PHOENIX – No matter how many games it winds up being, we are going to learn a good deal from this Phoenix Suns stretch without Devin Booker and Chris Paul.
Two games in, we have learned that Cam Johnson is the individual who was ready for this moment.
Johnson shattered his previous career high of 24 points with 38 on Friday night in a 115-114 win over the New York Knicks that ended on Johnson’s buzzer-beating 3.
Here is Al McCoy calling Cam Johnson’s buzzer-beater 3 to walk it off for the Suns! #ValleyProud
– 98.7 Arizona Sports (@AZSports) March 5, 2022
If you want to talk about resilience, Johnson left the game in the first quarter after taking a shot to the ribs from New York’s Julius Randle before returning and later getting in a scuffle in the third quarter with Randle. He then proceeded to score 21 of those 38 points in the fourth quarter.
Johnson’s shooting flurry was fueled by, of all things, rage.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been that angry when shooting a basketball,” he said.
Through one half of fairly even basketball, it felt like the Suns were on track to eventually pull away. New York was overselling its defense to dribble penetration, leaving Suns point guard Cam Payne and his team to have a field day kicking the ball out to open shooters.
They had 15 assists and only two turnovers, leading by three before amounting to four assists and five turnovers in the third quarter. The stability Phoenix had relied on defensively to force New York into tough shots and scoring at the foul line fell apart, as the Suns lost those 12 minutes 38-23.
In the last chunk of those dozen minutes, though, Randle was ejected in that kerfuffle, one in which he clearly lost his cool. Prior to that, Randle on two separate occasions bumped Johnson in his chest, the first of which was what sent Johnson to the locker room.
In the late third quarter as a Knicks shot went through the air, Randle went to go box Johnson out with some extra oomph on it and Johnson braced for the blow with his own contact. Randle didn’t like that. He walked Johnson down, bumped him, attempted to move an official out of the way and shoved Johnson.
Julius Randle and Cam Johnson getting into it 👀 pic.twitter.com/cp7X6DLes2
– Action Network (@ActionNetworkHQ) March 5, 2022
Throughout the whole situation after the boxout, Johnson never initiated anything and kept his cool.
“For him to do it on the fly and right in the heat of the third quarter, it’s tough,” Suns forward Jae Crowder said of it. “But you gotta prevail and he prevailed. That’s what it comes down to. “
“I just understood that I had the opportunity to continue playing and he didn’t,” Johnson said, noting how upset he was throughout the game after Randle’s first shot to his chest he called cheap. Johnson even remembers a similar boxout by Randle in New York earlier this year that had too much mustard on it, one that peeved him then.
“And I just wanted to win the game for my team, for CP and Book who are out right now,” Johnson added.
Randle’s escalation made it an easy decision to toss him with New York up 10, and Randle’s 25 points was the primary source of the Knicks’ offense.
Without it, New York’s offense crumbled, all while the Suns fed off what Crowder described as a fight in Johnson’s eyes.
“I just told him probably like, 8-10 times, ‘I’m proud of you, bro,’” Crowder said of Johnson keeping his cool. “I just couldn’t stop saying I’m so proud of you, because he could have folded. … He had that look in his eyes di lui like, ‘Nah, I’m here. I’m here and I’m stepping up to the plate. ‘ It was contagious. We fed off of it. “
Williams said in the huddle after it was clear that Randle was about to get thrown out and a turning point had arrived, he told his guys, “OK, we’re going to win this game.”
At 10 minutes remaining, Phoenix forced a shot clock violation thanks largely to some outstanding defense from Torrey Craig and Bismack Biyombo. That happened right in front of the Suns’ bench and was the match to light the fire.
“It gave us amazing energy, ”Crowder said. “Everybody fed off that, everybody felt that.”
“That possession was probably the defensive signature possession of the night,” Williams said.
With the Suns still down seven and under six minutes remaining, Johnson hit his sixth 3-pointer on a possession where he was befuddlingly left wide open, another one of those looks where the Knicks’ defense inexplicably packed the paint. This time, it was just a slip screen from Crowder, but they sold out yet again.
After the Knicks scored, Crowder got a 3-point play with his foot on the line and an RJ Barrett difficult lay-in for the Knicks was quickly answered by Payne.
The game, which was unstable for the majority of the second half, got rocky again for 90 scoreless seconds before Johnson’s seventh triple fell off a true heat check. A swing pass corner to corner found him, and post-catch, Johnson held the ball for a few seconds. He slightly faked with his body and arms once in the triple threat position to create just enough separation to tie the game at 3:13 t0 go.
Unreal 😳 pic.twitter.com/DdFucSvaoC
– Bally Sports Arizona (@BALLYSPORTSAZ) March 5, 2022
A 6-1 New York run off a Payne turnover and Payne missed layup made the situation rather dire, but then Johnson sprinted from under the basket to the top of the key past a Deandre Ayton screen to catch, turn, jump and shoot all in one fluid motion while slightly fading away to make it eight 3s.
3️⃣5️⃣ 📈 pic.twitter.com/yaFsuMBwJb
– Phoenix Suns (@Suns) March 5, 2022
One free throw for each side left the Suns down two with 1:06 to go. Barrett missed on a drive, and on the ensuing possession, a drive by Johnson started a gorgeous 0.5 sequence of quick ball movement to find Crowder for the go-ahead 3 at 30.5 to go.
BOSSMAN IS CLUTCH! pic.twitter.com/KGJr1cwbrp
– Bally Sports Arizona (@BALLYSPORTSAZ) March 5, 2022
Out of a timeout, the Knicks trailing by one had Barrett fail to convert his 20th shot of the evening, only for center Mitchell Robinson to tip the miss in for his ninth offensive rebound.
Robinson won the war inside with Ayton all night. On a few of those nine, Ayton was contesting a shot and it wasn’t his play to finish, but the final one was an instance where Ayton was switched onto the perimeter and had enough time to get back around the basket to impact the play .
Williams took his final timeout with the scoreboard reading 113-112 Knicks and 15.6 seconds left on the clock.
The play design was for Payne to wait on Johnson flying around off-ball to that top of the key again, where Johnson was eventually open, but Payne called an audible after seeing an open lane to the basket. His layup di lui was blocked by Robinson, but New York’s Alex Burks didn’t knock down his second free throw after making the first.
Mikal Bridges got the rebound with five seconds left down two and found Payne, who sprinted the ball up the right side of the floor past Johnson, who calmly and sneakily stopped moving to turn himself into a trailer behind Payne.
The point guard got it to Johnson, who banked the game-winner for deep ball number nine and his 36th, 37th and 38th points.
Williams said that was the idea for the game-tying play design they tried to communicate to the team for when Burks’ second free throw went down, but he missed, so Williams noted it was Johnson’s wherewithal to still be the trailer in that situation. Johnson said the pitch-back pass Payne made is one Payne has used often since joining the Suns, and once the two made eye contact as Payne sped the ball forward, it was known from there.
Payne dished out a career-high 16 assists. After the game the point guard was still clearly bothered by his 6-of-16 shooting night and four turnovers that was mostly a byproduct of him getting too sped up. With that in mind, he still very good on the night overall despite that.
Ayton grabbed three rebounds in 34 minutes and scored eight points. New York was +16 on the glass.
Johnson’s career night was also at the foul line, where a 7-of-8 mark set new bests as well. Phoenix fell in an early hole on free throws, with the attempts 16-1 Knicks at one point before the Suns adjusted to a very tight whistle and wound up edging New York in makes 22-21.
Johnson’s nine 3-pointers tied a franchise record and the 11-of-16 shooting overall netted him the highest point total by a player this season with 16 or less field goal attempts, per Stathead.