EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Phoenix Suns’ defense remains active vs. Rockets in 8th straight victory

Nov 14, 2021, 8:45 PM | Updated: Nov 15, 2021, 7:38 am
Houston Rockets guard Eric Gordon (10) shoots as Phoenix Suns forwards Frank Kaminsky (8) and Mikal...

Houston Rockets guard Eric Gordon (10) shoots as Phoenix Suns forwards Frank Kaminsky (8) and Mikal Bridges defend during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Sunday, Nov. 14, 2021, in Houston. (AP Photo/Eric Christian Smith)

(AP Photo/Eric Christian Smith)

After an opening two weeks of the season that rendered the Phoenix Suns’ defense hardly recognizable, the edge and moxie that became signature staples of the team’s identity have returned.

Sunday’s 115-89 victory over the Houston Rockets marked the second straight win in which it was a hounding defensive performance from Phoenix, a booster pack of extra juice to its winning streak that has now reached eight.

Prior to the Suns’ three-game road trip that started by beating the Grizzlies in Memphis on Friday, head coach Monty Williams said after Wednesday’s win against the Blazers that he liked the direction the defense was trending in.

It was a prophetic call from some small steps before his group really turned it on defensively, and Williams expanded on what he was seeing that has come alive more in the last two games.

“Number one, it always starts in transition for us, but the guards have been diligent about getting over screens and then the back side of our defense has gotten a lot better,” he said Sunday.

Phoenix (9-3) forced 23 Houston (1-12) turnovers.

At the 12-game mark, we can say with certainty that the Suns can at least reach that very high gear defensively that makes them so tough to beat, and if it becomes consistent again, they’ll be right in the mix again at the top of the Western Conference.

Williams credited some of that defensive prowess to center JaVale McGee, who started again in place of the injured Deandre Ayton.

“I thought he was much better tonight, not just blocking shots but distracting shots … his defense at the rim was the best it has been all year,” Williams said.

It was undoubtedly McGee’s top game as a Sun thus far, a steady blend of consistent impact plays on both ends without anything too crazy. He produced 19 points, 14 rebounds and three blocks in 25 minutes.

The Suns’ scrambling efforts that Williams referenced on the back side were there for the majority of the night, clogging up the interior and forcing plays to be made by others. And when they tried to, Phoenix defended them well too.

“Being able to cover the secondary and the tertiary options is hard to do in the NBA because a lot of teams don’t get to them but when you play good defense you can force them into their second and third options,” Williams said. “And I think our conditioning has gotten a lot better. That allows for us to have more energy, more focus on the back side.”

Suns point guard Chris Paul was an absolute menace on the perimeter against Houston’s young guards, securing seven steals, the most for him since December 2017.

Even when he wasn’t getting the ball, Paul’s mitts were finding a way to get a piece of it.

The Suns saw some carryover from the Memphis blowout immediately, jumping to a 23-10 lead seven minutes in. But for the next 8:22 of the game, Phoenix would score only eight points and committed three turnovers.

Devin Booker contributed four more points in the late first quarter before coming off the floor, and that’s when the second unit struggled, missing 11 straight shots until Cam Johnson’s three-pointer with 8:48 remaining in the second quarter broke a six-minute deadlock of no field goals and put the Suns up six.

Yes, that’s right, the 13-point advantage only lost seven. Why? Because the Rockets turned it over six times of their own over that six minutes and only garnered up nine points.

“The defense, again, allowed for us to have the kind of cushion we needed even when we had that lull in the second quarter,” Williams said.

Houston went on a stretch in the opening 6:42 of the second quarter where it only added three points to the scoreboard. It ended the half with a staggering 17 turnovers.

Phoenix’s defensive energy and the Rockets’ vast levels of ineptitude allowed the Suns to remain in control and ahead by seven at halftime even though Phoenix’s bench was shooting 1-of-15 from the floor.

But credit to the Suns’ starters for picking right back up where they left off. Booker, whose 16 points in the first quarter were largely responsible for that quick start, provided seven more in the first three minutes of the third quarter before assisting a Mikal Bridges 3 that quickly increased the Suns’ lead to 17.

“It changed the game coming out of halftime,” Williams said.

After that distance of 17 points held going into the fourth quarter, the question was if the bench was going to be able to maintain that after a brutal first half. Williams talked to the second unit specifically at halftime about not losing the team’s momentum.

It did not, even slightly growing the tally to 93-73 Phoenix before Paul and the starters played a few more minutes to ice the game.

That included Paul’s baffling nutmeg of Rockets rookie Usman Garuba that was the meanest thing I’ve seen on a basketball court this year.

Booker finished with 26 points, five rebounds, six assists and two steals while Paul added 15 points and four assists to those seven steals.

Williams shouted out backup point guard Cam Payne for steering the ship in that solid second half for the reserves. Payne ended up with 13 points and four assists.

Booker’s 32 minutes was the highest mark for any Phoenix player to reach in the last two outings, an important tidbit ahead of Monday’s second game of a back-to-back in Minnesota that wraps up a grinding east, south and north three games in four days on the road before returning to the Valley back out west.

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