EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Suns ride defensive effort to rare win in off-night scoring for Devin Booker

Jan 12, 2020, 9:37 PM | Updated: Jan 13, 2020, 12:40 pm
Phoenix Suns forward Kelly Oubre Jr. (3) dunks against the Charlotte Hornets during the second half...
Phoenix Suns forward Kelly Oubre Jr. (3) dunks against the Charlotte Hornets during the second half of an NBA basketball game Sunday, Jan. 12, 2020, in Phoenix. Phoenix won 100-92. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)
(AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

PHOENIX — As they are currently constructed, the Phoenix Suns are not going to win if Devin Booker isn’t scoring.

Sunday night’s 100-92 win over the Charlotte Hornets was the counter to that, as Booker scored only 12 points — five of which were free throws in the final 30 seconds — but a strong team defensive effort, Kelly Oubre Jr.’s monster night and Deandre Ayton’s key contributions got the Suns across the finish line.

It’s only the Suns’ fourth win since Booker’s second season (2016-17) when he scores fewer than 13 points. They were previously 3-21. While he did have nine assists, Booker also had seven turnovers and shot 3-for-12.

On the flip side, the Suns are now 11-7 this season when Oubre scores 20-plus. He posted 25 points, 15 rebounds, an assist, three steals and two blocks in 40 minutes. He’s the fourth forward or guard in the last 10 seasons to have that line or better, per Basketball-Reference.

Oubre’s energy has an undeniable way of changing games, and when it leads to serious production, he transforms from an impactful role player into a worthy second fiddle to Booker, making the Suns very difficult to beat.

“He brings an edge every night and that’s who we are. We have to play with that edge,” head coach Monty Williams said of Oubre.

The game itself was clunky and uninspiring. In what should be a testament to how bad the Hornets were and what defense can do for the Suns, only two other times this season have the Suns produced 22 or less assists with 18 or more turnovers, and they lost both games. Those two numbers somehow equaled a win Sunday.

Charlotte’s high for scoring in a quarter was 26, where the Suns’ feisty energy and effort combined with the Hornets’ lack of execution was the swing.

“Sometimes the effort and will of our players trumps the scheme and those guys just made plays at the end and we did just enough to win a game,” Williams said.

The Hornets were 8-for-35 (22.9%) from three-point range, which offset any damage the Suns would take from their 7-of-21 (33.3%) number.

Charlotte recovered from a horrendous four points in the opening five minutes to being up six at the end of the first quarter.

Little spurts from the Suns in the second and third quarters had them either right within reach of the lead or in front. The Hornets hung on or maintained a small advantage in those quarters, including the fourth, when they made it a one-possession game with under 2:30 to go.

From there, whether more credit should go to the Suns’ intensity or the Hornets malfunctioning is up to the observer, but Charlotte proceeded to turn the ball over on three of its next five possessions to allow Phoenix to go up six with under a minute to go.

Inside the layers of this ugly game was a strong night for Ayton, who had his usual production at 18 points and nine rebounds. While that’s almost always there, Ayton’s dives around the rim, second efforts on the offensive glass and shot contests defensively were key.

“Just being a presence,” Oubre said of Ayton. “He’s a dominant big man. He’s working and learning how to find himself in this league, and the more situations he’s in like that, the better he’ll get every game.”

It wasn’t a star performance by Ayton, but the way he played Sunday as a supplementary piece goes a very long way in making the Suns a better team. And once the former No. 1 pick can do all of those things right and produce at an elite level like he’s capable of, that’s where it starts to get a whole lot of fun.

The five-game homestand for the Suns was not one where they broke through the wall that fortified itself during a terrible stretch of basketball. They went 3-2, winning three close games against bad teams. Some of their usual gaffes and slip-ups were still present in those victories.

Regardless, they need something to build off in order to trend upward from 16-23. On a two-game win streak with the 8-32 Atlanta Hawks next and the 11-29 New York Knicks after, maybe this can be that.

Penguin Air

Penguin Air

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