EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Small-ball lineup ignites Phoenix Suns past Spurs for 10th straight win

Jan 30, 2022, 10:46 PM | Updated: Jan 31, 2022, 1:05 am

PHOENIX — Sunday night wasn’t the Phoenix Suns’ same ol’ song and dance this season, even though it might have felt like it.

In yet another manhandling of the fourth quarter by Phoenix in a tight game, a 115-110 win over the San Antonio Spurs, it did so in an entire quarter without any of its centers on the floor.

That is something the Suns (40-9) almost never turn to. That’s because they have a great center rotation.

But given the issues the Spurs (19-32) were providing Phoenix off the dribble to lead by 12, head coach Monty Williams made the call to switch everything defensively and go small to maximize its effectiveness.

“I’m thinking that sooner or later our defense is going to wear them down but it didn’t,” Williams said. “They just kept getting to the paint and they were scoring off the dribble.”

It was a move point guard Chris Paul and assistant coach Kevin Young had been calling for before Williams pulled the trigger. Because of a roster still down six players, that tweak meant bringing in 6-foot-5, 250-pound two-way wing Ish Wainright, a player who has had his fair share of playing the 4 and 5 overseas.

The 27-year-old rookie never really had for more than a few possessions in the NBA, though, especially not when a game was up for grabs.

But what Paul has always mentioned is trust, and how important it was for the Suns to establish that last season in his first year with Phoenix. They are well beyond that foundation being laid, so if it’s going to a lineup and style the Suns have hardly used, the structural integrity is in place anyway.

“It was smooth,” Wainright said of playing the 5. “I’m also comfortable at it, and also you’ve got a Hall of Famer who is telling (the team), ‘Hey, we need to switch everything.’ He’s also backing it up. To have that? Goes a long way. You trust 1-15. Trust everyone and that’s a special gift of this organization.”

On a night where the Suns’ offense was as flat as it has been in months, the small-ball look was less of a spark and more a flamethrower.

After being down a dozen going into the last 12 minutes, Phoenix ripped off a 15-2 run in the opening 3:10 of the quarter to take a one-point lead.

The Spurs, down Dejounte Murray (knee), Jakob Poeltl (back) and Derrick White (rest), were coming off a 36-point third quarter but were held to 19 in the fourth. The Suns’ switching was indeed solving the problem of too much dribble penetration, where the stops set up their offense for success.

As you can imagine, that’s a scheme predicated on communication. Wainright assured the assembled media that there was a whole lot of it.

“It’s fun because we talk,” he said. “If everybody was mic’d up out there, I’m pretty sure you could hear everybody say something every play. Which, that is fun … And I know that’s tough for an offensive team.”

“I thought the small group really sparked our defense more than anything,” Williams added.

Most importantly, it’s a nice moment of growth for a team that rarely goes small this year. The teams that win titles improve as the regular season goes on, adding new layers and dynamic elements along the way if possible.

“That’s what the regular season does for you,” Williams said. “It allows for you have those experiences, those moments, to figure it out and allow for guys to build confidence or make mistakes and learn from them.

“I hear the talk about the regular season doesn’t mean anything, I don’t agree with that because you get a chance to experience and experiment with certain groups and certain things you want to work on.”

“It’s a group that we feel like, in a pinch, we can go to,” Williams added. “I don’t know if we’ve done it for a full quarter like we did tonight but our team just continues to find ways to win games.”

And it’s a testament to Wainright and the Suns’ culture for making it seem fairly straightforward when it was anything but that.

“To have a coach that trusts you and encourages you every single day, that means a lot, especially as a player,” Wainright said.

“We was walking off the court,” Paul said of Wainright. “And I was like, ‘That’s not easy. Me, Book, the guys, we hard on you.’ But we just expect so much from each other and for him to step in and have the impact that he did was big time.”

Because of how combative and physical the game was, with little room for comfort allowed by either side, San Antonio used that to its advantage by continuously generating just enough offense to hang around in the game.

The Spurs did that expertly enough to a point of even leading by two with 2:19 remaining.

That, however, is when the bad man showed up, the iteration of Devin Booker in game-deciding stretches of the fourth quarter that really emanates the “good defense, better offense” schtick.

Williams drew up a play during a timeout the Spurs snuffed out, a catch-and-shoot fadeaway three coming around off-ball movement for Booker that was perfectly contested by San Antonio. If that sounds like a difficult shot, that’s because it was.

Bad man don’t care. One-point lead.

After a Spurs turnover, Booker got the matchup he wanted and made second-year guard Tre Jones bite on a pump fake at the top of the key. That little window was all Booker needed, a smooth as can be maneuver for another three that put a dagger in a really tremendous effort from San Antonio.

The Suns had 31 assists as a team but 19 of those were from Paul. He and Booker once again did the heavy lifting for the offense, a trend unlike Williams’ team that hasn’t mattered much en route to 10 straight victories. To that point, though, Paul, Booker and Mikal Bridges are all averaging at least 38 minutes a night in the Suns’ last six games.

Paul had 20 points and eight rebounds to add to those 19 dimes while Booker scored a game-high 28 points with four rebounds.

Bridges contributed 17 of his 26 points in the second half. He really turned up the aggression out of halftime, clearly responding to a feeling that someone else besides Paul and Booker had to help the offense out.

Bridges specifically really benefited from a role as a screener, a look the Suns can use more with a five-out smaller lineup, another aforementioned layer the Suns could utilize in the postseason. He said he picked up a lot from his former teammate Torrey Craig playing that role last season.

“He’s gotten so much better … He’s gotten used to setting screens and making plays out of that,” Williams said of Bridges. “I think for us, it’s an environment we can live in from time to time when they try to put defenders on him that, at times, aren’t the best defenders because they’re typically on Chris and Book.”

Wainright posted career-highs in points (10) and minutes (20), plus two rebounds, an assist, steal and two blocks. Because the rookie is on a two-way deal, the Suns will need to convert him to a traditional contract if they want Wainright along for the playoffs. In this stint with Phoenix bombarded by absences, Wainright has done nothing but prove he deserves it and that he’d be a worthwhile addition.

Landry Shamet left the game with a right ankle sprain in the fourth quarter and was ruled out. He was having a rough night, a 1-of-6 shooting performance. Shamet and Elfrid Payton (1-for-7) both struggled to give the Suns more offensively.

The win clinched a spot in the All-Star Game for the Suns’ coaching staff, an achievement the players were acutely aware of being within their grasp. Paul and Booker jokingly acted like they didn’t know it was one game away after Friday’s win when they were, in fact, extremely in the loop. Sounds about right for this bunch.

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