Torrey Craig finds ways to impact Phoenix Suns even when shot isn't dropping

Dana Scott
Arizona Republic
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Jan 24, 2023; Phoenix, Ariz., U.S.;  Phoenix Suns forward Torrey Craig (0) defends against Charlotte Hornets guard Dennis Smith Jr. (8) during the first quarter at Footprint Center.

Cameron Johnson and Torrey Craig were on opposite ends of the Suns' individual scoring spectrum. But Craig made a formidable impact in rebounding and other ways to balance out Johnson's spectacular shooting spree from the tip-off.

Johnson (9-of-11 shooting, 6-of-7 from deep, three assists) scorched the Hornets, hitting four straight 3s within the game's first five minutes. He scored 16 of the Suns' first 20 points in the game's opening six. He finished with a game-high 24 points in their fourth consecutive home win.

Craig didn't connect on any of his shots, going 0-of-7, his worst shooting performance this season.

However, he tied their starting big Bismack Biyombo with nine rebounds, including eight on defense, and added one assist and a steal before he sat the entire fourth quarter in the Suns' 27-point win. Craig recorded a 10 plus-minus compared to Johnson's two.

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“That’s something I always pride myself on, different ways to impact the game,” Craig told The Republic in the postgame interview. “If it ain’t scoring, it’s defending, rebounding, anything to give us a competitive edge. You’re gonna have nights like that, so you just gotta find different ways to impact the game. That makes you a valuable player.”

Craig added that he knew he was having an off-night shooting and had to make key plays in other ways after he missed his third 3-point attempt. At the time, the Suns had a 17-point lead shortly after the second quarter’s midpoint.

“You want to be vocal. You want to try to lead the defense, be active on defense, just communicate with guys,” Craig said.

Craig and Johnson started their second straight game together on Tuesday. Craig had replaced Johnson, the starting four-man who missed 37 games from his torn ACL, before Johnson returned last Thursday against the Nets.

Craig scored 20 as he hit 7-of-9 in their win over Memphis on Sunday. But he didn't score and went just 0-2 in their game against Indiana on Saturday, and scored just two points going 1-of-5 in their win over Brooklyn last Thursday.

But he had four rebounds with an assist and steal each against Indiana, and six rebounds with two assists against Brooklyn.

Johnson came off the bench in his comeback game and scored 19 points, six rebounds, two assists and blocks each, and a steal in 22 minutes.

“Cam can make up for a lot of things. He’s a talented player. He’s an underrated playmaker. He’s an elite shooter and a very good scorer," Craig said during the Suns' pregame shootaround on Tuesday.

"I think he puts a lot of pressure on the defense. Guy like myself can kind of carve their way and find their niche throughout the game offensively and let guys like him and Mikal (Bridges) do their thing."

Craig stepped up well at as their starting four-man during Johnson's absence. He's averaging career-highs 8.3 points, 5.7 rebounds, 39.2% from beyond the arc, 1.4 assists in 25.4 minutes per game in his seventh season.

“Shot not falling is very relative. We say that today but look at last game, he had 20 or so. Like I tell you guys, it’s basketball – you’re gonna make some, you’re gonna miss some," Johnson said in the postgame.

"But he’s been really consistent the past couple months and he’s taken on this large role, had to guard a lot of different positions, has to rebound the ball and scoring the ball and shooting the ball at a pretty high rate this year. So I love what I’m seeing from him. I think he’s been great all season.”

Craig also has helped fill the shoes of Suns’ former starting power forward Jae Crowder, who was one of their top defenders, rebounders, and 3-point shooters during the past two seasons. Crowder, though technically occupying a roster spot, has missed the season after he and the Suns mutually agreed he would not participate in training camp and instead part ways. The team is expected to trade Crowder before the Feb. 9 trade deadline, after the league approves Mat Ishbia as the franchise's new owner.

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The Suns have worked their way back to one game above .500 (25-24) with their current four-game win streak.

“We wouldn’t be in this position if we didn’t have Torrey. That’s a fact," coach Monty Williams said after their win over Charlotte. "He doesn’t let shot making or missing affect his energy. He’s the same guy every day. He and Mikal (Bridges) will guard the toughest guys.

"He finds a way to impact the game and that’s a sign of a heady basketball player. And he takes it personal when he doesn’t play well. He doesn’t necessarily feel like he’s letting himself down, he feels like he’s letting the team down. I just enjoy guys that know how to affect the game even when they’re not scoring and he’s Type A for that.”

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