EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Suns play downhill, 2nd unit pops in win over Warriors to stabilize

Jan 29, 2021, 12:01 AM | Updated: 12:10 am
Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton (22) shoots past Golden State Warriors forward Kevon Looney (5) d...
Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton (22) shoots past Golden State Warriors forward Kevon Looney (5) during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Thursday, Jan. 28, 2021, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Matt York)
(AP Photo/Matt York)

Whenever any NBA team is down more than one important piece in the rotation, it’s a matter of having some semblance of stability until those players get back.

The Phoenix Suns are missing three at the moment: Devin Booker (left hamstring strain), Cam Payne (right foot sprain) and Dario Saric (returning from health and safety protocols).

Seizing every winnable game they can get over that stretch is important, and the Suns whiffed on two in a row recently: Saturday’s double-overtime loss to the Denver Nuggets and Wednesday’s defeat via the Oklahoma City Thunder. The difference between the two games couldn’t be greater, as Saturday was an unbelievable effort while Wednesday was a huge letdown. The result, however, was still the same and gave them two losses that should have been wins.

This is all happening during an early-season run in which the Suns have some clear kinks to work out, so there’s an increased chance of the team somewhat imploding, going on a losing stretch that would cost them once the standings start to become more important in May. Some were arguing the team was already going through this while losing six of eight.

With all that taken into consideration, that made Thursday’s 114-93 win over the Golden State Warriors a big sigh of relief so the team could at least breathe for a moment.

Monty Williams’ consistency rant after the Thunder loss let us know the Suns were at least close to teetering over that edge. with the players alluding to some of that frustration being verbalized in the locker room by Williams as well.

Williams admitted on Thursday that he spent his drive home from Wednesday’s loss blaming himself for not challenging the players more, referring to himself as “a doofus.”

“I just did not put enough in front of them to chase after,” he said. “And sometimes, I have to say things that people may not want to hear but it’s the best thing for them … I felt like I let our team down, I let the coaches down — to not enforce the kind of play that we saw tonight.

“I haven’t been enforcing that the way I typically would, and today was all about that. Showing them how we play, how effective it’s been, and to their credit, they accepted it and came out and executed.”

Phoenix led big in the first quarter before putting up a dud in the second quarter for the second straight night to only lead by five through the first half. But what was clear a few minutes into the third quarter was the Suns had more energy and fight in them on the second game of a back-to-back than the opposition.

During this funk the Suns were/are in, there’s been a lot of discussion around what the team’s identity is. Thursday’s win was it. They outscored the Warriors by 16 in the second half, with a lot of the Suns’ buckets coming off hard work getting up the floor in transition, staying active in the half-court and sharing the ball. On the other end, they played solid, contained team defense, holding the Warriors to 38% shooting for the game.

From the 8:14 mark of the third quarter to 5:05 left in the game, the Suns went on a 50-26 run.

The second unit got its latest makeover. This time around, Williams inserted Langston Galloway in place of Jevon Carter. With Mikal Bridges playing every minute Warriors star Stephen Curry did to defend him, Golden State’s complete lack of dribble creation elsewhere made it fine to go heavy on offense around E’Twaun Moore and Galloway. Abdel Nader’s presence in there to take either Andrew Wiggins or Kelly Oubre Jr. was a big part of it as well.

With Galloway and Moore actively moving in all phases offensively, and Moore giving the Suns someone who can get to the paint to pass to others, center Frank Kaminsky pushed that group over the top with his consistent aggression as a dribbler and passer.

“That group really solidified what we were trying to do,” Williams said. “I thought the starters came out with great purpose and sharing the ball. And then the second group came in, and the body movement was taken to another level.”

The Suns had 34 assists and 52 points in the paint, two very good signs that they are playing at the right pace offensively, aka faster than they have been most of this season.

“Anytime we touch the paint, our efficiency goes through the roof,” Williams said, a good nod that the coaching staff knows that’s a key part of the offense and that they’ve been encouraging the players to get inside more.

“We just had a great balance of playing in our make offense and playing in pick-and-rolls and called plays tonight — I thought the balance was great,” Williams said. “In each category of plays, we made an effort to get to the basket. And then, if we had a shot, we took it. If not, we kicked it out for a better shot. We call that good to great.”

There was worthy concern for the reserves and how they’d handle Golden State rookie center James Wiseman, who recently moved to the Warriors’ second unit and responded with a career-high 25 points. But the first-year player had a rough go, shooting 2-of-9 in 19 minutes. He was vastly outplayed by Kaminsky.

Kaminsky had perhaps his best game as a Sun, registering 12 points, 13 rebounds and a game-high eight assists.

Nader wasn’t shy, taking 15 shots for 16 points, while Galloway added eight points.

Nine Suns players clocked at least 20 minutes and all nine had at least two assists. Bridges accounted for five of ’em with a team-high 20 points, getting back to his high-octane off-ball movement. He also did well attacking with the ball, attempting eight free throws and making seven.

“Coach always talks to me and is telling me that they’re running me off the line a little bit. Just looking for other ways to drive and score,” Bridges said, noting that he’s back to having the reputation of a high-end shooter.

Deandre Ayton posted 12 points, 13 rebounds and four assists in 23 minutes. It was another game where he felt a bit detached from the game’s flow, unable to truly impact it.

Jae Crowder had a big 16 points and nine rebounds. Cam Johnson supplied 13 points.

Chris Paul only needed to play 27 minutes and contributed 13 points, three rebounds and four assists. It was big for the Suns to not ask for everything out of Paul again after he gave them that on Wednesday.

Moore has now played two games in the rotation, and while he hasn’t hit shots, Williams likes what he’s seen from the veteran taking the place of Payne as the backup point guard.

“He got us into stuff tonight. I thought there was a level of know-how and IQ out there that was a little bit different,” Williams said.

Oubre was playing with the urgency of a man who wanted to burn the team that traded him, a tale as old as time. It just didn’t come together for him, though, as it unfortunately hasn’t for most of his season thus far in Golden State. He shot 1-of-11 from the field with four points in 26 minutes.

Curry finished with 27 points in 31 minutes. Bridges did his darndest to make life difficult for Curry while defending him, but Curry has a tremendous tempo to his play where he always seems to find enough space to get to his spots. There were definitely some stretches Bridges could watch back as a third-year player and spotlight areas he can keep improving on as a shutdown defender.

Despite the response, Thursday’s win doesn’t change much from Williams’ message on Wednesday about consistency. But playing the way they did on Thursday over the next few weeks would.

“That’s the kind of basketball we wanna play and that’s the level I’m gonna hold the guys to,” Williams said.

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