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Suns’ collective team effort leads to encouraging win over Kings in opener

(AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

PHOENIX — Last year, the Phoenix Suns had quite the season opener, a 121-100 home win against the Dallas Mavericks that oozed optimism for what was ahead.

Devin Booker had 35 points and Phoenix converted on 19 of their 34 three-point attempts.

That game turned out to be false advertisement for the season ahead, though, but even with the Suns’ 2019-20 season opener sharing some similarities, the 124-95 win over the Sacramento Kings felt different.

While the Kings were an absolute disaster in the second half and an overall mess like Dallas was last October, the Suns’ defense had a good chunk to do with it.

Time after time, the Kings’ fast pace tested the Suns’ first and second defensive rotations. And for the most part, the Suns did well.

“I told our guys — the defense in the second half was really impressive,” head coach Monty Williams said. “It was more effort than scheme, which is what you have to do sometimes.”

When Sacramento’s star point guard De’Aaron Fox picked up his fourth foul early in the third quarter, the Suns pounced and sprinted through to a 70-36 scoreboard in the second half after a sketchy opening 24 minutes.

A huge part of things not falling apart early was Ricky Rubio’s play, particularly in the first half to consistently keep the Kings’ defense off-balance while Booker was taken out of the game with only five first-half points.

“Experience on both ends,” Williams said of what stood out with Rubio in the game, noting how many times the point guard got past the defense and kept his defender on his hip with his strength.

Rubio contributed 11 points, 11 assists, six rebounds and four steals.

General manager James Jones’ offseason strategy of acquiring high-IQ players who grind shined through the way Rubio and the team as a whole performed.

The effort was all over the place, and they capitalized on the sloppy play by the Kings, who turned the ball over 26 times and led to a remarkably high 35 points for the Suns.

On the other end of that, Phoenix had a 2.2 assist-to-turnover ratio, 31 assists and 14 turnovers. Sacramento, one of the best teams in the league at scoring off turnovers in transition, had only six points in that department.

Offensively, it was a different story for the Suns, which is really important to emphasize here.

Booker did not get going early in this game. Kelly Oubre took a handful of bad shots in the first tow quarters of play. Phoenix shot 2-for-16 from three in the first half. Deandre Ayton and Rubio kept them afloat before they blew the doors off the Kings, as did, again, the Suns’ knack for making a hustle play here and a smart read there.

To get back to Booker, he was the epitome of this win.

He had 22 points, 10 assists and only three turnovers on 10-of-17 shooting. The biggest contribution, though, was not in the box score.

Booker played one of the better overall defensive games of his career. Again, we’ve seen this episode before with this defense flashing, but for it to come in a win like this and especially with how physically demanding it was on him, that meant something.

For most of the night, Booker matched up with the Kings’ Buddy Hield, who had 22 points in the first half. The Suns limited Hield to only six in the second half, and Booker, along with Williams’ adjusted gameplan, had everything to do with it.

“When your matchup scores like that, you have a tendency to lose your head, and he didn’t,” Williams said of Booker on Hield. “He stayed with the gameplan, he didn’t try and get the ball and go nuts — he just stayed with it. I was more impressed with Devin’s reaction than anything.”

Ayton’s output was the same you’ll usually see with 18 points and 11 rebounds, but the big fella’s contributions defensively were much better than usual. He played some of the best team defense of his Suns career, including some legit rim protection, backed up by four blocks.

That’s not to only point the spotlight at the team’s big three. It really was a complete team effort.

Oubre had 21 points and nine rebounds while adding a steal and two blocks, while Tyler Johnson had two steals and a block to go with 10 points.

Sure, that’s filling the box score for those guys. It also speaks to how much they impacted the game and it showed statistically.

Jevon Carter also had 11 points off the bench, and Frank Kaminsky supplied nine of his own.

To put a bow on the team as a whole all playing well, everyone in the rotation outside of garbage time had a positive plus-minus, from Booker’s plus-25 to Carter’s plus-14.

When media day ended, there was a feeling of Jones and Williams spewing out cliches at will. The question of if it was whether it was the typical rainbows and sunshine that day tends to produce or something real in terms of, you know, building a culture.

The counterargument of that being more than media day jargon was that the Suns prioritizing players who “play the right way” and “know how to win” will translate to, well, them playing basketball the right way and knowing how to win.

That had them ultimately steamrolling a team that, ironically enough, reeked of the problems that plagued the past four years of terrible Suns teams.

Phoenix felt like the better team in the first half, and if they stuck with the team concepts and some shots started falling, they were going to blow Sacramento out. That came to fruition.

“We have to keep that energy [when we’re] winning or losing, especially when we’re down, that’s when we need each other the most,” Booker said. “It showed tonight.”

If they continue to compete defensively, fly around the floor and play smart through the energy Booker spoke of, performances like Wednesday’s will definitely keep showing.

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