Chris Paul returned from a 15-game absence in the Phoenix Suns’ 140-130 win over the Denver Nuggets, but the casual fan would be easily forgiven for not even noticing that he was sidelined with a fractured thumb.
Phoenix went 11-4 without him and are now 60-14 as seemingly every member of their rotation stepped up to fill the void left by the 12-time NBA All-Star. Most notably, Devin Booker continued to solidify himself as one of the best players in the league today and turned in his strongest month of the season so far in March.
The 25-year-old shooting guard is averaging 30.4 points, 4.4 rebounds, seven assists, and 1.6 steals in his nine appearances this month. He further built on his torrid run as he celebrated Paul’s return with his best game of the season. Booker put up 49 points on 16-of-25 shooting, four rebounds, 10 assists, and three steals to lead the Suns to victory against the Nuggets.
While his scoring has perennially been the highlight of his offensive arsenal, Booker has always been a crafty playmaker and he had more opportunities to show off this facet of his game without Paul. The seven assists that he has averaged in March are two above his season average of five per game and his 10-assist outing versus Denver was his second double digit assist performance in just 11 days.
As Phoenix’s primary scorer, Booker will always be the focus of opposing defenses. This makes his continued development as a playmaker even more crucial for their title hopes. While Paul will always be the primary facilitator for them, Booker’s growing ability to create for others at an elite level makes him even more difficult to cover given the wider range of possibilities that opponents need to account for when defending him.
After missing 21 games earlier this season due to various injuries, DeAndre Ayton has also made significant strides during Paul’s injury layoff. He is similarly putting up his best offensive month in this campaign with 19.9 points on 65.6% field goal shooting and 10 rebounds in 13 games.
The 6’11 center has also had his two strongest performances with Paul sidelined. He dropped 30 points and eight rebounds in their finals rematch loss to the Milwaukee Bucks three weeks ago then put up with 35 points and 14 rebounds in a win over the Minnesota Timberwolves earlier this week. Ayton has grown much more aggressive on both ends of the floor and if he can continue playing at this level when the playoffs roll around, a second consecutive finals appearance is all but guaranteed.
Cam Payne was another Sun who had his best stretch of the season with Paul sidelined as he filled in the starting point guard duties in his stead. The 27-year-old guard has done his best Paul impression with 13.7 points and 9.1 assists per game so far in March and continued his pattern of stepping up when his veteran teammate is unavailable to play.
Payne, who was well on his way out of the league before a breakout postseason last year, has continued to thrive in Phoenix this season. He will be a crucial part of their playoff push as the leader of their second unit and his high level of play these past few weeks has been quite encouraging.
Paul wound up missing only about a month of action after initial expectations were that he needed six to eight weeks to recover. His quick recovery is a blessing for Phoenix as it gives him a handful of regular season games to get his legs back beneath him before the playoffs roll around. More importantly, the bigger blessing to the team is that it has helped embolden their young players.
Beyond Booker, Ayton, and Payne, the defensive specialist Mikal Bridges has scored over 20 points in six of their last 12 games and Cam Johnson was able to erupt for a career-best 38 points earlier this month before a quad injury sidelined him.
The Suns are proving to be a force to be reckoned with and are playing like a well-oiled machine. They are peaking at the right time although it remains to be seen whether they can take it up further by another gear once the playoffs begin. This has been the constant criticism of this team given the high level of play that they have shown over the regular season.
These past few weeks have proven though that there is still much room for them to grow and their young pieces still have a ways to go before hitting their ceiling. They continue to gain ground as the favorites to win the title this season and it seems like they will still be contending even as the 36-year-old Paul continues to age towards retirement. This is frightening for the rest of the league as it looks like the Suns are still just beginning to rise.