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Suns’ ascent to legitimacy hits latest peak with hard-fought win over 76ers

Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker (1) shouts at Philadelphia 76ers players after scoring and being fouled as teammate Mikal Bridges (25) holds him back during the second half of an NBA basketball game, Monday, Nov. 4, 2019, in Phoenix. The Suns defeated the 76ers 114-109. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

PHOENIX — Maybe it was the way the Phoenix Suns continued to fight against the league’s last unbeaten team in the Philadelphia 76ers, a game where it felt like the Suns were down double digits when that was never the case.

Maybe it was the way the Suns’ second unit rallied when Devin Booker had to sit with four fouls in the late third quarter and early fourth.

Or maybe it was the way the Suns’ crowd roared like it hasn’t in years when Booker capped off that rally and then took over the game, a performance with many national eyes that shoves him into the NBA’s very, very young MVP conversation seven games in.

Whichever you want to pick out of those three, there was a shift on Monday night into the Suns being not only for real as a competitive team in the Western Conference but a threat in the playoff race after a 114-109 win over the 76ers.

Booker had 40 points on just 19 shots, converting on 15 of ’em, adding four rebounds, three assists and some of the best defense he’s ever played. All that adds up to the best game for him to date as a Sun, and this is the guy that has dropped 70 before.

“He’s a complete basketball player,” head coach Monty Williams said of Booker.

Honestly, Booker should have had close to 10 assists, but his teammates weren’t hitting the open shots he was creating early on.

That’s where it felt like we were back in the no-fun zone of him being double-teamed in a “run and jump” fashion to completely eliminate him from the play.

But Booker still managed to take a firm grasp of the game for his team, scoring 16 of those 40 in the third quarter and an additional 11 in the fourth for 27 total in the second half.

“In those moments, we have to get out of the way sometimes,” Williams said. “It’s not structure, it’s just a really good basketball player going to work.”

That’s what you do for stars, and Booker was one Monday night.

The bad man hit some impossible shots on Ben Simmons, one of the best defenders in the NBA who Philadelphia especially sent on Booker late to try and shut him down.

But you can’t shut down a star when he has it going like Booker did.

This was a special zone Booker was hitting, not even like where he went in Boston.

Booker has an endless arsenal of scoring, but we’ve never seen him use a hesitation dribble and head-fake combo into a baseline runner at full speed like this.

“You can just kind of tell it’s coming,” Tyler Johnson said of Booker reaching a certain high level of form.

“I would say, I’ve been around a lot of really, really, really good players, Hall of Famers. As far as just pure scorer, I think he’s probably the best I’ve seen. I didn’t get to watch [Dwyane Wade] in his prime, but yeah, he can really do it.”

He does it, indeed.

All of this was almost for naught, though.

Booker had those 29 through three quarters but picked up four fouls.

In a section of the third quarter where Ricky Rubio rests and Booker runs with the second unit, there was no Booker. Thus, it was a full reserves group to contain a two-point deficit until Booker and Rubio could make it back.

And this was in the first game of the Suns’ season where the opposition looked fairly comfortable offensively, and it was Tobias Harris and Al Horford specifically who combined for 56 points.

Phoenix put a wrench in it early by putting Aron Baynes on Simmons, who will operate as a slashing playmaker without a jumper, meaning Baynes doesn’t have to do much on the perimeter.

But that’s where Harris and Horford took over as Simmons played off the ball, and those two players were in while the Suns’ bench tried to hold the door in the third quarter.

They did more than that.

Jevon Carter had a steal and Mikal Bridges scored four straight points to hold off the wave, but Harris and Co. kept coming as the fourth got underway in a one-point game.

With Baynes and Rubio back in, Rubio got to the foul line and then Johnson made two massive buckets on back-to-back trips that seemed to dropkick the Suns out of the offensive rut they were in when Booker wasn’t involved.

A Rubio three, Baynes three and Rubio long two later and the Suns were somehow up six as Booker returned 8:21 of game time later, which felt like a miracle given the status of the offense before.

That was all because of Johnson, a little 4-0 run many won’t discuss at the watercooler on Tuesday but everyone in the moment knew was humongous.

“Tyler’s always locked in every single day,” Booker said.

“We have so much confidence in ourselves, that it’s, obviously, you don’t want him to get four fouls, but at the end of the day man, I’ve played in playoff games,”  Johnson said. “This is a regular-season game, it’s just a really good atmosphere.

“It’s not like I come in (and) I’m like, ‘Oh no Booker got his fourth foul what are we gonna do?!’ It’s like, yo, it’s time to play basketball. It’s time for somebody else to step up until we can get back to what it is that we want to get back to.”

That’s the type of professional, experienced basketball players Williams and general manager James Jones said they targeted, a guy with only eight points that can be a pivotal, timely piece.

“He just hit a few shots and it kind of settled us a little bit,” Williams said of Johnson. “Then, when we got guys back in the game, we made our run.”

That’s where the bad man closed up shop over a five-minute stretch.

After Rubio hit a three that should be credited to Booker’s pass off a double, Booker scored nine straight Suns points and assisted Kelly Oubre Jr.’s dunk made it 109-103 with 1:08 to go. He essentially manufactured 14 points of offense over 5:08 of game time to lock ‘er up.

It felt like the Suns were simply surviving, and they freaking won this game. Frank Kaminsky couldn’t hit a shot, it was the second straight game Carter didn’t have an impact off the bench and Oubre’s presence wasn’t felt too much through 14 points.

Despite that, they not only found a way to win, but they were simply the better team. Yes, no Joel Embiid for Philly, but that was definitively the one game we can say the Suns saw a team around their best and beat them anyway.

It was not a game where the play of Baynes or Rubio particularly stood out to you, but then you scan the box score. You see Baynes added 15 points, seven rebounds and six assists, plus Rubio’s 21 points, seven rebounds and 10 assists of his own. The contributions managed to wind up being there even when it felt like they weren’t. That goes back to them being the types of players Jones and Williams wanted.

The most encouraging part of that from a team perspective is that there was no statistical difference in either team looking across the major categories except a 48-32 Suns edge in points in the paint. And even then, that’s nothing crazy. Rebounds, assists, turnovers, shooting percentages etc. were all just about even.

This is all a long-winded way of saying the Suns simply possess too many traits as a team that can deny them being anything below a massive improvement from last season. Remember, they didn’t win five games until Dec. 13 when they were 5-24.

Here’s what we know.

They are now 5-2, having lost by a point apiece to the Denver Nuggets and Utah Jazz, and the last six games have been without Deandre Ayton.

The team has undeniable positive habits of moving the ball, playing a combination of sound and scrappy defense, sticking around in games it feels like they should be down 10-plus in and making opposing teams really work to even get that far.

Whether you land on this being a team that can win a playoff series, a team that will be in the race for a spot in postseason basketball, or you’re just happy to have a competent, competitive Suns basketball team, what we can definitively say is the days of threatening for 60 losses, and probably 50, are over right now.

And if you’ve learned something about Williams by now, it’s business as usual for him despite this gargantuan turnaround of a team and a franchise that he has led.

“We’ve got, I don’t know, two hours to enjoy it,” Williams said. “And then tomorrow I’ll start thinking about Miami. That’s the life of an NBA coach.

“I want our guys to enjoy it but I got about two-and-a-half hours and then I’m back to film,” he said with a laugh.

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