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Suns stay in control, win ‘ugly game’ against Wizards in bubble opener

Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker (1) celebrates with teammates in the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Washington Wizards in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., Friday, July 31, 2020. (Kim Klement/Pool Photo via AP)

The Washington Wizards are a top-five NBA team in pace, and the Phoenix Suns welcomed the invitation to a track meet.

When it’s such an inferior team like the Wizards doing so, that should eventually lead to the Suns pulling away if Washington doesn’t hit enough shots.

That was the case, but in an odd way where the Suns never truly put the final nail in the coffin until the three-minute mark of the fourth quarter for a 125-112 win on Friday’s bubble opener.

“There were moments for us that are going to be great tomorrow in film session because we won an ugly game against a team that plays really, really hard,” head coach Monty Williams said.

The Suns defensively didn’t quite lock in off the bat, and a handful of bad turnovers in the third quarter put them in a “mire” as Williams put it, to where their defense couldn’t get set because of it.

They were below average to their defensive standards, and that combined with Phoenix shooting 11-of-32 (34.4%) from three-point range and committing 17 turnovers were fundamental team aspects executed at a mediocre level that let Washington hang around just enough.

“We basically played against ourselves, and to be able to feel like you didn’t play as well and score 125 points, that’s a good thing for us,” Williams said.

The Suns had several small spurts of strong play from individuals that kept them ahead by 8-12 points for most of the game.

Cam Johnson, who got the start over Dario Saric, was the main guy in the first quarter with 10 points, along with Saric off the bench.

Mikal Bridges showed up in the second quarter, Deandre Ayton got some buckets in the third quarter and a few plays by Cameron Payne and Jevon Carter in both halves kept the lead padded enough for Devin Booker to close out the game in the fourth.

Ricky Rubio being the most consistent player throughout and a 16-0 run in the second quarter with Payne, Carter and Booker in together were the main sources of victory.

The push from those three guards involved the rare successful press defensively, led by Payne and Carter.

“I thought it gave us some juice when we didn’t have it at a high level,” Williams said.

Those two hit more shots in the third quarter, and that was part of that stretch where Williams credited his team keeping their poise and not spiraling.

Booker finished with a game-high 27 points and a plus-24 +/-. A 10-point edge went to the Wizards when Booker rested in the first half, but the surge from the three-guard lineup when he came in offset that.

The Wizards kept fighting back and scoring as Williams said, all the way to the four-minute mark of the fourth quarter only trailing by seven. That’s when Booker found Ayton inside, hit a three and then set up a Rubio jumper for his own self-made 7-0 run to shut the door completely.

He and Rubio combined for 17 free throw attempts and made all of them, clearly sharing a mindset on getting to the basket off the dribble against Washington’s perimeter defenders.

“We’re focused on getting stops and letting the offense just flow,” Booker said after the game. “That was our main goal.”

Rubio added 15 points, nine assists and three steals, and the guard duo’s good overall defense should be mentioned here too.

The opening portion of Friday’s game was a reminder of what an unengaged Ayton looks like. Fortunately, the Suns made him more involved in the second half and that got him back on track to finish with 24 points, 12 rebounds, three assists and two blocks.

But the first half was filled with frustration.

The second-year center still has the concerning trend of getting disconnected from the game, and it’s easy to spot the signs with how often we’ve seen it. Some will describe this as a “patient” performance, but there were clear examples when he was tentative.

Whether it’s catching a pass here and deciding to pass instead of shoot or dribble…

Or getting the ball here against the generously-listed 6-foot-tall Ish Smith and passing out it…

It’s a lack of aggression that has Ayton playing all too kindly into some of the negative narratives surrounding him. He also had a handful of defensive possessions in that first half where he was not moving with the sense of urgency that he usually has this season.

If it wasn’t for Saric and Johnson’s strong play early, along with that huge second quarter run, the Suns really could have been in trouble because of a dud from Ayton in the opening 24 minutes against the lowly Wizards. And surely a better team would have made it more problematic. That’s the standard he’s held at as one of the team’s best players and especially because of how much he has improved.

It’s the main source of what makes Ayton so divisive, when, if you asked me, I’d say overall yes he did play well. Williams and Booker spoke highly of his play, as they should.

“I’m not a guy who wants shots. I’m a guy who’s in rhythm. If I can’t score this half or anything, I try my best to playmake, rebound, play defense and I let the game come to me,” Ayton said of the half-to-half assessment. “I just took what the defense gave me and my team found me in every space.”

The day for Ayton included two makes from three-point range, one in which Ayton confidently stepped back into a look at the top of the key.

He stepped up his defense in the second half too.

In a way, Ayton’s performance as a whole represented the win for the Suns.

It might not have been in the most ideal and perfect way, but the end result was there in a fairly convincing manner.

And they did it playing the way Williams wants to, with 29 assists and eight of the Suns’ nine players having at least two of them.

Everyone played hard, and when they weren’t playing well, they still managed to figure it out.

“We played well in spurts tonight but we had times where we needed to come back together. We fought hard the rest of the game,” Booker said.

They’ll take that.

“I’d rather teach off of a night like this than to not play as well as you want to and lose the game so I’m glad we’re going to have some teaching moments for tomorrow,” Williams said.

NOTES

— Payne got the nod ahead of rookie first-round pick Ty Jerome for the backup point guard minutes. If that wasn’t a permanent move before the game, it was after. Payne played well, posting nine points, three rebounds, two assists, two steals and a block in 19 minutes. It was a refreshing change of pace to see a Suns reserve guard create their own shot off the dribble and convert multiple times.

— Frank Kaminsky was the only player of the nine in the rotation I didn’t mention above, and he wasn’t necessarily bad in the game, either. His presence was notable, as he played in place of Aron Baynes, who is still getting his conditioning back after a month-plus with the coronavirus.

— Saric looked more than fine off that left ankle injury from Tuesday’s final scrimmage. He played 27 minutes and had 16 points, six rebounds, three assists and a steal. If I had to pick the most consistent player all game outside of the backcourt, it was definitely Saric.

Williams had Johnson as his first sub out for Saric, which allowed him to have Johnson later come in for Bridges, and those two led the bench to some solid play in the first quarter. With how successful that dynamic was, I wouldn’t be shocked to see Johnson start again on Sunday, especially with how solid he was defensively as well.


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