EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Suns win through defense again, Booker closes up shop vs. Jazz

Dec 31, 2020, 11:23 PM | Updated: Jan 1, 2021, 9:32 am
Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker (1) drives around Utah Jazz guard Jordan Clarkson (00) during the s...

Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker (1) drives around Utah Jazz guard Jordan Clarkson (00) during the second half of an NBA basketball game Thursday, Dec. 31, 2020, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

(AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

The Phoenix Suns have found the formula that will make them not only a playoff team but one that can win series’.

Yes, plural.

The team’s 106-95 win over the Utah Jazz Thursday night marked another strong defensive performance as the Suns’ identity shifts from a team that always plays hard to a team that always plays hard and defends at a high level.

“To hold a team like that to 95 points, 40 points in the first half, an 18-point quarter … Overall, the effort on defense was tremendous tonight,” head coach Monty Williams said.

The Suns are now 4-1, all while Chris Paul and Devin Booker continue to build chemistry and find their higher forms. All while Deandre Ayton’s season high in points is at 13 and Booker works through turnover issues. Managing a great start while their three top talents figure some things out comes down to the way they approach the game.

It says a lot about the mentality of Phoenix, and particularly Chris Paul, that when he was asked about the menacing defense, he quickly got to a mistake that he made in the third quarter.

“Monty does a great job of making sure we never get too high and we try to stay on ourselves about it,” Paul said.

The lapse Paul referred to was a 16-point run for the Jazz in less than four minutes to open the second half after the Suns led 53-40.

Utah was held to six first-half assists, and even with that spurt, couldn’t completely find its footing to counter the Suns’ hot shooting. Phoenix converted 17 of its 33 attempts from three-point range.

Turnovers got the Suns in trouble late after leading by 16 with 4:22 to go, but Booker scored seven points in two minutes to put the game out of reach, as he did often in the bubble.

Once again, Paul stepped up unprompted and took the blame for his turnovers in crunch time, even though he only had two then and three total in the game.

To go back to Booker, he missed his first four shots and still managed to finish 10-of-17 for 25 points with seven assists. He was unfazed by the misses, continuing to play for his teammates through defense and passing while the shot eventually came back.

“One thing about our team: we don’t count shots,” Paul said. “We know what everybody’s capable of. If Book misses 12 shots in a row, he better shoot the 13th one like he made it.”

Paul went on to credit Booker’s two-way effort.

Jae Crowder and Mikal Bridges had 16 points each and combined for 8-of-15 shooting from deep. Cam Johnson and Cam Payne scored 10 points a piece and each made two 3s.

On Bridges specifically, he had four triples of his own and now his total through five games is at 14. Last season, it took Bridges 30 games to hit that mark.

Back in Bridges’ rookie year, Booker was talking about the spacing of that 2018-19 team and said a first-year shooter like Bridges needs to earn the respect of defenses first before the room opens up.

“He’s for sure on the scouting report (now),” Booker said when asked about that point two seasons later. “They’re definitely going to talk about him. That’s team basketball. We’re balanced out there.”

Booker hasn’t missed a beat fitting in with this defensive group despite his reputation of being a negative on that end. That is not a fair claim to make about him this season and it’s a simple answer for him when asked about his effort there.

“To win the game and do whatever it takes,” he said. “And that’s not just me on this team. I feel like everybody has that mentality and that’s why we’ve had early success and that’s why our practices have been as competitive as they are. It looks good.”

Booker added that there’s more confidence defending on the ball knowing a teammate has his back in case he gets beat.

All of that speaks to the extra levels the Suns’ cohesion and sense of team have seemingly reached this season and it shouldn’t take you that long to track down one of the main reasons why.

When Paul was informed this was the Suns’ best start in over a decade, a 4-1 record with only a loss to the Sacramento Kings, he was then asked what his reaction was to hearing that.

“We shoulda beat Sac,” he said.

Yep. That sounds about right.

DARIO’S DIME

Text does not do Dario Saric’s pass in the third quarter justice, nor does Bridges’ quote after the game on receiving it.

Here’s the pass:

And here’s Bridges on it:

Delightful stuff.

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