Rubio, Booker lead Suns to thrashing of Nets in bounce-back win
PHOENIX — The Phoenix Suns’ loss to the Miami Heat on Thursday night felt like the low point of the season thus far, both in terms of momentum and quality of play.
Head coach Monty Williams referred to some problems and “slippage” they had in the last 2-3 games specifically, making Sunday’s affair with the Brooklyn Nets even more fascinating to see how the Suns responded.
Well, they did respond, and they did so emphatically.
Phoenix did a more than fine job on the league’s best offense and an MVP candidate in Kyrie Irving while thrashing the Nets offensively in a 138-112 rout.
The successful team basketball elements were back and better than ever. Phoenix (6-3) had a season-high 37 assists on 52 field goals with a season-low seven turnovers. They made the Nets (4-5) pay on the other end, scoring a ludicrous 32 points off 17 Brooklyn turnovers.
“What’s not to like?” Williams said after the game. “It was a big-time effort on our part to just do what we do.”
It also helped that they shot the absolute you-know-what off the ball, making 19 of their 42 three-point attempts.
“The stats showed,” Kelly Oubre Jr. said after the game. “We shot that ball really well today. We can’t really live or die by the three but tonight was hitting. We have a really good three-point shooting team as a collective. Nights like this, it’s scary.”
Brooklyn shot 8-for-34 from deep and Irving, who averaged nearly 32 points a game coming into Sunday, had only 15 on 7-for-16 shooting.
The Suns starters were terrific all game behind Ricky Rubio, who had his best game in a Suns uniform.
“I thought Ricky set the tone,” Williams said of the ball movement being led by Rubio.
Rubio had 22 points, four rebounds, 12 assists and two steals on 10-of-16 shooting with zero turnovers.
Devin Booker wasn’t far behind, quietly impacting the offense in the first half before going off in the second for 15 of his 27 points on 14 shots, adding nine assists on only two turnovers. He was a game-high plus-40.
Aron Baynes provided 14 points, Kelly Oubre Jr. had 18 and Dario Saric made it all five starters in double figures with 12.
Johnson and Johnson Inc. off the bench supplied a much-needed boost where Phoenix required it offensively.
Cam had his best game as a Sun yet, with 15 points, six rebounds, two assists, two steals and two blocks. Tyler did his usual calming of the storm, inserting key plays here and there to 14 points and two assists.
Rubio began the game with seven assists in the game’s opening seven minutes, contributing to a 33-13 advantage. From there, the wheels fell off through the bench, seeing Brooklyn go on a 31-13 run to only trail by two midway through the second quarter.
That made you wonder if this was still the same team we saw in the past week despite a wonderful beginning to the game.
But in came the Suns opening five, and again, they beat the brakes off the Nets, pushing the halftime lead to 68-50. Oubre was plus-27 at the half.
The mauling picked up right where it left off in the second half. Booker and Rubio combined for 21 of the Suns’ 38 points in the third quarter, adding in four assists, with a Booker back-to-back three-pointer sequence pushing the lead all the way up to 28.
Brooklyn didn’t have another response in them. The fourth quarter was a party that included some “M-V-P!” chants for Booker along the way, seeing garbage time commence and deep reserves enter while there was still over five minutes left on the clock. When’s the last time that happened in Talking Stick Resort Arena — well, at least for the home team?!
This was the ultimate two-game swing of the Suns are going to “have games like this.”
On Thursday, Miami hit shots, played harder, got what they wanted offensively and executed defensively. The Suns were all and all “outplayed.”
Phoenix got to play the role of the Heat in this one, and the crazy part is, like the bad nights, the good nights are going to keep on rolling as long as they stick to the system.
That can be difficult for a young upstart like the Suns to do without much to lean on, though, in terms of prior franchise cornerstones and principles, as Williams delicately put it postgame.
“For a team that doesn’t have a ton of continuity, it’s good for us,” Williams said of the response. “Because we don’t have that Spurs history or the Golden State history where you know you can come back or you’ve been there before — we haven’t.
“So we are creating a history right now. We are creating experiences with each other. When I have to call a timeout, it’s good to look over to the bench and see all our guys talking about defense and what we need to do to maintain, or get back into it or get what we had back to a higher level.
“So we gotta create history. We gotta create experience so that we can have a reference point to refer to. Right now we don’t have a ton of it.”
And don’t think for a second that Williams is taking yet another positive sign in this bounce-back win as a long-term indicator that the Suns are for real.
“Yeah, it’s a test, but we got so many more to pass before we can call ourselves a solid team,” he said. “We’re getting there but we got a ways to go.”
KEY BENCH OBSERVATIONS
There were a couple of notable bench and rotation developments in this game.
Firstly, Frank Kaminsky’s struggles continued. The 26-year-old has been hesitating to shoot lately and that persisted on Sunday. He was 1-for-7 from the field and missed both his free throws, including an airball if you needed any more indication that he’s in his own head.
With Deandre Ayton suspended, the Suns have been relying on Kaminsky as the backup center and as a key scoring option.
Elsewhere, Cam Johnson entered the game ahead of Mikal Bridges, who is also not shooting the ball well. That’s where Johnson has a clear edge while Bridges makes up for it through intangibles and defensive prowess.
While that type of move might suggest Johnson is ahead of Bridges in the rotation, Johnson played six minutes during that first half while Bridges contributed double that in 12.
But Williams wants to play Johnson more.
“I’m just trying to find him more minutes,” Williams said. “Cam plays the way we want to play. He can shoot the ball but he can do other things.”
It was only a nine-man rotation because Jevon Carter was left out after a couple of poor games. Carter’s ability to hit shots fell off, and while his defensive intensity is remarkable, taller guards like Josh Richardson and Goran Dragic were able to simply shoot over him with success.
Tyler Johnson was the backup point guard ahead of Carter, who did not play until garbage time.
Williams was fairly concrete as to his reasoning.
“We weren’t closing out quarters well and as a coach, it’s my job to make decisions,” he said. “Shortening the rotation gives you a chance to give guys more minutes. Unfortunately, Jevon was the casualty there.
“I have to make decisions at times to help the team and I talked to him about it and he was great. We’re gonna see how it works. See if we can continue to get Cam more minutes, maybe play Tyler at some backup point, Devin plays lead guard at times. So we’ll figure it out as we go along but I thought tonight’s rotation was different but it was a bit cleaner.”
Saric was the flex piece that Williams took in and out of the game, with the power forward finishing at 26 minutes. The Suns had plenty of minutes without him on the court and two of Bridges, Johnson and Oubre on.
It’s certainly something that might change again when rookie Ty Jerome is healthy and the eventual adjustment that comes with Ayton’s return as well.