EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Phoenix Suns complete comeback vs. 76ers, execute again in crunch time

Feb 8, 2022, 9:34 PM | Updated: Feb 9, 2022, 11:36 am
Cameron Johnson #23 of the Phoenix Suns and Georges Niang #20 of the Philadelphia 76ers chase a loo...
Cameron Johnson #23 of the Phoenix Suns and Georges Niang #20 of the Philadelphia 76ers chase a loose ball during the second quarter at Wells Fargo Center on February 08, 2022 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.(Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)
(Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)

Every NBA team takes losses in the regular season. The Phoenix Suns, however, will oftentimes force their opposition to make them take one.

Everyone who has watched enough basketball knows the ebbs and flows of a second half when double-digit leads materialize and opportunities arise to build up that cushion enough to effectively kill the game off before it gets too close.

When the Suns are staring down that barrel, a time when most teams fold, they put up a fight. Even when they are showing signs of heavy legs.

The Philadelphia 76ers led by 14 in the early third quarter after a 10-0 run on Tuesday against Phoenix. The Suns responded with a 28-15 spurt to close the quarter, forcing Philadelphia to deserve a win over the NBA’s best team during its final game of a road trip and second game of a back-to-back.

The tables had turned. Now we would see if the Sixers were going to fold right after the Suns had proved they weren’t going to.

“I think we worked too hard to get to that point. … I don’t think anybody on our team is built that way,” guard Devin Booker said. “Once we cut it to a one-point game going into the fourth, we knew what time it was.”

Philadelphia did fold, all while the Suns kept on humming through their usual solid execution in crunch time, completing a tremendous comeback for a 114-109 victory.

“There’s no panic at all,” head coach Monty Williams said of a 0-for-7 shooting start to the second half when Phoenix’s deficit grew to 14. “I thought in those moments you have to have a relentless attitude to be poised and execute and just stay the course. Doesn’t matter what the outcome is going to be. You just have to stay with it.

“We’ve been in these situations before. They’re nerve-wracking but they help you grow.”

When Phoenix (44-10) trailed by two with 4:10 to go, the Suns scored 10 of their 14 points at the free throw line, including a perfect 4-for-4 from Booker in the closing 20 seconds when the Sixers (32-22) fouled down by three.

The Suns had adjusted to a tight whistle and the 76ers, well, just kept fouling. Phoenix remained aggressive in all facets of its offense, locked up enough defensively and that was that.

“I thought it was just the heart and the stamina of our team,” Williams said of the difference in the game.

This was not just Booker or Chris Paul heroics. Mikal Bridges contributed eight of his 23 points in the final frame and all of them came from self-creation off the bounce, a huge development the last couple of weeks that changes things for Phoenix if it remains consistent. Bridges has put up 20+ points in four of his last seven games.

“I think it makes it tough on other teams,” Booker said of Bridges’ scoring boost lately. “You try to put your third or fourth defender on him, he’s going to make you pay.”

Bridges made plays when it mattered in winning time, just like his teammates.

With that whistle and 76ers defensive ace Matisse Thybulle chasing Booker around a screen at a tied-up score and four minutes remaining, Paul set that screen knowing if Thybulle didn’t navigate around him that he was going to take a bump to draw a foul.

That savvy play in the bonus earned Paul two free throws, and after he only made one of two, Jae Crowder swiped away the rebound grabbed by Philadelphia’s Tobias Harris and found Paul at the top of the circle for a wide-open 3.

It was a gigantic swing, four points created simply off of basketball IQ and being alert for the most inconsequential situations. For a game with so many ups and downs, two winning plays can be the difference.

The Suns got points out of their next three offensive possessions, leading by six with 1:55 left and turning the defense up enough from there to get perhaps the win of the season.

Philadelphia was rattled thanks partially to a zone defense the Suns sporadically deployed throughout the game, a scheme the Sixers have proven to have issues with. Williams said it was a look his team had not used in a while but they worked through it on gameday, something his group is terrific at doing on a game-to-game basis. And his guys, for lack of a better word, executed in another phase of the game.

“It’s huge,” Williams said of that zone working out. “When you can implement a defense that we haven’t used in a while on the day of a game and have our guys commit to it, go out there and execute it and then win the game. I think that builds confidence in all of us.”

Crowder was having one of those shooting nights (0-for-6) where fans want him to sit in favor of Cam Johnson, but he grabbed 14 huge rebounds while Deandre Ayton was spending a good amount of time on the perimeter defending Joel Embiid.

Booker posted 35 points, the ninth time in his last 14 games he’s reached 30.

JaVale McGee dominated the 76ers’ Andre Drummond, a nice notch for McGee to pick up against the guy some make a case for as part of the best center duo in the NBA. McGee had 13 points, 12 rebounds, two assists and two blocks in 18 minutes.

Paul went through one of his off-nights, a 7-for-18 shooting display when his normal conversions from his default spaces on the floor weren’t going down. He also committed six turnovers. It happens. He still brought 16 points and 12 assists to the table despite that.

The only reason to slightly worry there was Paul playing 42 minutes and the whole fourth quarter on the second game of a back-to-back, bringing his average over the last 11 games to 37.8 minutes a night. That’s the same number for Bridges over that span and Booker is a sliver away at 37.6.

Williams knows his players better than anyone and injuries for Cam Payne (right wrist sprain) and Landry Shamet (right ankle sprain) put him in a challenging position. With that said, he’s playing with fire just a tad here for a 44-10 ball club. He said postgame he has continued having his constant conversations with those guys to make sure they are feeling OK and that trust they’ve developed as a unit plays a huge part in becoming the top dog in the league.

The Suns managed Embiid’s impact well enough, limiting the MVP candidate to 34 points, 12 rebounds, three assists and three steals on 13-of-25 shooting. Phoenix’s team defense was especially engaged on that front, with Williams’ zone scheme throwing off Philly’s offensive rhythm too.

A few positive season-long trends persisted on Tuesday. The Suns improved to 35-0 when they give up less than 110 points, 31-2 when they hit over 25 assists and 22-3 in games with clutch minutes (five-point game with under five minutes to go).

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