Devin Booker from the Phoenix Suns is out for an unspecified amount of time after he tested positive for COVID-19 and entered the NBA’s health and safety protocol. The good news is that the Suns expect backup point guard Cameron Payne to return to the hardwood after missing the last 16 games with a wrist injury.
Booker averages 25.6 points, 5.2 rebounds, 4.6 assists, and 1.1 steals per game for the Suns this season. He’s ranked #11 overall in the NBA in scoring.
The Suns will not have their starting backcourt tonight when they host the Portland Trail Blazers at Footprint Center in downtown Phoenix. Point guard and floor general Chris Paul is out for the remainder of the regular season with a fractured thumb.
The Suns (49-12) lost two games in a row, yet they’re still the best team in the NBA with a 6.5-game lead over the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference standings. The Suns have the inside track to locking up the #1 seed in the Western Conference and securing home-court advantage in the playoffs.
According to the most recent update by DraftKings, the Suns are +380 odds and the outright favorite to win the 2022 NBA championship. The Golden State Warriors are +450 odds to win the title, and the Brooklyn Nets are +475 odds.
Monty Goes Big, Payne Returns
The Suns are fortunate that the day that Booker goes down wit COVID-19, Payne (10.5 ppg, 3.6 assists) returns to action. Payne missed nearly five weeks with a sore wrist. Without Booker and Paul, the Suns need his infectious vibe.
“Payne’s energy is contagious,” said teammate Torrey Craig. “He likes to get the crowd into the game. Gets his teammates going. He plays with this level of confidence that teams need.”
Since the All-Star Break, head coach Monty Williams opted to go big without Paul. He started Booker at the only guard position and inserted three forwards in the starting lineup alongside center Deandre Ayton.
Small forward Cam Johnson, who is usually the Sixth Man and part of the second unit, started in place of Paul in Williams’ bigger lineup. Johnson averages 12.3 ppg off the bench this season, but he averaged 19.6 ppg in his last three starts. Johnson scored 23 points and shot 4-for-6 from 3-point range in a loss against the Utah Jazz on Sunday.
A healthy Payne means that Williams does not have to start Johnson, who returns to his valuable role as Sixth Man of the Suns.
“It allows for the bench to have a bit more rhythm,” said Williams. “It puts Cam Johnson back into his role on the bench and now he could be the anchor out there as far as scoring. A guy who has been in our rotation and he knows what we’re doing.”
Expect backup guards Aaron Holiday (7.8 ppg) and Landry Shamet (7.3 ppg) to see increased playing time without Booker in the lineup.
On Deck: Trail Blazers, Knicks, Bucks
The Suns host the Portland Trail Blazers (25-36) tonight and the useless New York Knicks (25-36) come to Arizona on Friday.
The Suns face the Greek Freak and Milwaukee Bucks (37-27) in Beer City on Sunday. It’s a rematch of the 2021 NBA Finals. The two met three weeks ago and the Suns cruised to a 131-107 victory in a 24-blowout. Booker hopes he can clear COVID-19 protocols before Sunday, otherwise they’ll have a tough battle trying to upend the defending champions without their starting backcourt.
The game against the Bucks is the start of three-game road trip that also includes a quick jaunt to Florida to play the Orlando Magic (15-47) and Miami Heat (41-21) in back-to-back games. The Magic are the worst team in the NBA this season, while the Heat are the top team in the Eastern Conference.