EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Suns find some rhythm with starters, fall to Lakers in preseason play

Dec 16, 2020, 11:03 PM | Updated: 11:13 pm
Devin Booker #1 of the Phoenix Suns sits on the bench with teammate Chris Paul #3 during a game aga...
Devin Booker #1 of the Phoenix Suns sits on the bench with teammate Chris Paul #3 during a game against the Utah Jazz at Vivint Smart Home Arena on December 12, 2020 in Salt Lake City, Utah. (Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images)
(Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images)

It was more scattered than the Phoenix Suns would have liked but they at least found a little bit of rhythm in the preseason on Wednesday night.

While a 46-24 Lakers run to end the first half was a bit deflating, the Suns had strong runs in a 112-107 loss, most of it featuring the Suns’ big names.

For the first time, we saw the presumed opening night starting five of Chris Paul, Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges, Jae Crowder and Deandre Ayton.

It’s still difficult to get a proper read on how the team will function due to Cam Johnson (left calf soreness) missing his second straight game and Dario Saric (right quad soreness) yet to play, but head coach Monty Williams got some proper run out of that starting group.

He deployed a regular first half of rotations, and a 20-7 beginning to the game was a good debut for the unit. While it got out of hand there, with Los Angeles flipping a switch defensively, the big run came later in the third quarter.

“Our defense in the first and third with our first group was pretty good,” Williams said.

The Lakers sat LeBron James and Anthony Davis for the second half. Phoenix’s breakthrough took a bit, but in the last six minutes of the third quarter, the Suns had a 29-9 surge.

“The third quarter for me was a bit of a highlight … even in our secondary offense and a couple of our called plays, the ball just moved,” he added.

Most of that was with Booker running the offense as Point Book, something Williams has been apprehensive of doing in the past, and rightfully so. It’s asking a lot more out of Booker, but with Booker’s playmaking ability and the arrival of Paul to ease the burden when they play together, it can work in spurts.

“Being able to give him the ball and have him play the point guard position — he’s got great vision and he’s a willing passer,” Williams said of Booker. “I thought the ball movement and flow didn’t change when Chris came out of the game and I put Book at the point.”

We got a great preview of what it could look like if Williams chooses to stagger the two, meaning if he tried as much as possible to have at least one of them on the floor at all times. Booker had four assists in the last 2:11 of the third quarter.

Williams said the idea of Point Book is an option they have, but did note they were without Cameron Payne (left knee tendinopathy) so he wanted more of a downhill approach, hence Booker pushing the tempo a whole lot when he ran the show. The question of if Williams pulls the trigger on staggering his two All-Star guards is one of the biggest things to watch for on opening night, as Payne is the only real point guard off the bench, and he’s still more of a shoot-first guy.

Booker ended the night with 16 points, four rebounds and seven assists in 25 minutes, registering a plus-21.

While Paul struggled with 1-of-6 shooting and five turnovers, it was a nice bounce-back game for Ayton after a whole lot of noise about his poor performance on Monday.

Ayton did what most want to see out of him by playing contained, active defense while running the floor and finishing everything around the rim.

“I thought he gave us great pressure on the ball, and then at the rim tonight I thought he was much better,” Williams said of Ayton’s defense. “He was contesting everything in the lane and he was a presence tonight.

“Offensively, even when he wasn’t scoring, the pressure that he put on the rim when he was running from defense to offense generated a lot of shots on the backside or driving opportunities.”

The 22-year-old Ayton shot 8-for-10 from the field with 21 points, nine rebounds, an assist and four steals in 25 minutes.

It was a notable point of progress for the Suns because they really hadn’t had one in the two losses to the Utah Jazz. Williams said pregame he’s hoping to have some of the players that were out on Wednesday back for Friday’s preseason finale, and getting a full rotation of his expected regulars would be another nice step forward before the real games begin.

“Overall, you can see each time the new guys play, you can see more of a continuity, you can see more of a rhythm,” Williams said.

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