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Bench sends Suns into All-Star break feeling good with win over Warriors

Head coach Monty Williams (R) of the Phoenix Suns talks with Jae Crowder #99, Abdel Nader #11, Chris Paul #3, Cameron Payne #15 and Mikal Bridges #25 during a time out from the overtime in the NBA game against the Denver Nuggets at Phoenix Suns Arena on January 23, 2021 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

PHOENIX — Relatively healthy, in a groove and with the NBA’s second-best record, the Phoenix Suns head into the NBA All-Star break with serious juice.

Like it’s been through the 24-11 start that included 16 wins in their last 19 outings, the Suns did it with a full team effort.

They closed the first half of the 2020-21 schedule with a 120-98 win over the Golden State Warriors at Phoenix Suns Arena on Thursday, and 61 of their points came off the bench.

“Sheesh,” said reserve wing Abdel Nader when he was asked about that gaudy number.

Nader scored 14 points to go with nine boards, and backup point guard Cam Payne added 17 points with 10 assists. It was Payne’s first double-double since a March 2018 game when he was with the Chicago Bulls.

“It’s been crazy,” said Payne of the past 12 months that saw him latch on with Phoenix in the bubble and return this season. “It’s been a real scary roller coaster … I feel like I’ve found a home.”

Payne’s hot and cold last few weeks, and the Suns’ success through it, isn’t an anomaly this season.

Remember, All-Star Devin Booker’s own injury and return in mid-January triggered this sudden jolt of success. Same goes for the guy who’s arguably their sixth man, Dario Saric.

The Suns survived their absences and thrived thereafter.

On Thursday, Phoenix’s bench contributions allowed Suns head coach Monty Williams to rest his starters for the entirety of the fourth quarter on a night that the Warriors sat Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Kelly Oubre Jr.

The Suns’ starters weren’t exactly crisp on Thursday.

They combined for 10 turnovers and got off to a sluggish start.

Phoenix led 24-23 with 1:41 left in the first quarter but behind its bench players ended the period on a 10-0 spurt. It extended to become a 21-2 run three minutes into the second quarter, and Golden State never threatened from there.

It’s been a theme all year for the bench to change the tone, change the pace or just apply fresh bodies to get the Suns out of trouble. That happened Thursday with Nader, Payne and Saric ending the game with plus-minuses above 20 each.

Despite the big night from the second unit, the success in one game led to concerns looking toward the second half of the year. That introspective focus amid success is the reason that Suns players credit Williams. He never stops nitpicking.

The head coach mentioned the nine back-to-backs in the second half of the schedule as something he’d study over the break.

He added that he’s still searching for a solidified rotation.

“Yeah, ’cause I haven’t (found an answer) so far,” Williams said, laughing. “Just trying to settle in with who’s going to be the backup point guard is something I haven’t been able to have a comfort level with.

“Cam played well tonight but I’m still looking for him to be more solid in moments. … That’s going to be a huge decision the second half of the season.”

Payne and E’Twaun Moore have been in that conversation, and after a rough couple of games a week back, the time off helped the former reset. A reduction in minutes last week against Chicago and Minnesota also allowed Payne to get healthy from a lingering foot/ankle injury.

He admitted he needs to do a better job being a “pest” on defense. His health could improve more over the break, too.

But his success in spurts has gotten the Suns out of trouble.

The same goes for Nader, who Williams said he’s forced into the lineup in the past several games, feeling that the athletic slasher and active defender brings something nobody else on the team can.

Saric, Nader, Moore, Frank Kaminsky and Langston Galloway have provided their own unique pop all year long.

They’ve legitimately won games for the Suns, but they’ve also saved the legs of the likes of Booker, who scored 16 points on 6-of-20 shooting against Golden State.

“We saw it on the last trip, second half in Chicago, I felt like they came in and won that game for us, gave us a ton of momentum,” Williams said of his second unit. “The Laker game (Tuesday) when Book goes out, the bench showed itself to be valuable in a big-time moment.

“It is pretty gratifying to be able to put those guys in the game and at a different level be able to rest some of our starters. If we can be more consistent with that group … it’s going to be important in the second half with all the back-to-backs we’re going to face.”

Booker took a hit to his quad against the Warriors and from then on didn’t look right, but Williams said he should be fine.

Again, the coach was grateful to have the luxury of resting his All-Star shooting guard and the rest of the starters for a whole quarter while earning the win.

Now the All-Star break arrives.

With the Suns able to rest up.

And with them trailing only the Utah Jazz (27-9) in the league-wide standings.

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