said. “I think the team feels it. We don’t want to get happy on the farm, we got to be better next game, but I think they feel like we can win games if we play the defense the way we’re capable of and we handle those moments when teams make a run or we have a few turnovers or we miss a few shots.”
The next task is winning back-to-back games, something Phoenix hasn’t done in a month.
(Photo of Cam Johnson: Mark J. Rebilas / USA Today)