Suns’ transformation into scrappy, smart team continues in win over LAC
PHOENIX — At the bare minimum, the Phoenix Suns picked up their second win of the season on Saturday night, a 130-122 victory against the Los Angeles Clippers without Ricky Rubio (left knee contusion) and Deandre Ayton (suspension) after losing in overtime the night before at Denver.
That’s being safe, as Stockholm syndrome starts kicking in when things appear to be changing for the better with the Suns. And in quite a radical fashion that makes it hard to believe what’s unfolding right in front of us.
Everything that showed in the opening night win over the Kings and the loss to the Nuggets was on display back at Talking Stick Resort Arena again.
This was a game the Suns led and controlled throughout, with the Clippers only having their largest advantage at three points. Phoenix held the Clippers to 22 first-quarter points, and while Los Angeles turned it on in the last three quarters, so did the Suns offensively.
The difference in the third game was the offense had its best night yet, a shocking development considering the absence of Rubio. The Suns shot 50% and made 17 three-pointers on 40% shooting there.
Devin Booker was sensational, playing a perfect first shift as the team’s point guard in the half-court by making every right pass while being limited to only one shot and zero points.
He’d turn on the bucket-getting jets later, scoring 16 of his 30 points in the fourth quarter, with six rebounds and eight assists on his final tally as well.
That takeover was much-needed in a chippy game that had 66 total fouls called and Booker had to deal with the ever-energetic Patrick Beverley defending him most of the night.
The grit and smarts combination that is becoming the signature of this team was there on the court and in the box score.
Phoenix was plus-eight on the glass without Ayton and managed 32 assists to 16 turnovers. Last year, the Suns had over 30 assists and under 17 turnovers just three times and now they’ve done it twice already through three games.
Like the last two games, whether it was Booker in the fourth or players like Jevon Carter, Dario Saric or Frank Kaminsky in other stretches, there always seemed to be a play or two made by the Suns to keep the pressure on.
The Clippers grew increasingly frustrated defensively, and head coach Doc Rivers surprisingly sat star Kawhi Leonard during periods of crunch time when his team trailed.
In response to being asked what he thought when Leonard continued to sit, Suns head coach Monty Williams said “… Thank you?
“Not much going on up here but crickets and thank you,” he said while pointing at his head. “I looked down a couple times and just expecting him to come back in the game.”
A great, scrappy defensive effort limited Leonard to 27 points on 23 shots when one of the NBA’s true superstars attempted to take back the game in the second half when he was in.
That’s something that many players even lower on the totem pole than Leonard have succeeded at doing in Phoenix the past couple of years following lethargic first halves, but not this time against this team.
“I think that’s going to be our identity,” Booker told Fox Sports Arizona after the game of the team’s defense, noting shots weren’t falling in Denver when they hung around.
“They just played so much harder,” Rivers said after the game of the Suns. “They were so much more committed to what they were doing. In every aspect of the game. I just thought they were better.”
Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell form an absolutely lethal pick-and-roll duo for the Clippers, and that showed, with 51 combined points. But even then, the Suns made them earn it and Mikal Bridges and Aron Baynes, in particular, did a great job defending them in the first half.
Booker drawing Beverley’s sixth and final foul with 6:01 remaining put the Suns up 14 after a free throw and felt like the, “OK, this might be really happening” moment of the game.
As expected, a Clippers’ response eventually formed, cutting the lead down to six with 91 seconds remaining, but once again, the Suns just kept showing an ability to get a bucket when they needed one.
Even as Los Angeles kept scoring on every trip, Tyler Johnson hit a corner three and Booker followed that with the dagger to seal it.
The production was aplenty beyond Booker.
Saric, who was missing good looks in the first two games despite playing well, finally got some shots to fall. He had a double-double — 15 points, 10 rebounds with three assists and two steals.
Kaminsky appears to be headed towards a career year and becoming a steal of a signing by general manager James Jones on the midlevel exception. Kaminsky had 18 points, eight rebounds and six assists, providing the offensive jolt off the bench that’s necessary without Ayton in the frontcourt.
Kelly Oubre Jr., while defending Leonard most of the game, added 20 points, Baynes chipped in 14 and Tyler Johnson had 10 with four assists.
Carter is worth another mention. His stats will not reflect how every single point (8), rebound (3), assist (6) and steal (3) felt like it came in a crucial moment. Despite his lack of point guard acumen to run the half-court offense, Carter seems to have a knack for making plays, like his entire team.
If anyone has an eye for something really changing on and off the court for the Suns, it’s Booker.
The 22-year-old who is the only holdover that was a part of the 60-loss average the last four seasons said he’s been watching more film of the team and that “we look like a whole different team out there.”
“He’s just tired, of the same old, same old,” Williams of Booker.
As for the team playing together like Booker would also mention, Baynes spoke on how this can happen.
“Living within the system,” Baynes said. “Monty’s got a gameplan for us and it starts on the defensive end for us. Anytime we’re able to stay within that, that’s when we look good and it works for us.
“It’s only early on, but when we have a team buy in like that (and) every guy that steps on the court [knows] what we’re trying to do and we’re trying to live within that, then things look good.”