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Suns starters show cohesion in preseason debut against Timberwolves

Phoenix Suns guard Ty Jerome (10) drives on Minnesota Timberwolves guard Tyrone Wallace during the second half of a preseason NBA basketball game, Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2019, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

PHOENIX — Preseason in the NBA is weird. You wouldn’t necessarily call it useless and it serves a purpose, but it’s mostly players and coaches getting familiarity down.

As an observer, you’ll pick up on little nuances and differences here and there. Most of them are obvious.

For example, the Suns have added a legitimate point guard in Ricky Rubio and power forward in Dario Saric. Wouldn’t you know it, they look much better as a basketball team because of it!

In limited minutes of a 111-106 win, the Suns’ starting five clicked and the immediate benefit of Rubio’s presence was painstakingly clear.

Late in the first quarter when all the starters — Cam Johnson was in at small forward for the injured Mikal Bridges and Kelly Oubre Jr. — had exited, the Suns led 28-15 and the trio of Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton and Rubio had 23 points combined. Booker and Rubio had a combined eight assists in a first shift lasting 9:03 while Ayton had five of his eight rebounds on the offensive glass.

Rubio, in particular, was consistently running pick-and-roll with the big fella and keeping him involved. On top of the buckets Rubio got for Ayton, it kept Ayton engaged, and he responded with 16 points, 10 rebounds, one assist and two blocks at the half.

“I like his presence in the paint,” head coach Monty Williams said of Ayton, noting the coaches have been working on him getting a deep post catch and finishing.

“Once we get more of a rapport on offense, him and Ricky are going to have some synergy in pick-and-roll.”

Booker was ultra-aggressive in his dribble attacks, focusing on getting to the rim to either draw a foul or pass to a teammate. This resulted in some rather erratic play, with seven trips to the foul line and five assists in the first half. It was simply the team’s star welcoming the new pace of the offense while adjusting to new teammates.

Rubio had 11 points, three rebounds, five assists and one steal for himself, taking 13 shots in an instance where he was OK with shooting when the defense allowed him to.

And if you merely look at the stats, they wouldn’t do justice for Saric and Johnson’s contributions. Both of them, particularly Johnson, understood the quick-fire mechanics of Williams’ offense and kept things moving.

When Johnson had the ball, the only reason he wasn’t moving is if he was shooting. Otherwise, he’s taking two dribbles max and keeping things chugging. That goes back to what we heard in Flagstaff all week about his attributes.

“He does stuff that you don’t have to teach,” Williams said. “He takes the right shots, he slashes when there’s an opening … He’s not a guy that I’m concerned with. He spaces the floor for us, the guys look for him and I expect he’s gonna have some nights where he’s gonna be a bit of a flamethrower.”

Johnson’s on-ball defense was one of the best aspects of the game for the Suns. He was embracing contact and quickly reacting with his feet to the ball-handler. He drew an offensive foul on two separate occasions. He got beat a few times, but if he competes like that, Phoenix has quite the role player on its hands.

The big three was plus-five in the roughly 20 minutes they played together and the cohesion they showed as a unit disappeared when they were off the court.

That’s to be expected given the absence of Oubre, Bridges and Aron Baynes, forcing the Suns to go guard-heavy off the bench.

Luckily in the game that doesn’t matter, rookie Ty Jerome and reserve big Frank Kaminsky did a fair share of offensive creation on their own.

Jerome deserves some credit. His basketball smarts really showed, as did his touch as a scorer, with 12 points and four assists in 23 minutes. The second unit will need capable ball-handlers and he looks like the leader in the clubhouse at the moment for backup point guard.

The offense was far more stagnant, though, and was not playing within the quick flow like the starters. There was far more dribbling and standing with that group.

Williams, who was vocal with those guys a little bit from the sideline when things got sluggish, said after the game some of it was conditioning and the reserves figuring out who was running the offense.

That’s where Williams ironing out his rotation and prioritizing Tyler Johnson more in the secondary creator role off the bench will help. Because of the lack of bodies, Johnson was the third guard on the floor, also known as the small forward.

That was one of the few qualities that made this quite the preseason game.

The Suns had 29 turnovers to only 20 assists and managed to only win by five despite holding the Timberwolves to 41.9% shooting.

The all-too-familiar open looks the Suns defense was prone to giving up in years past were still present in this one, including a couple right on Ayton.

Booker looks to still be figuring out how to pace himself as a scorer in this specific offense while Baynes was sorely missed with how Cheick Diallo played in his place.

But that’s what preseason basketball will give you, a guaranteed dose of bad and a variation of good depending on the team.

After what most would consider an encouraging start, the Suns’ veteran leader put it best with the beginning point we are at in the season.

“Good feeling. We have a lot of work to do and a lot of things to (work on), 29 turnovers, there’s a lot of things we have to improve but we get to know each other better now in the game,” Rubio said. “It’s nothing to compare to practice.

“We’ve been having a good training camp so far, but tonight was a good test and we see things that we can improve and we see things that are working already.”

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