EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Phoenix Suns hit new heights, win 17th straight via team effort vs. Warriors

Dec 1, 2021, 12:31 AM | Updated: 7:29 am
Phoenix Suns forward Mikal Bridges (25) celebrates with guard Chris Paul (3) during the second half...

Phoenix Suns forward Mikal Bridges (25) celebrates with guard Chris Paul (3) during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Golden State Warriors, Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2021, in Phoenix. The Suns won 104-96. (AP Photo/Matt York)

(AP Photo/Matt York)

PHOENIX — As he often does, Phoenix Suns head coach Monty Williams described the team’s result better in a quote than most can with many more words.

“To me, this was just will and toughness,” he said. “Not a lot of scheme, not a lot of play calls. Our guys just willed themselves to a victory.”

Hammer, meet the head of the nail for the franchise-record tying 17th win in a row. Let’s try to match Monty, at least, with the words.

In a game of similar styles clashing, the Suns’ ball movement and defense topped the Golden State Warriors’ own on Tuesday in a 104-96 final. The Suns managed it without shooting guard Devin Booker (left hamstring) for 2.5 quarters and forward Cam Johnson (likely cramps) in the fourth quarter, down to just seven players apt for the rotation.

Somehow, Phoenix (18-3) managed a complete team effort with a few parts missing.

“It was exactly what we had to do tonight,” point guard Chris Paul said. “With Book going down early in the game, it’s next-man-up mentality. Like coach always says, keep the ball moving, we-score mentality and that’s what we try to do.”

Deandre Ayton was outstanding as a presence, Paul dominated when he needed to, Jae Crowder hit four 3s, Johnson scored 14 before exiting and Mikal Bridges clinched an All-Defense nod as much as anyone could clinch one after a single regular-season game in November.

A wonky, uneven affair that Williams painted in a different but similar light ultimately swung because Warriors guard and MVP frontrunner Stephen Curry shot 4-of-21 for 12 points.

He was off shooting the ball unlike any other game this year, Bridges had a lot to do with that and Bridges’ teammates always had his back on the assignment. All three points can be true.

“Whole team effort,” Bridges said of defending Curry. “What I really did was just be aggressive and be attached with a lot of screens and [switches] but it’s a whole team thing because if one guy messes up on a switch, there’s a slip or a 3 for him.”

The four starters outside of Booker — he logged 15 minutes — were at least +16. They were phenomenal defensively, unlocking that championship-caliber defense that’s been getting better and better as the main contributing factor to the winning streak.

After a 35-point first quarter for Golden State (18-3), it produced 19, 24 and 18 points, respectively. The highest of those three numbers is the most impressive, as the Warriors entered the night +149 across 20 third quarters this season before the Suns held them to a 24-24 deadlock.

“We told the guys about their third quarter,” Williams said. “Chris also talked to the guys (at halftime) so there was this heightened awareness of what they do in the third.”

Ayton was the Suns’ consistent offensive presence, filling in the gap of Booker’s solo performances that usually tidy up sections of the game where Phoenix’s offense gets flat.

His point totals by quarter were nine, two, five and eight, respectively. There was a proper connection with teammates looking for Ayton and the big man making himself available when they do, an absent piece of functionality for the offense last year that the Suns couldn’t quite figure out by the postseason.

It’s also a crucial part of the matchup against the Warriors’ current look that has 6-foot-9 Kevon Looney as the tallest player.

“I just think our guys are looking for him more but he’s a bigger target than he was last year … DA’s planting himself in the restricted area and catching it and finishing around the basket,” Williams said. “We all get on him when he fades — he has a smaller guy and he shoots the fade (when) we know he can get to the basket and get to the rim. He’s so much better this year and there’s an effort to get to the front of the rim and dominate.”

Tuesday’s win was a prime example of how a young team getting a boatload of playoff experience in its first postseason could have them reaping massive benefits later on. Ayton’s success against the Los Angeles Clippers’ five-out smaller lineup in the Western Conference Finals is something he has built off.

“I’ve seen it before,” Ayton said. “So sealing and ducking is just me giving my teammates a good target for a good entry pass.”

Ayton’s key constants of running the floor, crashing the offensive glass and being a disruptor defensively were in full swing, the formula that helped make him so good in the playoffs, one that is most of the time not even about a stat he records.

In a sector of the third quarter when Paul drained back-to-back midrange jumpers, he pointed at Ayton and encouraged him with a few taps on the head.

“When you’re playing in a game against them and the way that we want to play, it’s a fast-paced game so I saw he was a little winded and I kept telling him, ‘You alright, you alright, you alright,'” Paul said. “Those midrange shots or whatever that I hit, I don’t make those without him giving himself up and setting those screens.”

A game that featured zero double-digit leads will almost always come down to crunch time, which is where Phoenix has been easily the NBA’s best this year.

That continued on Tuesday, and as expected, it was through Paul. He assisted or scored all 10 of the Suns’ points from under five minutes to go until the 56-second mark, when Landry Shamet’s three-pointer all but ended the game at a 102-92 scoreline.

I lean toward being certain that the number of words required to adequately portray Phoenix’s superb defense over that span would crash our website, and we don’t want to do that, so just trust me when I say it was excellent and included three forced turnovers.

Phoenix overall had 19 points off the Warriors’ 22 turnovers and assisted 28 of its 43 baskets on the night. Nine Suns players contributed at least an assist and Paul had 11 on his own to go with 15 points, six rebounds and five steals.

Ayton finished with 24 points, 11 rebounds, two assists, a steal and two blocks while I challenge Valley historians to find a better two-point performance in a Suns uniform than Bridges’. He added two rebounds, three assists, four steals and a block.

The Warriors grabbed 15 offensive rebounds to go +16 on the glass, the reason they were able to hang around despite the turnovers and poor shooting after the first quarter.

It’s unfair to Golden State’s Jordan Poole that we went this far without mentioning him. His line of 28 points, five rebounds, three assists, two steals and a block on 15 shots has his individual performance right up there with the handful of awesome ones the Suns got. He’s an absolute X-factor to watch for.

And that’s a good place for us to depart because it was just a better team effort from the Suns, and they happened to pull that off against a team like Golden State that seems to get everyone impacting the game on a high frequency with razor-sharp execution.

But that’s also how Phoenix is, and something tells me that shared link will keep these two squads butting heads at the top of the Western Conference for the rest of this year and potentially beyond.

“It’s the foundation that was set and you look at the team we just played tonight, they’ve been doing that now for a long time and I think that’s what most teams around the league are trying to build,” Paul said.

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