Booker, Carter pick up rough Ayton performance for Suns’ 5th win in a row
With the Phoenix Suns missing Kelly Oubre Jr.. and Aron Baynes, two pieces that helped round out their depth, it was hard to imagine them winning a game in Orlando if their best players didn’t play well.
And you could argue that three of their best four did not on Saturday against the Miami Heat. And yet, they figured out a way to win 119-112 for the franchise’s first five-game winning streak since December of 2014 to maintain the league’s only undefeated record in the bubble.
Devin Booker was sensational as usual, with 35 points, three rebounds and six assists. He only committed one turnover despite Miami aggressively double-teaming him when they could.
Booker’s scoring bursts throughout the game kept the Suns afloat while a Heat team without three of their four leading scorers still managed to be in control for most of it. The largest scoring discrepancy in a quarter was just seven points, and Phoenix didn’t lead by at least five points until there were eight minutes left.
Jevon Carter was massive off the bench, hitting six three-pointers for 20 points, four rebounds and three assists, giving the team a much-needed push in the fourth quarter to create separation.
But the story was the poor play of namely Deandre Ayton, but also Mikal Bridges and Ricky Rubio for stretches of the game. The Suns were solid enough defensively as a unit that they should have not had to chase this game throughout, but they did.
The Heat had a gameplan to stall the Suns’ offense through Ayton, and it worked.
“I think that slowed down our pace in the first half,” Booker said.
It wasn’t the sole reason Ayton had one of his worst games of the year, because a lot of that as always was on his low engagement levels, but it’s fair to say it had an impact.
Miami’s strategy was having the ever-versatile center Bam Adebayo switch on all ball screens and then the other defender fronting Ayton in the post, with help always there under the basket.
If Ayton got the ball, that would require a high entry pass out of reach and him to keep the ball high. Adebayo can defend most guards decently enough so that mostly cancels out any mismatch there.
Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra essentially challenged Ayton to beat him that way, and Ayton couldn’t.
After a stretch of the second quarter in which he wasn’t given the ball on a few possessions where he wasn’t fronted, Ayton zoned out on both ends and responsible for a few buckets in a row.
Meanwhile, Bridges and Rubio started out shooting 0-for-8 combined.
Williams took responsibility for his team’s struggles with the concept, noting that he expected the Heat to go zone a fair bit, something Miami does often but did not once on Saturday.
Coming out of halftime, Williams attempted to manipulate the switches by getting Miami’s Jae Crowder on Ayton in the switches for a more favorable mismatch. The way in which they did so was a tweak as well to their normal offense, one that opened up the floor a bit more for drives in a way that wasn’t happening in the first half.
Booker said it was discussed at halftime and he liked the way they adjusted.
It didn’t necessarily work right away in terms of helping Ayton, but he had an offensive rebound fall in his lap and then Rubio set him up for a dunk to get something going for him in the third quarter.
With that in mind, you could sense the Suns were forcing themselves to get Ayton in his spots. Bridges threw a ridiculous lob attempt when Ayton called for it, and Bridges held his arms up in the air for a second when Ayton mistimed the jump.
The Suns’ crunch time offense was continuously getting Adebayo switched onto the ball-handler, which made little sense considering how Ayton was never taking advantage of the mismatch even when the fronting strategy faded away. Again, though, it also opened up the floor more, a win they were willing to take at the expense of that.
“We have to figure some things out if teams are switching like that [by finding] ways to punish them,” Booker said.
In the fourth, Carter made enough shots while Booker in the meantime did “best player in the arena” stuff to let Phoenix pull away.
Carter has been playing a more poised brand of basketball in Orlando, avoiding over-dribbling and being more of a willing passer on quick ball rotations.
When he’s doing that while maintaining his 38.5% shooting from three-point range and making a few key defensive plays of the game, that’s the secret sauce to him sticking as a bench piece in the league.
Carter had his sequence of the season in the mid-fourth quarter, stealing an Adebayo drive and then taking it the other way to find Ayton, a four-point swing that put the Suns up five.
Carter said that play sums up who he is.
“If there’s one thing you know about me or you should know about me is I don’t ever stop, I don’t ever give up,” he said.
“That’s who he is,” Williams said while bringing up the play unprompted. “He’s a fighter, he’s a battler.”
Carter hit his fifth three-pointer shortly after to make it an eight-point lead with 5:50 to go, and his sixth a minute later gave the Suns a grasp on the game they were lacking all night.
“It was big for me,” Carter said. “Every game I feel like I’m due for a game like that. That’s just how much work I put in. It may be a surprise to everybody else but for me it was what was supposed to happen.”
Ayton still got his 18 points and 12 rebounds, but it was undeniable how his performance nearly cost the Suns the game and their playoff chances.
Rubio worked his butt off in the second half during some of those aforementioned possessions to get Ayton looks around the basket. He evened himself out to seven points, 10 rebounds and eight assists.
Bridges shot 3-of-11 from the field for 10 points and had enough missteps on defense to make you notice, a once only every few times a season-type of occurrence for him.
Without Jimmy Butler (foot), Goran Dragic (ankle) and Kendrick Nunn (personal reasons), the Heat still got enough scoring from rookie Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson (25 points apiece) to stand a chance.
Adebayo was outstanding, proving his All-Star status with 18 points, seven rebounds, nine assists, a steal and three blocks.
For the Suns, it’s now five bubble games and wins down that were mostly grimy and hard-fought. Those are the situations the Suns wanted to put themselves in, but surely they’d like for one of these to be a little bit easier as their playoff odds jumped again after another win. They’ll at least need to execute a little better if they really want to pull off getting to the play-in, which will likely require three wins over the final three games.