Suns stabilize, get much-needed decisive win against Timberwolves
PHOENIX — Staying afloat and not sinking had to be the goal for the Phoenix Suns as they waited for the return of Deandre Ayton from suspension, both when it happened after the first game of the season and even after they got off to a tremendous 7-4 start.
The ship has been punctured in the last two-plus weeks.
Built on playing the right way under Monty Williams with sound defense, their performance on that end tailed off dramatically, lacking any cohesion and fundamentals as a group while injuries to Ricky Rubio and Aron Baynes didn’t help, either.
They were a sensational Devin Booker performance in Minnesota, a string of plays late by Kelly Oubre Jr. in Charlotte and a mucky overtime win in New Orleans away from losing all of the next 11.
Instead, they clawed to three wins there, but still eked ’em out in close games and were not close stylistically to the team they were.
On Monday night at home, however, they got back to playing that way and stabilized a bit with a decisive 125-109 win against the Minnesota Timberwolves.
In what has been a repeated theme in their last few games, the first half was chalked full of poor defense by both sides, which made sure that neither could pull away at any point.
The Suns (11-12) trailed by three through 24 minutes, giving up an astounding 44 points in the paint, a stat they were ranked 23rd in by averaging to allow 50.1 a game.
It was your classic “the game is right there for the taking” situation, and unlike either New Orleans or Phoenix did on Thursday and like James Harden did on Saturday, the Suns snatched it up.
A mostly positive defensive third quarter resulted in 21 points for the Timberwolves (10-13) after they scored 31 and 33 in the first two quarters, respectively. On the other end, Booker doubled his point total from 12 to 24, Rubio had four assists and perhaps the most encouraging bit was they only shot 44% in that quarter to go plus-12 and be up nine.
This was not getting bailed out by an offensive explosion, rather, eight assists on 11 buckets while forcing seven turnovers on the other end.
“I just thought the effort to do what we do with some urgency in the third quarter, I mean they had 21 points, I thought that was the game,” head coach Monty Williams said.
Most importantly, the Suns maintained a healthy advantage in the fourth and took care of business.
“It’s good for confidence when you can keep a team like that, that has two guys that are pretty much All-Star guys, keep them from taking over the game,” Williams said.
While it was, to be fair, not a complete game defensively, Phoenix scored at least 28 points in all four quarters and 30-plus in three, shooting 49.5% from the field, hitting 16 three-pointers and racking up 31 assists on just nine turnovers.
It felt like a breakthrough for the Suns particularly because of two players being their signature performers that have settled in after iffy beginnings this season.
Dario Saric continued his strong run of play in the past half-dozen games, seeming to finally find his footing as a contributor by being more than just a floor spacer and solid help defender. He had 20 points, nine rebounds, one assist and a steal.
“Dario’s — he’s a warrior,” Williams said. “That’s why the guys love him. He competes.”
Even though Mikal Bridges’ jumper is still a large item of concern in his outlook as a second-year pro, he has also discovered his stride on how to impact games without his shot operating properly.
His nine points snapped his five-game streak of scoring in double figures, but he made up for it with a stat-stuffing eight rebounds, four assists, three steals and two blocks. The output of those four stats has only been recorded by five Suns players in a game this decade (once each), per Basketball-Reference.
“He’s just attacking the basket,” Williams said of Bridges. “I think it frees him up to take those three-point shots, because when you’re in his position, you’re not gonna see a (high) number of (shot) attempts.”
Bridges clearly has a new approach of crashing the rim instead of going to and staying in the corner as a shooter. He’s got the quickness and leaping ability to make it work athletically despite a wiry frame, and he’s always been an underrated finisher.
Plus, having Rubio find him in those spots helps. Both of his shots at the rim were assisted by the Spaniard.
And finding that comfort has boosted his confidence all the way to him being an absolute menace defensively, where he always shined as a rookie, but now he’s borderline humiliating some guys with how he crowds them.
So, combining all that with his niche of making “winning plays” and you’ve got one of the team’s best players despite single-digit scoring.
It’s going to be a good night for Phoenix when Saric and Bridges are the two who stand out.
Oubre had 24 points on his 24th birthday (as only he could do), Booker had 26 with seven assists and Rubio added 16 points and 14 assists.
There was also the boost of a returning Aron Baynes, who had missed the last four games due to a left calf strain. He played 15 minutes and had 12 points, four rebounds, an assist and a block off the bench.
“It’s unbelievable,” Booker said of Baynes’ impact in a lesser role. “One, the screen he sets. The way he spaces the floor, his energy, hearing his voice on the court instead of from the bench is a lot better also. We need him.”
Williams had spotty minutes for Baynes to ease him back, electing to start Frank Kaminsky still, whose poor play seems to finally have added up to a decline in playing time at only nine minutes Monday.
That meant a lot of Saric playing small-ball five and a quick four minutes for Cheick Diallo, which, yes, equaled another monster performance from Minnesota’s Karl-Anthony Towns with 33 points and 15 rebounds.
But the Timberwolves didn’t have enough of an offensive boost behind him and 25 from Andrew Wiggins to keep up, nor the defensive switch the Suns flipped in the second half.
No one will say it on the team, as there have been some small positives mixed in these last now 12 games, but there was an undeniable boost from a glimpse of the Suns getting back to the team they were when the whole league was buzzing about them.
The timing could not be more perfect, as they have three more winnable games against Memphis, San Antonio and Portland before the big fella comes back.
To get on a roll, and, quite frankly, just at or above .500 when Ayton returns on Dec. 17 would be a tremendous boost. They can achieve that by winning two out of those next three games.