Phoenix Suns turn up defense to dominate Washington Wizards

Feb 5, 2022, 8:32 PM

The Washington Wizards were in the wrong place at the wrong time Saturday night.

With the Phoenix Suns coming off their first loss in three weeks, you knew there wouldn’t be much letup. Since they started 8-8 last season, Phoenix has had only four losing streaks in the regular season and none of them have lasted more than two games.

The Suns take pride in that. Wing Mikal Bridges said it’s a shared mentality not to lose two games in a row and multiple players on the team Saturday were yelling that specific goal out loud throughout the day.

“It’s a mentality, man,” point guard Chris Paul said of it. “No matter who you playing against, you gotta have that same energy. And that’s the consistency that great teams have.”

The Wizards, meanwhile, are in a freefall, going 14-24 since becoming one of the surprises of the NBA after a 10-3 start. They are all over the place and also missing star guard Bradley Beal (left wrist sprain), making them a perfect opponent for the Suns to bounce back against.

It was a swift rebound for Phoenix from the Atlanta loss, a 95-80 victory.

The Suns’ defense wasn’t all that bad on a great shooting performance by the Hawks but Devin Booker and Paul both said postgame it’s usually better, and they weren’t wrong.

Head coach Monty Williams said pregame Saturday he had his team focus on their core defensive principles in a shootaround that got chippy, and it showed.

The Suns got their lead up to 18 points in the early second quarter and the Wizards scored only 15 points in the final 17:29 of the first half.

That allowed Phoenix to be up 28 at halftime. There would not be any speed bumps in the second half, where the lead got as high as 36 and the Wizards produced only 51 points through three quarters.

“To hold a team to [51] points through three quarters, you just don’t see that,” Williams said. “And it’s a credit to our guys that hate losing.”

A 29-10 Wizards fourth quarter made the final score a lot more tolerable for Washington than the game itself appeared. The Suns would have still won the game by five had they not scored in the fourth quarter.

Suns fans will be encouraged by how Deandre Ayton played. The fourth-year center was in his third game since returning from a right ankle sprain that kept him out for seven games. In both outings prior to Saturday, Ayton looked like someone who needed to, as Williams put it pregame, “knock the rust off.”

Ayton was back to taking hold of the spots on the floor he needs to, making his impact felt early and often. When he’s moving with urgency in all aspects, Ayton is a dangerous basketball player to face.

In the loss to the Hawks, Williams closed the game with a small-ball lineup and Ayton on the bench. It sounds like Ayton took that and his play the last two games to heart.

“Didn’t sleep, rewatched the game twice and [saw] what I needed to do,” Ayton said of how he processed the Atlanta game. “Mainly it was just my wind. Best way I can get back in shape is by playing hard in these games and running on each possession as fast as I can.”

Ayton said forward Jae Crowder, assistant coach Mark Bryant and Williams were all on him about that specific point of using these games to get his conditioning back.

Paul was correct in his analysis after the game that the stats don’t matter for Ayton, and it’s more about his energy and defense. But Saturday was a “why not both?” situation.

Ayton finished with 20 points, 16 rebounds and two steals in just 24 minutes.

It was a welcome blowout for the Suns, who have been playing Booker, Paul and Bridges big minutes due to injuries and close contests. The trio had been averaging at least 39 minutes per game in the last eight but the highest number on Saturday was 31 for Paul.

Phoenix’s typical offensive night would have made this much worse for the Wizards. It shot only 25.8% from 3-point range and 40.4% overall. Paul was the second-highest scorer with 14 points.

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