EMPIRE OF THE SUNS
Suns arrive from break with ‘unreal juice,’ battle to beat Blazers
Mar 12, 2021, 12:12 AM | Updated: 12:28 am
(AP Photo/Craig Mitchelldyer)
There are many different identities an NBA team can have to find lots of success in the regular season.
The blueprint for the Phoenix Suns’ that has contributed to a handful of their now 25 wins on the season is hanging around in games, battling and not getting rattled before striking when the opportunity is there in the second half. From there, one of the two All-Stars or both will handle the rest.
That was the story on Thursday night in Portland for a 127-121 win over the Trail Blazers.
“Guys came into the gym and we had unreal juice and a steadiness about it and I thought that was what happened with our team tonight,” head coach Monty Williams said. “We just stayed the course … We just didn’t have any sort of meltdowns at all.”
After clawing back in the first half to tie the game at the half, the Suns were once again down 11 in the mid-third quarter. That’s where their stellar second unit led by point guard Cameron Payne and center Dario Saric went on a 26-11 run to put Phoenix up four.
After a pair of Damian Lillard free throws for Portland, All-Star point guard Chris Paul scored or assisted the Suns’ next seven points. The other All-Star, shooting guard Devin Booker, took it from there. He scored or assisted 10 of Phoenix’s next 12 points.
“Book had a stretch where offensively he just carried us,” Williams said.
The ease of that process is helped greatly by a very good defense, which allowed that one-two punch to seal the game at a 13-point Suns edge with 2:40 to go. Most importantly, that kept the game mostly out of minutes that are deemed as clutch, where Lillard has been supernova this year.
Booker finished with 35 points, five rebounds and eight assists on 12-for-21 shooting. He had one of those nights where you could see that he sensed his team might need that extra bit of great play from him to win. He delivered that, all with a bum left knee that had him listed as questionable on the injury report.
Paul said with a laugh after the game that after his daily conversations with Booker during the break that he didn’t think his backcourt mate was going to play.
“He different. For real, for real. He different,” Paul said. “Not only the fact that he played tonight, but that smooth 35 he had tonight. Me and Jae Crowder was just in there talking about it. He different.”
Booker hurt that knee again late in the fourth quarter. He was clearly in pain after falling to the ground, but limped through it and stayed in the game. He said postgame that time was “lighter” than the last one and that he’s “straight.”
Paul was one of seven Suns players in double figures with 19 points, five rebounds and seven assists. The Suns shot 59.0% from the field and 54.2% (13-of-24) at three-point range.
Lillard requires a high amount of defensive attention, so if his supporting cast is making the defense pay, that’s going to be one of the primary recipes for the Blazers’ success. That was the case early on.
Lillard was either making shots or the right play out of ball screens that the Suns’ Deandre Ayton was playing well in his spot. As a part of the gameplan, Ayton crept a bit higher to deny Lillard much space and stuck on him when he had to deny his path to the rim. Ayton doing that, however, left Portland’s Enes Kanter covered by someone else on boxouts.
“In order to try to counter Dame’s ability to shoot from the grocery store, you’re giving up 3s on the backside and offensive rebounds,” Williams said.
Kanter is a force on the glass and proved that in the first quarter. He was either grabbing misses or the Blazers were making ’em with good secondary ball movement off Lillard’s initial read. Portland had seven of its 15 offensive rebounds in the first quarter, and Kanter had six overall in the game.
This resulted in a great quarter and a half from the Blazers, who were shooting 10-of-20 from 3 at that point, and had Phoenix trailing by up to 13. The Suns had some minor things going wrong over that stretch, but the key principles like ball movement on offense and rotations on defense were there.
Thus, a strong individual effort or two would likely bring on a run, and it indeed did in a surge through Booker and Mikal Bridges.
A 16-4 run to close the first half and tie the game featured eight points and an assist from Booker plus five additional points via Bridges, who led all scorers at halftime with 16 of his 18 points.
In the third quarter, the Blazers made a slight tweak to continue going at Ayton by reinserting him into their actions. Lillard made a few tough shots out of that, and when Saric entered for Ayton with 4:12 left in the third quarter, Ayton did not return.
That was despite the big fella getting a few buckets in the third quarter, and while Portland was going at him, he was mostly fine on the night outside of a few hands issues with the basketball. Ayton logged 23 minutes, his lowest total of the season that wasn’t in a blowout, and added 11 points with four rebounds.
Saric scored 11 points, five rebounds and two assists. He gave the Suns a consistent source of good offense in the post, capitalizing on mismatches while holding his own defensively.
“A lot of teams end up going switching 1 through 5 and having somebody like Dario in there that can punish them inside makes it so they can’t do that,” Booker said.
As Good Morning It’s Basketball’s Tom Ziller notes, there are multiple ways to look at the dynamic there of who closes at the 5 given the aspirations the Suns have for the postseason.
Love the Suns closing with Saric over Ayton cuz DA didn't have it and Portland can't punish it, just wonder how many playoff opponents that works against. Against some of those teams you really need Ayton to deliver.
— Tom Ziller (@teamziller) March 12, 2021
Williams ending with Saric for the second time in three games after continuously going back to Ayton this year and last is, again, notable. It should also be looked at as quite the luxury Phoenix is afforded thanks to Saric’s terrific play that should earn him some Sixth Man of the Year love.
Speaking of that award, let’s get Payne some recognition there as well. He was a ridiculous plus-24 in 20 minutes and registered 13 points, three rebounds, six assists and a steal.
Lillard ended the night with 30 points, seven rebounds, eight assists and two steals on 10-of-23 shooting, and it felt like the Suns did just about everything in limiting what he does, which speaks to his superstardom.
On that note, the Suns (25-11) have now beat the Blazers (21-15) twice and hold the tiebearker over them in the standings. Beyond that, they’ve come up against a strong West opponent twice and fared well.
Paul was asked if the Suns take that into consideration at all, and the future Hall of Famer was quick to note that Portland was without C.J. McCollum and Jusuf Nurkie, saying they’ve gotta focus on themselves.
His team has been pretty darn good at doing that, a surprising attribute for the group to have given everyone outside of Paul and Crowder lack big-time experience on winning teams.
He spoke on how they are able to do it, while also pointing out the Suns will truly show what they are about once the hot stretch of 17 wins in their last 20 ends.
“I think trust. I think our coaching staff, the culture of our team — we just got a great group of guys man I’m telling you,” Paul said. “And to see how well Cam Payne has been playing when he’s out there, we just got one of those teams where everybody cheers for everybody. Everybody’s happy for everybody. It’s nice.
“We are going to have some hard times, some adversity. When that adversity hits I think that’s when it’ll really get tested, but the spirit is definitely right on this team.”