If the Suns can’t pull out a win in Milwaukee in Game 6 at Fiserv Forum on Tuesday night, their southpaw backup point guard Cam Payne faces an uncertain path back to The Valley of The Sun.
The Murray State product will be an unrestricted free agent and weaved such a sweet playoff run, league sources feel he may have earned a new contract starting at $10 million-$12 million a year.
A young journeyman who is already with his fourth NBA team and had a stint in China, Payne turns 27 on Aug. 8.
If All-Star starter Chris Paul doesn’t opt out and takes the $44 million he has coming, the Suns are going to be hard-pressed to put that much salary into the point guard position.
If Paul opts out and takes a three-year deal at less per season, Payne has a better chance of returning.
The Suns would have to attempt to re-sign Payne, who averaged 8.4 points in the regular season, shot 44.3 percent from 3-point land and 89 percent from the free-throw line.
Payne also led the Suns to two victories in the first two games of the Western Conference finals when Paul was out because of a positive COVID-19 test. He’s a slick, speedy penetrator and has improved his long-range game.
The Knicks are looking for a starting point guard, and Payne is an intriguing cheaper option but a risk since he’s never started full time. Payne could make a nice tandem with veteran Derrick Rose as his backup and tutor.
That pairing would allow Payne to play less-than-starter minutes. Rose is also a free agent, and Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau is expected to want to bring him back.
Payne was drafted by the Thunder at No. 14 in the 2016 draft. His Suns teammate Devin Booker was taken one spot ahead at 13.
On Tuesday morning, Payne was just thinking about keeping the dream ride going and a Thursday Game 7 in the desert. Payne said the Suns had lost three straight games to the Bucks to fall behind 2-3 because they also lost their joie de vivre.
“The first part of the series, we got away from having fun,’’ Payne said at the morning shootaround Tuesday in Milwaukee. “[Tuesday] we’re just going to have fun. Having fun is one of the biggest keys more than any key we have. I feel we’ve been too serious and on edge about everything instead of relaxing and playing. That’s when we’re better.’’
It’s a new cause for the Suns’ recent demise. Most observers have seen the Bucks raise their level to new heights — with their Big 3 of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and point guard Jrue Holiday all playing out of their minds.
The Suns blew a 16-point lead in the Game 4 loss and then nearly rallied to steal Game 5 by roaring back from 14 points down after three quarters.
“As Coach [Monty Williams] says, ‘Just go hoop,’ ’’ Payne said. “We need that mentality [Tuesday night]. We’re going to have that mentality. We know it’s the NBA Finals and elimination game, but we have to play free and together and like our chances.’’
Payne has shot just 25 percent from 3 and 50 percent from the free-throw line in the first five games. He’s been a better 3-point shooter than that all season. Against the Lakers in the first-round victory, Payne shot 42.3 percent from 3.
This Suns’ emergence after being a non-playoff team for 10 straight years actually started during the 2020 restart in the Disney World bubble. The Suns tore off an 8-0 record there but still missed out on the playoffs by a hair. Staving off elimination Tuesday is the pressure the Suns also felt in Orlando.
“We know what‘s at stake,’’ Payne said. “Like in the bubble, we knew we had to win eight games to have an opportunity. We went in and found a way every game. No one gave us a chance in the bubble. That’s what we have to do [Tuesday]. Play though the ups and downs, find a way to stay poised amid adversity and go back home and get one in the Valley.’’
If not, Payne may be leaving the Valley very soon.