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Suns beat Kings, snap 6-game skid as Kokoskov pushes right buttons

Sacramento Kings guard De'Aaron Fox (5) drives on Phoenix Suns guard De'Anthony Melton in the first half during an NBA basketball game, Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2019, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

PHOENIX — The Suns opened the game making Deandre Ayton the offensive focal point with Devin Booker sidelined due to a bad back.

Ayton took 11 shots in the first half, scoring 12 points. But with the Suns trailing by 19 at halftime, Phoenix coach Igor Kokoskov turned a game against the Sacramento Kings around by going away from the rookie first overall pick.

The Suns faced a deficit that reached 21 points early in the third quarter when, just more than two minutes in, Kokoskov replaced Ayton with backup center Richaun Holmes. What followed was a rally built on a snowballing defensive effort that led to a comeback in a matter of minutes and an eventual 115-111 victory Tuesday that snapped a six-game losing streak.

“I’m experimenting a lot with lineups, with rotations. When you’re losing games, everybody’s trying to find that … right rotations, right minutes, right substitution patterns,” Kokoskov said.

“I follow my gut feeling when it comes to those kind of decisions.”

It just took awhile to find the right rotation juice against the fast-paced Kings.

The Suns did plenty well overcoming the trend of slow starts of late, shooting better than 63 percent in the first quarter for the second game in a row Tuesday. But a slim three-point lead after a reasonably fine start led in to a dog of a second quarter.

Sacramento hit five threes in the first six minutes of the period. Once the Suns adjusted, Sacramento got layups, dunks and free throws from then on, ballooning the lead to 72-53 at halftime.

It was an 18-point Kings lead when Holmes entered for Ayton just more than two minutes into the third quarter.

Phoenix began to meet the Kings at the rim and piled up deflections. Sacramento shot 25 percent, turning it over 10 times leading to 15 Suns points in the third quarter.

And though Holmes left the game with 9:47 left in the fourth only to return for rebounding muscle on a late free throw attempt by the Kings, it spoke to Phoenix’s center tandem that works so well together.

“He’s like my little brother, for real,” Holmes said during Tuesday’s shootaround and before Ayton called Holmes “somebody to really look up at.”

Kokoskov pushed the right buttons along the perimeter as well.

Against the Kings, Phoenix’s wing-heavy lineup bolstered in the back by Holmes and at the point of attack by rookie De’Anthony Melton had the game tied up 86-all by the end of the third.

And though the Suns literally tripped over themselves with Kelly Oubre Jr. falling down and turning it over on a clear breakaway late in the game, they made enough energy plays in the fourth with Ayton maintaining the same energy as Holmes.

Ayton finished with 17 points, 12 rebounds and a block.

With 43 seconds left, it was Oubre’s backcut off an offensive rebound by Ayton that led to two free throws off a dish from the center; the play irked Kings coach Dave Joerger.

“We gave up a backdoor in front of our bench and we gave up a tip-dunk on the other side, so that’s where the game was where we put ourselves in a deficit,” Joerger said.

Oubre’s weakside putback slam and glare at the Kings bench with 12 seconds left acted as the dagger, putting the Suns ahead, 114-111.

By the end of the night, Melton tied a career-high with eight assists, and he also recorded two blocks and four steals in 32 minutes. Kokoskov called his defensive performance “awesome” as Melton contained speedy Kings point guard De’Aaron Fox — he had a team-high 24 points but eight turnovers — while Phoenix’s wings flashed into the paint to rip Fox of the ball on multiple occasions.

Oubre led Phoenix with a career-high 26 points to go with five rebounds and four assists, T.J. Warren added a quiet 21 and the Suns finished the night with 31 assists on 45 made shots.

“I just think me being … decisive, that’s a big thing for me tonight,” Oubre said of his performance. “Finally just being more comfortable being out there.

“We did it for Book, straight up. He’s dealing with some things he wants to get right,” Oubre added. “(The win) took some weight off our shoulders a little it but we can never be satisfied.”


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