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Suns hang around in stupefying game to inexplicably beat Mavericks

Phoenix Suns players react during player introductions before playing against the Dallas Mavericks during the first half of an NBA basketball game Sunday, Aug. 2, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis, Pool)

There were enough reasons for the Phoenix Suns to lose to the Dallas Mavericks on Sunday. Opposing star players going off. A brutal, tight whistle. Foul trouble because of that. A flat performance from one of their stars.

And yet, it’s a 117-115 Suns victory that I’m not quite sure how to properly convey into the written medium.

Let’s give it a shot.

First off, the Suns’ starting backcourt of Devin Booker and Ricky Rubio was phenomenal.

Booker had 30 points on 10-of-20 shooting with four assists while Rubio added 20 points, nine rebounds and seven assists.

But it was far more than the nice-looking box score.

“Book and Ricky just stayed with it,” head coach Monty Williams said.

This game was already out of the Suns’ control and firmly in Luka Doncic’s only halfway through the first quarter. Doncic saw the referees were calling a lot of questionable contact fouls and got to the rim even more than he had planned because of it, taking 12 free throws in the first half. He and Kristaps Porzingis combined for 41 points in a first half they dominated.

And with Deandre Ayton not having things go his way offensively early and spirling from there to pick up three fouls with 8:13 to go in the second quarter, the pace of the game forced someone on the Suns’ offense to be aggressive.

That was a mixture of Rubio and Booker in the first half, who willed the Suns to being within striking distance of a game they quite frankly did not deserve to be in, only down 13 at the half.

“Those two guys didn’t let that deter them,” Williams said of a game that seemed to be falling away from them. “They just stayed the course. We just kept saying that in the huddle, ‘Just stay the course. Hold on. We’ll have a chance to win.’ … It’s a testament to those two guys and how they’re leading.”

Then Booker got his fourth foul at the end of the first half.

And then Ayton got his fourth and fifth fouls within 40 seconds of each other with 8:25 left in the third quarter.

And then Booker got his fifth foul less than a minute later with Phoenix trailing nine.

The Suns’ net rating all season has swan dived off a cliff when more than one of Ayton, Rubio and Booker are off the court, and Williams usually tries to plan around it. This he couldn’t plan for, so this was an unmitigated disaster and seemingly the end of the game.

Then the Mavericks started missing threes. Again. And again. And again.

Meanwhile, Rubio was again smashing his foot on the gas pedal offensively. He set up a Jevon Carter three-pointer. He had a hockey assist on a Cam Johnson three-pointer, followed by finding Frank Kaminsky for a dunk.

The Suns were only down three. Huh?

Rubio scored. One-point deficit. Huh?

Kaminsky tipped in a Rubio miss. One-point lead. Huh?

Now, with 4:44 left in the third, Rubio had to rest. He had done all he could in a 14-3 run over just 2:44 since Booker sat. With the way Rubio’s body handles heavy minutes, this was too early in the eight-game run over 14 days to really push his limit.

On top of that, when does Williams bring back in Booker and Ayton? Late in the third quarter? Is that too much time to trust them with? Can they play 12-plus minutes to finish the game out strong?

“I wish I had some equation for you but it’s a feel thing and you’re hoping it works out,” Williams said of that point. “You’re trying to hold off as best you can.

“And the thing that allowed me to do it was Jevon (Carter) and Cam (Payne) and Dario (Saric). They came into the game and gave us boost after boost after boost.”

Somehow, the Suns’ momentum kept going in a quarter fueled by mayhem, and the two guards Williams mentioned were the agents of chaos.

Kaminsky hit two free throws off a foul set up by Payne. Johnson converted on another three from Carter for the second time. Carter made his own three. Then Payne hit back-to-back threes.

The buzzer sounded for the third quarter and the Suns were up four, outscoring the Mavericks by 13 since Booker got his fifth foul and 36-19 overall in the quarter.

“That is what a playoff team does,” Rubio said. “Sometimes the starters gotta bring it, sometimes the bench helps when the starters don’t have their night. It’s a whole team thing and I think we showed it tonight.”

If you can’t tell, the game never had any rhythm in the third quarter and it was never found by either team in the fourth quarter.

After a sloppy four minutes in which I want to reiterate that Dallas could NOT stop missing threes, Booker checked back in and had his influential spurt of play that was similar to the one that won Friday’s game.

His drive-and-kick assisted Saric for a three and then he took Tim Hardaway Jr.’s lunch money in 1-on-1 matchups back-to-back possessions to put the Suns up nine with 6:36 to go.

Through more madness, and again, the Mavericks’ refusal to make a three-pointer, the Suns were up four with 1:26 to go when Booker fouled out.

It was a mess from there that included more than one replay review, two Rubio free throws, two easy Doncic buckets and a final possession for Dallas down two in which Ayton made one of the plays of the night defending Porzingis from deep.

The Latvian big man missed, and after the review for a loose ball declared Mavericks ball, Hardaway missed a three, making Dallas’ final tally 1-of-18 (!!!!!) in the second half and a two-point Suns win.

Phew. OK, everyone take a few seconds to catch your breath while I do the same … …. Alrighty. We’re back.

How about that win, Monty?

“It’s just a lot of competitive guys with a ton of drive and will,” Williams said.

The Mavericks’ All-Star duo kept it going throughout too. Doncic (40 points) and Porzingis (30) combined for 70.

“We certainly couldn’t stop those guys,” Williams said.

But it was just one of those games that was enough of a fumble by Dallas for the Suns to scoop and score with off those attributes Williams mentioned.

The Suns have started 2-0 in the bubble, in two games they arguably didn’t play all that well in. But they grinded through ’em, and that might be more valuable than a pair of clean 15-point blowouts.

“Like I just told them, this was what I wanted to experience in this bubble was something like this where we had our backs against the wall and across the board we got efforts from everybody,” Williams said.

“It was just will. It was drive, it was a never-quit attitude and I was just proud of them. I was just wanting them to experience something like that together so that we can grow as a team.”

And they got that out of his experience, regardless of what happens next, whether it’s a fairy-tale run at a playoff spot or not.

“You can’t practice that,” Rubio said. “You gotta go through a process and you can’t skip it. And coming here really helped.”

NOTES

— It’s cruel to Johnson that he doesn’t fit in the main bit of this story. Unless Booker and Rubio were hitting all of their shots, someone else had to step up to avoid that being a trouncing in the opening 24 minutes. It was Johnson, who had 13 of his 19 points and eight of his career-high 12 rebounds in the first half.

Booker found Johnson in the corner for two of his threes in the first quarter that reminded you of how deadly the 23-year-old shooting guard could be as a playmaker with more shooting around him.

— It was not Mikal Bridges’ night for a multitude of reasons. He was the player struggling with the bad whistle the most, picking up a few very questionable foul calls throughout the night.

He needed all he could get too because after he made some great stops on Doncic early, the Slovenian was getting anywhere he wanted.

Offensively, Bridges missed his first five shots and finished 2-of-9 on the night for three turnovers. It was one of the few nights where there’s an argument there if you want to make it that Bridges was a negative, and yet he had two steals, three blocks and was plus-5 on the night.

— Ayton looked more engaged than Friday in the early going, but after a few mishandles of the ball around the rim he clearly wasn’t as locked in anymore. Boban Marjanovic beat him down the floor on two separate possessions, which were the types of plays that made you think this thing was over.

Ayton finished with seven points and eight rebounds in 21 minutes, one of his worst games of the season. The Suns cannot stay afloat in Orlando much longer if Ayton plays the way he did in six of the past eight quarters.

— Carter has continued to look like more of a “0.5” player in Orlando in terms of making quick decisions with the ball while also not doing too much. He was great in this game and had five assists.

— Payne had 10 points while Saric added 13 points and eight rebounds. It was a big night for the bench, with Kaminsky even bringing some scoring in that third quarter after a rough showing defensively.

— On top of that horrible shooting in the first half, Dallas had only seven assists in the second half. The Suns shot 7-of-17 from deep for the last two quarters.

— To leave you on how dumb this game was, somehow there were only 19 total turnovers between the two teams in what felt like an incredibly sloppy game. Dumb.


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