EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Phoenix Suns respond to poor outings with emphatic win over Hornets

Jan 2, 2022, 8:55 PM

You never know how long a team is going to stay in a funk. You can make pretty safe bets on a group like the Phoenix Suns snapping out of one sooner rather than later but it’s never a certainty.

Arizona Cardinals fans, for example, were feeling a lot more uneasy about this before a win over the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday. Further east, the Suns emphatically got their mojo back too in a 133-99 victory against the Charlotte Hornets.

It was a mismatch in terms of energy and engagement levels that was similar to the Suns’ poor loss to the Celtics on Friday that made it three losses in their last four games. Except this time around, Phoenix was the aggressor.

“Watched some film at shootaround this morning and coach talked to us about the physicality that we didn’t play with in Boston. And we knew it,” point guard Chris Paul said.

Charlotte didn’t come out with much oomph and the Suns quickly put the Hornets on their back foot before knocking ’em all the way over not too shortly after.

Phoenix jumped out to a lead that got as big as 14 in the first quarter, and while the Hornets responded with a 14-2 run, that was all they had left to muster up. In the remaining 9:50 of the first half, it was a 35-13 Suns rout to go up 26 at halftime.

The Suns started the game with unbelievable pace. Paul was nearly at half-court when getting an outlet pass, and even after that, was immediately kicking the ball ahead to someone else.

“That’s something that we clearly talked about coming into it,” acting head coach Kevin Young said. “It was good that it happened early.”

Devin Booker used this tempo to find a scoring groove early, scoring 14 of his 24 points in the opening 12 minutes.

Phoenix finished with 36 assists and 17 three-pointers, with 10 of those dimes and six of those trey balls coming in just the first quarter.

Much like Friday’s defeat, there isn’t much to take away when it comes to individual performances given how flat Charlotte was. But on this side of it, the game at least presents a nice opportunity for certain guys to either find their rhythm or continue it.

The Suns were in desperate need of this type of get-right game given the absences of Monty Williams, Deandre Ayton, Jae Crowder, JaVale McGee and Abdel Nader due to health and safety protocols. Everyone was not afraid to admit how odd the last week had been and the team was out of sorts because of it.

Mikal Bridges (15 points), Cam Payne (14) and Landry Shamet (17) stand out as three players who took advantage on Sunday.

You could lump Paul’s 16 assists in there too. He said after Friday’s loss he knew he had to be more aggressive and noted Sunday he can still be that without shooting by putting pressure on the defense.

Meanwhile, at the center spot, second-year big Jalen Smith kept it rolling and new 10-day signing Bismack Biyombo showed what he can do.

The contrast between Smith and Biyombo is pretty fascinating. Smith, the more athletic of the two, is at least a few steps faster. But Biyombo, the 29-year-old with now 703 NBA games to his name, is at least a few steps ahead on where he is supposed to be.

There is more nuance to understanding spacing and proper positioning for centers than any other position in basketball, which is why you so often hear coaches talk about why it takes longer for them to develop.

Smith is still in his early stages of figuring out basic things like what NBA officials call (and don’t call) and how to get open through sideline out of bounds plays.

A fair bit of that can be contributed to spending nearly a year learning a position he never had played, a versatile 4, before getting back to what he knows best as a 5-man.

Smith is now just focusing on playing hard, staying active around the basket and keeping up his defensive duties. Those first two don’t take much beyond his ability that got him picked in the lottery last year. He’s looking more comfortable each game and environments like Sunday’s when the Hornets are half-asleep are going to result in him eating.

The 21-year-old had a double-double in the first half alone and ended the night with 19 points, 12 rebounds, two blocks and one poster.

Smith had the third year of his rookie deal declined by the Suns in early November. He could have sulked through the rest of his stint in Phoenix before figuring things out elsewhere, but he remained diligent with his work and stayed ready for any opportunity that would come. Smith said he never lost his confidence through this process and it’s shown across his great play over the last week.

“That mentality of being the next man up,” Smith said. “Trying to take what DA and JaVale have been doing and trying to get up on that end.”

As for Biyombo, he told AZCentral’s Duane Rankin he wasn’t ready to play basketball after the passing of his father in August and had “stayed away from the game.” He normally receives a pregame text from his dad and said it was different to not get one on Sunday.

“It’s almost finding ways (and) understanding this new way of living,” he said after the win.

Biyombo was waiting for the right fit once enough time had passed and here he is with the Suns now looking like a seamless addition.

The veteran clearly stayed in shape throughout all that and showed his know-how by being in the right place at the right time.

“He’s exactly what we need right now,” Young said of Biyombo, who the Suns signed Saturday. “An NBA big who can do his job at a high level. … He fit in better than I thought he would. We just plugged him in (and) he knew exactly what he was doing and he got a lot done.”

Biyombo has always made up for his shorter frame (6-foot-8) and lack of explosive quick-twitch movements by how strong and long he is. The dude plays physically and is fearless when it comes to sacrificing his body. He’s going to set hard screens, put bodies on dudes around the basket, grab rebounds and protect the paint.

He put his skillset on display against his former team with a block in the first quarter and several more solid plays.

Biyombo finished with 11 points, six rebounds, an assist, block and steal in 18 minutes.

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