PHOENIX — NBA schedules are weird. They often have little or no rhythm to them, which is why you heard a fair amount of players saying last season that in some ways they didn’t mind the compressed schedule because of playing every other day.
After playing three games in four days to open the season followed by a break of just two games in nine days, Phoenix ended October and started November with a stretch of 15 games in 26 days. That sprint concluded on Friday, with Sunday’s matchup against Denver serving as the only home game in a spurt of five games in seven days.
If you’re doing the math in your head, yes, that means two back-to-backs. This first one is a trip to San Antonio on Monday, and while they’ll have gone across the country from Cleveland on Wednesday to New York, it’ll at least be no travel for a Knicks and Nets back-to-back on Friday and Saturday.
It’s quite the test for Phoenix’s 11-game winning streak to hold through to potentially reach that franchise record of 17.
Suns head coach Monty Wiliams said he is mindful of how to manage his players both emotionally and physically through these types of runs in the schedule but doesn’t dwell on it.
“I think our guys are just focused on the next game, I really do,” he said postgame Friday. “We haven’t talked about the schedule because I firmly believe everyone is going to deal with a tough stretch … It’s gonna happen. The travel aspect of it happens to everybody, and why focus on what you can’t change?”
As far as in-game management, Williams has done really well through winning. In the Suns’ last five games, everyone is below 34 minutes per game, including Devin Booker all the way down at 31.4. Jae Crowder, who is the only player in the league that had the longest schedule possible the last two years, is down to 26.5.
And that holds up for the season as a whole. Mikal Bridges leads the team at 33.3 minutes a night. Last year through 15 games, Booker clocked in at 35.7.
This last leg includes Thanksgiving on the road, which the Suns will spend in New York on Thursday with no game.
It’s Williams’ first time as Suns head coach having the holiday away from home, and he and a handful of players will have their families come into town so everyone can get together.
“Our guys are so good at authentic moments,” Williams said of the team bonding. “Whether it’s secret Santa that we do or getting together on the road to watch a movie or something like that, they buy into that stuff.”
“The players will come up to me and be like, ‘Coach, can my family member come to this or that?’ And I’m like, ‘Man, bring ’em all,’” he added.
Last season, backup center Dario Saric was a consistent positive influence on the game when he would come in and mix it up with the starters.
Looking specifically at when Saric would enter the game with backup point guard Cam Payne, the trio of those two and Booker outscored teams by 13.1 points per 100 possessions across 227 minutes. The most important way to analyze those minutes is that they are without Chris Paul on the floor, a gigantic plus for the team to have, helped largely by Saric’s playmaking abilities.
With Saric sidelined due to a torn ACL, this year’s version is Payne and Booker with reserve guard Landry Shamet, plus wing Cam Johnson and center JaVale McGee.
Side note, all minutes with Payne and Shamet are now dubbed “ShamPayne.” It is decided.
— Cameron Payne (@campayne) November 18, 2021
On paper, that lineup has got the sauce. Payne and Booker are two great ball-handlers with capable jumpers while Shamet and Johnson are plus shooters who can do all the quick-hitting 0.5 decisions off the bounce Williams wants. All four do their work defensively too, and when you add the rim running and protection of McGee, that’s a lineup that could wreak some serious havoc.
But 15 games into the season, it hasn’t quite clicked yet, and Phoenix’s bench blended in with either Paul or Booker hasn’t yielded great results after it worked wonders the season prior.
“I think the thing that we’re trying to make the adjustment to is not having Dario,” Williams said Saturday of those units. “Having Dario on the floor relieved Cam Payne from having to make all the decisions. Now, not having him out there, Landry has to take on some of that responsibility, Book can take it on some, Cam Johnson can take it on some.”
That aforementioned lineup seems like the best bet to break that trend. Injuries haven’t helped, as McGee has had to start with Deandre Ayton sidelined for six games and Payne missed five of his own.
A key to this being different from last season is that Williams is also not staggering Paul and Booker, aka, making sure one of them is on the floor at all times. The Suns did that most of the time last year, but with the short layoff and long compressed run to the NBA Finals, he’s wisely taking it slow. That’s where those lineups of Booker + reserves or Paul + reserves can make the absence of the stagger not become much of an issue.
The Payne-Booker-Shamet-Johnson-McGee look is a +6 in 13 minutes and, assuming everyone stays healthy, we should see that minute total at least doubled over the next week.
Payne said Saturday he likes how that look allows him to play off the ball and McGee agreed with the concept of him being able to run a ball screen with any of those four other guys.
“It’s clockwork,” McGee said. “Everybody knows what the role is, they know I’m gonna go and set a screen and gonna put a lot of pressure on the rim so they have to attack and be aggressive and make a play.”
This initial drive by Payne goes nowhere and leaves Shamet with the reset, so here comes McGee and he gets a great pass from Shamet before the crafty finish.
That +6 comes despite the group shooting 9-of-27 (33.3%), so imagine when shots start falling.
The two-man game of Payne and McGee has a whole lot of room to flourish because of the shooting.
And when they can get out and run, the defense better match up and find those shooters or else it’s trouble.
Keep an eye on that unit these next couple of weeks.