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Suns find required energy just in time to come back, beat Bulls

Phoenix Suns forward Mikal Bridges, left, and Chicago Bulls forward Patrick Williams battle for a rebound during the first half of an NBA basketball game in Chicago, Friday, Feb. 26, 2021. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

The Phoenix Suns were doing that whole playing down to their competition thing again on Friday against the Chicago Bulls.

That issue has, at times, plagued the team this season. They’re aware of it and working on it. In the meantime, it keeps happening, but fortunately, the Suns snapped out of it in enough time on Friday to beat the Bulls 106-97.

A consistent thought this season will be where this team would be without Chris Paul.

It’s no mystery how he’s been winning so much throughout his Hall of Fame career. The Suns have had about a dozen games already this year where it’s felt like Paul was the only guy in the first half with his energy and production where it needed to be.

While that was being contributed, Phoenix was settling too often for jumpers and lacking any desire across the board.

It was a mostly fine defensive effort through the opening half, but as the Suns have learned against inferior opponents this year, those teams can still make them pay if they hang around. Even after the Suns seemed to find a little juice in the closing minutes of the second quarter, they’d already allowed the Bulls’ efficient and capable offense the opportunity to get in rhythm. Thus, Chicago scored 17 points in the last 4:47 of the first half, putting the Bulls up 12 at the half.

The Suns’ lethargic play carried over to some of the third quarter, and shortly after some starters exited, Chicago was up 14 with 3:14 to go in the third.

That’s where the bench changed the game for the Suns and provided a jolt that woke up the whole team, similar to the two wins in Dallas earlier this season.

Frank Kaminsky, back to the bench in place of Jae Crowder, and Cam Johnson were constantly making plays on both ends. Kaminsky contributed nine of his 15 points off the bench in his second-half shift while Johnson hit two key 3s.

Suns head coach Monty Williams shouted out Johnson, E’Twaun Moore and Abdel Nader “sticking their nose in there” defensively to disrupt the Bulls and get loose balls.

The reserves suddenly got the game within seven at the end of the third through that big burst of energy. That’s when Paul came back in the game, and he was ready to play off that newfound wave from his team.

Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges checked in with 8:25 left and the Suns down by four. After Chicago’s Ryan Arcidiacono made a three-pointer, the Suns ended the game on a 26-10 run to win the game, and most of it was through Ayton’s stellar play.

His night was up and down, as has unfortunately been the case more often than not this season.

Paul was on Ayton early. He was vocal on the court trying to get his center’s pace up nearly every possession. He wanted more urgency from Ayton in going basket to basket and also diving to the rim off ball screens but Ayton didn’t really respond to that. He was making some uncharacteristic mistakes defensively and was detached offensively.

In the second half, the Bulls opened by attacking Ayton on defense while the Suns themselves ran the offense through him. The mix of that seemed to wake Ayton up a bit. The third-year center went up with the ball when he caught it around the basket on two straight possessions in the mid-third quarter, which has become a good indicator that he’s engaged. That carried over the fourth.

He had a great assist to Bridges, good defense on switches and was setting solid screens for Paul. And wouldn’t you know it, through doing that stuff, the ball seemed to naturally find him more. Ayton had eight of his 22 points in the fourth, but it felt like at least three times that. All three of his blocks were in the closing period.

The Suns as a whole responded to that energy.

At a tie game with 5:46 to go, Ayton hit a midrange jumper from Paul, Paul converted on his own and Bridges drilled a 3. Devin Booker found Ayton on a lob and then Johnson hit a 3 in the corner assisted by Paul. All the way through that stretch was the Suns’ best defense of the night, and suddenly at the 3:19 mark, it was 101-92 Suns with Phoenix in clear control.

Paul was plus-28 in 35 minutes, finishing with 14 points, six rebounds, 15 assists and three steals.

The Suns (21-11) had 35 assists and seven turnovers. They did well getting the ball in the paint, where they had 66 points.

Chicago (15-17) only scored 39 points in the second half. Williams said the bench’s defense over that stretch was “excellent.”

“Just kind of changed for us,” Williams said of their energy. “That defensive intensity went up.”

That group was missing Dario Saric due to a right ankle sprain and was still able to change the game.

“It’s such a luxury to have, but we expect that,” Paul said of the lift from the bench. “We talk about it all the time: we’re one of the few teams in the league that has a bench that comes in and they’re basically starers. That’s why we’re a team. We pick each other up on any given night and it’s great to be a part of.”

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