EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Confident Ayton, clutch Booker help Suns put away pesky Rockets

Apr 5, 2021, 9:08 PM | Updated: 9:12 pm
Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton (22) dunks against Houston Rockets guard Kevin Porter Jr. (3) dur...

Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton (22) dunks against Houston Rockets guard Kevin Porter Jr. (3) during the third quarter of an NBA basketball game in Houston, Monday, April 5, 2021. (Troy Taormina/Pool Photo via AP)

(Troy Taormina/Pool Photo via AP)

After Monday’s 133-130 win for the Phoenix Suns over the Houston Rockets, they’ve got a back-to-back against the Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Clippers, two of the best teams in the Western Conference.

That’s a good thing for the Suns for a variety of reasons, one of them being their insistence as of late to put away bad teams before it gets unnecessarily chaotic in crunch time.

Despite the Rockets losing 26 of their last 28 games entering Monday and without several key players like John Wall and Eric Gordon, they got a 15-point deficit in the third quarter up to a three-point lead with 7:22 to go.

From there, Devin Booker went on his own 10-0 run in 71 seconds and played a large part in the game getting closed out.

But, after it was 117-109 Suns with 4:20 to go, it was a 5-0 run by Houston to get within a possession. And even after a quick 8-0 spurt by Phoenix to answer that, eventually to be up nine with 1:04 remaining, the Rockets decreased the lead to three again 21 seconds later after a turnover in the backcourt by Jae Crowder.

The Suns made enough free throws to make it so they weren’t truly threatened to lose the game, but sheesh. It’s like there’s a hex that hangs over these games and keeps triggering. Regardless, that’s now six wins in a row and a 35-14 record.

Booker finished with 36 points, six rebounds and six assists. That fourth-quarter outburst from Booker he turned into a signature at the bubble was nice to see after his recent struggles in the final frame.

Deandre Ayton had one of his best games of the year. He ended up at 27 points and 11 rebounds on 10-of-14 shooting.

Mikal Bridges added 20 points and it was a ho-hum 19 points, five rebounds, 11 assists and four steals out of Chris Paul on only nine shot attempts.

Enjoy this delightful fake pass/yo-yo dribble out of Paul to set up Booker at a key point in the game so we don’t move too quickly off him, soaking in that Point God greatness for just a moment.

The Rockets played great on the night, especially considering the names they were down to. Christian Wood (23 points), Kelly Olynyk (21), Kevin Porter Jr. (20), Jae’Sean Tate (18), Sterling Brown (16), Kevin Martin Jr. (13) and D.J. Augustin (11) were the seven Rockets in double figures. The team as a whole shot 17-of-33 (51.5%) from three-point range.

Houston is a team that does a ton of switching defensively, so when the Suns did that themselves, it played into what the Rockets do well. That’s fine because Phoenix needs to work on it and the way Houston was making elementary ball rotations to exploit it showed the growth the Suns still need in that area.

That allowed the Rockets to be right in the game up until the mid-second quarter, where the Suns clearly turned up the intensity on defense.

On the other end, when Ayton returned in the second quarter, the Suns ran their offense around the third-year center, which head coach Monty Williams defined as “intentional.”

Some fans have clamored for this since the big fella arrived in the Valley, and it’s understandable given the decent percentage of teams across the league that do not have a big that can match up with Ayton. But his inconsistencies with an aggressive mentality not only in the post with the ball but in establishing position before that, have not seen the Suns able to benefit from the advantage as much as possible.

This year specifically, post entries have become more challenging to Ayton than before because of defenders’ ability to get a hand on the ball and knock it away. And with the lack of consistency, its led to a lack of chemistry built with Ayton and those players delivering him passes.

All of this is to emphasize what it can look like when it all clicks together, because that was Monday.

“I thought his poise was at a high level when he got the ball in the post,” Williams said.

Ayton at a listed 250 pounds outweighs Houston’s starting 5 Wood (listed at 214 pounds) by over 30 pounds, so there’s an obvious size mismatch there. Ayton acted like it, forcing Wood to foul him in the battle on the block and Ayton was being assertive when scoring over Wood.

“If teams try to keep a bit smaller matchup on him, more of a pick-and-pop guy like Wood, then we have to exploit that mismatch,” Booker said. “We were playing through him and he wasn’t shying away from contact. He was going right through it, getting to the rim.”

Wouldn’t you know it, that brought on trips to the free-throw line. Ayton tied his season-high with eight attempts there, converting on seven.

When Ayton plays that confidently offensively, it’s like getting a cold glass of water splashed in your face. It’s a different player than we’ve seen nearly all season, one that has found a groove and is fully in rhythm.

Ayton was going at Wood like he knew Wood couldn’t stop him. Check out Wood’s body language below when this shot in the late third quarter goes in.

That’s imposing your will on the opposition. As Booker pointed out himself, it came during a game where Ayton missed two bunnies early, but Ayton didn’t let that get him down the rest of the night.

“He’s just a force down there when he wants to be and I think he feeds off the confidence that we give him,” Williams said.

Ayton had all 27 of his points in the first three quarters, 15 of them in the third alone and another 10 in the second. The Suns didn’t get the ball to him in the fourth or run much for him, a testament to both something they need to get better at and also have rightfully rarely felt the need to do most of the season.

Williams echoed a lot of what we’ve heard on Ayton since his rookie year.

“It’s been a process with him. I don’t think he understands how big and strong he is and how much he can use it to his advantage,” Williams said. “I think putting him in those situations and having success can build confidence for him but I don’t think he really knows how dominant he can be in the paint.”

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