In Game 2 of their second-round series against the Denver Nuggets, the Phoenix Suns started the fourth quarter with a lineup of Cameron Payne, Devin Booker, Damion Lee, Torrey Craig and Jock Landale. Booker played 45 minutes in the game, Kevin Durant played 44 and both of them had to do heavy lifting on offense, particularly after Chris Paul left the game in the third quarter because of a groin injury.
Paul. If the Suns are going to make this series interesting, they need to help their stars out. Phoenix's defense was more than good enough to even the series on Monday, but it lost 97-87 because it couldn't score, particularly down the stretch. In the fourth quarter, the Suns were outscored 27-14 in the fourth quarter, and, before a couple of meaningful buckets in the final minute, they shot 5 for 22 from the field and missed all nine of their 3-point attempts.
So how, exactly, is coach Monty Williams going to things life easier on Durant and Booker?
"Those are two guys that could see significantly more time," Williams told reporters after practice on Wednesday, via the Arizona Republic's Duane Rankin.
Warren, acquired from the Brooklyn Nets in the Durant trade, had a two-minute stint in Game 2 of Phoenix's first-round series against the Los Angeles Clippers and a four-minute stint in the next game, but has otherwise been glued to the bench throughout the playoffs. While he was inefficient in 16 regular-season appearances after the trade, many of them were similarly short stints, some of them in garbage time. In late March, he scored 15 points off the bench against the Sacramento Kings and 16 against the Philadelphia 76ers on back-to-back nights, the only two games in which the Suns played him more than 21 minutes.
Ross, signed on the buyout market, played garbage time in Game 1 against the Clippers and got one five-minute stint in the series opener against Denver, in which he missed three jumpers. He was a bigger part of the rotation than Warren down the stretch of the regular season, and had a couple of scoring explosions -- 24 points in 23 minutes against the Oklahoma City Thunder, 30 points in 27 minutes against the Kings, with the same 6-for-10 mark from 3-point range in both -- off Phoenix's bench.
If one of Warren or Ross -- or presumptive starter Cameron Payne, Lee or Landry Shamet (DNP in Game 2) -- goes off on Friday, it would be incredibly convenient for the Suns. They do not necessarily need that to happen, though, to get a win. A couple of these role players just need to force the Nuggets to guard them.
Through two games, Denver has been content to load up on Durant and Booker in the halfcourt and let the non-stars take 3s. It has put two on the ball against Durant and Booker in pick-and-roll, inviting Craig, Landale, Josh Okogie and Bismack Biyombo to make plays in 4-on-3 situations. It has even been living with Paul getting to his midrange jumper against a drop. This is a sign of respect for Booker and Durant and a massive sign of disrespect toward everybody else.
"I can do a better job of putting more scorers on the floor and living with whatever warts may come with that just to free those guys up so they don't have to do it every single time down the floor," Williams said. "We'll make those adjustments accordingly."
It's an obvious adjustment, but it's also a risky one. The Suns haven't been giving minutes to Okogie, Craig and Biyombo because their coaching staff is a bunch of idiots; they've been doing it because those guys can defend. Against a top-tier offense like Denver's, trading defense for offense might just mean losing a different way. At this point, though, it's worth a shot. This thin Phoenix team is not built to win games in which Durant and Booker aren't piling up points or assists, and that's doubly true now that Paul is out of the picture. With the season effectively on the line, Williams has to try to get them going any way he can.