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Suns cut head off snake as Booker outduels Blazers’ Lillard

Phoenix Suns' Cam Johnson (23) Devin Booker (1) and Chris Paul (3) celebrate Johnson's last-second 3-pointer to end the third quarter against the Portland Trail Blazers during the second half of an NBA basketball game Monday, Feb. 22, 2021, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Darryl Webb)

PHOENIX — Since an epic meltdown against the Brooklyn Nets last Tuesday, the Phoenix Suns have been self-aware about keeping their heads.

It was said multiple times by multiple players after a 132-100 win over the Portland Trail Blazers on Monday.

The Suns are just locked in.

The result has been three straight wins by way of lopsided quarters. In 12-minute bursts over the past week, Phoenix has outscored New Orleans by 29, Memphis by 18 and the Blazers by 20.

In the third quarter against Portland at Phoenix Suns Arena, the Suns used pressuring defense, 12 points from Devin Booker and nine more from Deandre Ayton to call it an early night.

Phoenix (20-10) held Portland to 7-of-23 shooting (30%) and hit 60% as a team to outscore the Blazers in the period.

“I love when we defend the way that we did,” Suns head coach Monty Williams said. “They had 17 points in the third quarter. That to me was the game, right there.”

Booker had 34 points by the end of his evening. It was 10 more scored than Portland’s Damian Lillard, a viable MVP candidate who is averaging 30 points and has carried a team without C.J. McCollum, Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins to an 18-12 mark.

Lillard still scored 24 points and added seven assists in 29 minutes.

The Suns, however, used small doses of fullcourt pressure from Mikal Bridges to disrupt Portland’s offense and then aggressively hedged on screens, pushing Lillard to drive.

“It’s a term that we use: cut the head off the snake,” Booker said of the Lillard-focused defense. “With guys like him, if there is any guys like him, you have to keep going.

“Just make it hard on him. Not one man can stop him.”

The Suns’ help defense held up well aside from a second-quarter unsteadiness against the pick-and-roll. After that “murky” period, in Williams’ words, Phoenix came out of halftime on a tear, scoring 10 points off four turnovers.

“We have a great deal of respect for that team and for Damian,” Williams said. “He’s ripping up the league right now.”

A game after holding second-year point guard Ja Morant to 12 points — granted in only 28 minutes during a blowout — Bridges started off strongly against Lillard.

He caused a backcourt turnover by pressuring Lillard and making a Blazer throw the ball out of the point guard’s reach. Later, Bridges blocked Lillard’s drive at the rim.

Lillard had three turnovers in the first quarter and six by the end of his night.

He went 1-for-7 from beyond the arc as the Suns extended their defensive pick-up point to keep him from attacking from 27-plus feet out.

“I think he doesn’t play with the ball … if you’re backed up, he’s going to shoot it, if you press up, he’s going past you,” Bridges said before the game on Monday. “He hits you with one dribble that you might bite on but gets you a chance to get back.

“I think he makes that deliberate move and gets you off balance. He knows what he does. He’s an unbelievable player.”

During his final three seconds on the court Monday, Lillard found himself defending Booker, who took his All-Star spot as an alternate last season.

Booker hit a stepback three-pointer that put Phoenix ahead by 26 points with 2.6 seconds left.

The Blazers immediately threw a court-long inbounds pass that went straight out of bounds. So the Suns, under their own basket, inbounded the ball to Cam Johnson for a corner three at the buzzer that capped the huge 12 minutes and felt like the official stamp of a Phoenix victory.

The end of the third felt like an encapsulation of the entire game.

Williams said that communication and understanding of his defensive scheme has played its part in the three-game run of lopsided quarters in Phoenix’s favor.

Of the turnovers that helped the entire game, Williams started by crediting Bridges, who added 10 points, five assists and two blocks.

“I think Mikal Bridges, he’s a big part of that,” Williams said. “His ability to guard difficult offensive players, and a lot of times his length, he gets his hands on a lot of balls or he forces a lot of hangtime passes because he’s long. On the backside, our guys can get steals or deflections.”

Halftime helped steady Ayton, who finished with 19 points, five rebounds and two blocks. He found himself a target of pick-and-roll actions at the end of the second quarter but recovered to help Phoenix in the third.

Late in the period, he stayed in front of Lillard on a paint attack and forced a travel. Seconds later, Ayton crashed the offensive glass hard and dunked the ball to put Phoenix ahead, 86-65.

Lillard, by the way, probably exerted a bit of energy early on by guarding Booker, a move that exemplified his competitiveness but backfired on the court against a player with three or more inches on him.

Booker scored Phoenix’s first six points of the night and finished with 17 first-quarter points. By the end of the third quarter and in just 29 minutes, Booker had poured in his 34 points on 12-of-17 shooting.

Still, it was that locked-in defense that blossomed into an offensive runaway train for the Suns.

By the end of the night, they had forced 17 turnovers for 24 points.

“Once we get stops, we’re all confident on the other end,” Bridges said. “It makes you play more confident when you know, when you get more stops on defense, you can come out there and be more aggressive because you get stops. That’s just how it is when you play basketball.”

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