EMPIRE OF THE SUNS
Phoenix Suns grind through messy game, Chris Paul’s ejection to defeat Rockets
Feb 17, 2022, 12:05 AM | Updated: 1:43 am
(AP Photo/Matt York)
PHOENIX — They don’t call them ugly wins for nothin’. And in a filthy game against a bad team, the Phoenix Suns picked up one of their few this season on Wednesday, beating the Houston Rockets 124-121 for their seventh straight victory.
In a slog of whistles that featured a combined 47 fouls and 64 free throws in 48 minutes, the game took another hard left when Suns guard Chris Paul was ejected on back-to-back technicals after injuring his right hand in the third quarter.
Paul protested a call after a pass of his was deflected in a swipe at the ball by Houston’s Jae’Sean Tate. Paul was given a first technical for profanity, per the game’s crew chief Mark Lindsay, and the second for making contact with an official less than a few seconds after the first was issued.
The full sequence of Chris Paul's ejection 👇 pic.twitter.com/jv5jc8kyCV
— Bally Sports Arizona (@BALLYSPORTSAZ) February 17, 2022
Lindsay did not offer a different response when asked if the act for the second technical warranted an ejection or if the officials believed Paul’s contact was intentional.
I was the pool reporter tonight so here is what I asked about Chris Paul's ejection and the responses from the game's crew chief Mark Lindsay. https://t.co/kcMUvgZ6XD pic.twitter.com/JUHHc8VBjg
— Kellan Olson (@KellanOlson) February 17, 2022
Paul was seen flexing and holding that hand throughout the process of his ejection. Suns head coach Monty Williams did not have an update on Paul’s status while Suns guard Devin Booker believed from his appearance with Paul in the locker room after the game that the point guard was fine.
Yahoo! Sports’ Chris Haynes reported Paul is getting an MRI on the hand Thursday.
Paul’s ejection came with 9:07 left in the third quarter with the Suns down 72-65. Given the inconsistent play of Elfrid Payton in place of injured backup point guard Cam Payne (right wrist sprain) and new acquisition Aaron Holiday having less than a week of experience with the team under his belt, Williams deployed the long lost “Point Book” lineup, with Booker running the offense as the lone guard at the time.
That poured a little bit more life into the Suns on that side of the ball while their defense couldn’t quite reach that shutdown level, even against a team like Houston missing Kevin Porter Jr. (illness) and Christian Wood (illness).
“Just a long game,” Booker said. “Second night of a back-to-back, they came out ready to go with a lot of energy and I don’t think we were ready for it at the start the game. But we came out with the win, a hard-fought win.”
Phoenix never led in the third quarter but had a jolt of lightning in the form of a 7-0 run across 45 seconds to take a one-point lead early in the fourth quarter. The Suns’ small-ball lineup of Booker, Aaron Holiday, Mikal Bridges, Cam Johnson and Torrey Craig finally came across some momentum via a 3 from Craig set up by Holiday.
HOLIDAY TO CRAIG.
FOR THE LEAD! pic.twitter.com/RmnpzG7HLw
— Bally Sports Arizona (@BALLYSPORTSAZ) February 17, 2022
That was well deserved for the trade deadline arrivals, as the pair off the bench played with the most energy all night.
It was the type of spark Suns fans know all too well from the Rockets’ side, when a lead disappears with the snap of a finger in the fourth quarter and the game is effectively over because the far better team decided it was.
Houston (15-42), though, wasn’t ready to let the Suns cruise into the All-Star break. Phoenix’s (48-10) legs on the second game of a back-to-back showed, still lacking the closeout power, which allowed Houston to keep hanging around.
“Off of a back-to-back, playing every other day, I expected this kind of effort actually,” Williams said. “(Like) that first game back from a road trip, I thought we were a bit tired tonight. Just kind of see it on our guys.”
Even after the Suns’ lead grew to eight with 5:48 left, the Rockets materialized a 10-2 run to tie the game at 2:56 remaining.
Johnson counted a Houston 3 with one of his own and a strong take by Bridges off an open lane put Phoenix bac in front with 1:10 to go.
A Houston turnover 18 seconds later felt like we were done, and when Bridges rebounded a Booker airball and scored it to make it a four-point Suns edge with 31.5 on the clock, that was surely it.
From there, it was the Suns denying 3s and then free throw shenanigans.
That is something they have confidence and experience with.
“We’ve been on the biggest stage and done it successfully,” Booker said of it. “I think back to the [Western Conference Finals] when we were fouling 56 seconds out. That was something that was new to us but coach had the great theory of [trusting] our players and playing the free throw game. We have people that don’t shy away from them when they get the ball to shoot those free throws.”
Johnson and Jae Crowder both missed one of their two that gave Houston a little life, requiring Booker to go a perfect 4-of-4 on his two trips.
Booker did, but since Houston kept getting layups and Eric Gordon nailed a 3 at 4.6 seconds left, that one-point boost finally gave the Rockets a chance in a one-possession game down three to tie it.
At 2.1 seconds remaining on an inbounds pass following Booker’s two makes, the Suns wouldn’t have enough time to foul, and forced Gordon into a very challenging trey ball that did not fall and a two-hour and 28-minute game that felt like at least four hours long was finally over.
Booker did not have a good shooting night (7-of-22) but successfully countered traps for the second straight night to put his teammates in good positions. He finished with eight assists and should have had a dozen, adding 24 points, three rebounds, three steals and two blocks to his tally as well. He played the entire second half and ended at 43 minutes.
Holiday had his third straight quality outing and this was the best of the lot. He played so well through his tenacious energy that Williams elected to play Holiday over Payton as the guard next to Booker in the second half, sticking with Point Book instead of letting Payton run the offense like the norm.
“Just continues to play the kind of basketball we like to play,” Williams said of Holiday. “Defensively, he just gets in your stuff. … I liked his willingness to take shots. … He’s got some moxie and some toughness. He’s just come in here and fit right in.”
Holiday’s night amounted to nine points, three rebounds, six assists and a steal across 20 minutes. Craig was the same ol’ Torrey Craig again with great bits of hustle for nine points, four rebounds and two blocks in 23 minutes.
Bridges (17 points) and Johnson (14) all hit enough shots off those Booker setups in the Point Book lineups, the type of production Booker lacked when forced to defer many moons ago.
Deandre Ayton’s touch was off from his usual spots against mismatches for the second consecutive evening and he still managed a solid 9-of-15 shooting night for 23 points.