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Scoreboard-watching Suns face fascinating test in shorthanded Heat

Phoenix Suns' Devin Booker (1) drives to the basket against Miami Heat's Bam Adebayo (13) during the second half of an NBA basketball game Thursday, Nov. 7, 2019, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Darryl Webb)

With a deserved 4-0 start to the bubble, the Phoenix Suns needing to do the seemingly impossible by running the table and going 8-0 seems a whole lot more tangible.

They were afforded no breathing room for playoff hopes in the format, with even a perfect bubble performance potentially not being enough.

The basics to understand is that if the Suns go 8-0, there’s a good chance they are one of the two Western Conference teams to have a play-in for the eighth and final playoff spot. Even if they lose just one game and are 7-1, though, they need to get very lucky to make it. For now, 6-2 is still possible, but that would be the equivalent of winning the lottery.

It’s so challenging because of the ground the Suns had to make up coming in while also competing with four other teams for the spots.

Because of all this, the Suns were given virtually no chance to make the playoffs both statistically and in the bubble discourse. And can you blame them given the past precedent?

Anywhoo, what matters is where we’re at now, which is the Suns and their unlikely pursuit of a playoff spot being the biggest story of the bubble.

That’s where this gets a little funky for Phoenix because they did not come to Orlando with that as the goal.

Before you #wellactually me into oblivion, of course the Suns want to win every game and make a run, but there was a clear, unified mentality the team shared.

“We’re trying to get better and make some noise,” All-Star guard Devin Booker said on July 13. “There’s nothing more to it and putting expectations out there … we just want to be known as a team that plays hard and plays together.”

Booker said two wins in that an 8-0 record wasn’t even on the team’s mind, and it was the same message after Thursday’s victory to keep the record perfect.

“We still have plans and goals for this team to reach and 4-0 wasn’t it,” he said.

“Right when we figured out that we were coming down here, we took it on as a challenge and got better as a team.”

Head coach Monty Williams didn’t deny they’re keeping an eye on what’s going on with other teams, though.

“We’re humans, right? We look at that stuff but it’s not always the primary focus,” he said after Thursday’s win.

“Everybody has a goal of making the playoffs but there’s stuff you have to do to get there.”

Guard Cameron Payne was a little more blunt when asked if they are looking at other scores through four games.

“On the way to the game, leaving the game — we do it all the time,” he said.

Wing Mikal Bridges joined along in Suns Twitter wishing well to Utah Jazz guard Joe Ingles for hitting some big shots late for Utah to beat the Memphis Grizzlies on Wednesday.

Either way, they’ve got plenty of work to do, and that continues with the Miami Heat on Saturday.

The Heat are one of the teams Williams has spoken the highest of across the entire season.

“Miami’s always been the team that everybody around the league respects because they play hard, they have a DNA, they have an identity,” he said in November.

That’s what the Suns want to be and are building toward establishing even further in Orlando.

Williams has always spotlighted teams like Boston and Miami that have multiple ball-handlers and are “versatile,” as he described the Heat. Those sound like the gameplans that produce the most headaches, and with good reason.

Even with some roster changes since the Suns lost to the Heat 124-108 on Nov. 7, it’s still the same overall threat, albeit a shorthanded one.

Miami’s leading scoring bunch of Jimmy Butler (20.2 points per game), Goran Dragic (16.2), Bam Adebayo (16.1) and Kendrick Nunn (15.2) also add up to 19.5 assists per game. But two of those four will not play and another one could be out as well.

Butler is out due to a foot injury and Nunn left the bubble. Dragic is also questionable, but with that in mind, the aforementioned DNA doesn’t change how the Heat are going to play.

“You just gotta guard the ball,” Williams said. “That’s something that, if you can’t guard the ball for 2-3 dribbles, no scheme is gonna help you. So if you’re giving up blow-bys to the basket and playing in rotations, you’re going to be in trouble.”

That is an alarming quote to look back on because the Suns’ number one problem in the win over the Indiana Pacers on Thursday was allowing 1-on-1 dribble penetration to get to the rim.

This is too easy.

And this.

And this.

The Pacers scored 30 points in the paint in the first half and most of it was off plays like that.

That and the center matchup are the two keys to the game.

Deandre Ayton missed the first Miami matchup because of his 25-game suspension, so this will be the first time he’s faced the All-Star Adebayo since last season when the Heat big man was coming off the bench.

Adebayo is one of the best centers in the league, an absolute workhorse that makes him an intriguing matchup for Ayton because he’s just as athletic and skilled.

The 23-year-old is averaging 16.1 points, 10.4 rebounds and 5.1 assists per game. At least 16-10-5 by a center has only been done by him, Nikola Jokic, DeMarcus Cousins, Bill Walton, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Wilt Chamberlain, per Basketball-Reference.

That’s a unique skillset to say the least, and one that requires Ayton to be attentive at all times on both ends.

Adebayo’s motor is almost unrivaled and he’s a menace on the glass. Atlanta’s John Collins is one of the best rebounders in the league and Adebayo just rips this from him in crunch time.

Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra will use Adebayo often in dribble-handoff positions and at the elbow so his big has multiple passing lanes open. Along with Adebayo’s ability to make simple passes to his shooters when help comes, something we’ll see on Saturday, here’s also why the assists are so high:

Adebayo is more of a high-level defender because of his versatility than his rim protection at this point, but he’s still good at it and his likely All-Defense nod will come because he consistently makes plays like the next clip that engulf possessions.

Watch how fast Raptors All-Star Pascal Siakam turns on the jets to his left in semi-transition here with those long strides. And yet, Adebayo still manages to lose absolutely zero ground on him.

Adebayo had five steals in his trip to the Valley this season and he gets his hands everywhere in a similar fashion to Bridges.

All of these are accentuating parts of Adebayo’s game that make him a terrific overall player. This is what it can look like all in one sequence.

 

He’s the type of player who is consistently making his presence felt on the game, which is why the matchup with Ayton is so fascinating.

Ayton’s engagement levels overall have been lower than desired in Orlando, even if there have been some really great spurts like the second half against Washington and most of the Pacers game.

If Phoenix gets the average Ayton performance on Saturday, they’re likely going to be in trouble. But if Ayton can at least influence the game on a handful of occasions as he did against Indiana, in the way Adebayo does all the time, the Suns will be in a tremendous position to win.


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