EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Phoenix Suns’ Ayton, Booker, Bridges continue to step up in win vs. Rockets

Mar 16, 2022, 8:55 PM | Updated: 9:46 pm

The Phoenix Suns are a well-balanced team but they are proving that even without key bodies the scale won’t shift because others step up even more.

Phoenix had four players score at least 20 points in Wednesday’s 129-112 victory over the Houston Rockets, its fifth win in its last six games.

Devin Booker’s 36 points on 15-of-24 shooting now make it an average of 27.9 points per game with a field goal percentage of 52.1% across the eight games he has played without Chris Paul (right thumb avulsion fracture).

Mikal Bridges’ 26-point evening was his fifth straight game with at least 18+ while Cam Johnson (right quad contusion) remains sidelined and 23 points from Deandre Ayton has his point totals since Johnson’s absence began seven games ago at 30, 21, 19, 16, 23, 18 and those 23 from Wednesday.

Head coach Monty Williams credited a learning experience he had as a coach last year of how putting players like Ayton and Bridges in different positions would provide them beneficial experience whether they succeeded or failed.

“Now, having been through what we’ve been through in the playoffs, I realize the value of putting guys in certain situations so they can see what it feels like,” Williams said.

Right now, that’s just required because of the injuries the Suns have had throughout the year. In a separate answer, Williams said reserve point guard Cam Payne is getting an “education” while taking the place of Paul that will help in the postseason.

As a refresher, Game 2 of the NBA Finals was a fairly close game the Milwaukee Bucks kept hanging around in and Bridges’ 27 points were massive.

While the Suns’ supporting cast played great last postseason, especially considering that it was the first bit of exposure for a few of them, those types of elevated performances being more consistent this go-around could prove to be the difference in winning a championship.

“We need them to be aggressive,” Booker said of Ayton and Bridges. “We’ve been preaching that since last year. It takes a lot of pressure off everybody and we wouldn’t be telling them to be aggressive if we didn’t know they were capable of doing what they do and they’ve shown it in more spots this year than last.

“And that’s just the process of getting better and learning this league is finding your places and finding ways to be aggressive and effective. I think everybody’s confidence level is really high right now and everybody puts the work in to have that confidence.”

“That all adds up,” Bridges said of the extra reps in the offense. “Talk about it a lot, just the playoffs and Finals about needing another scorer in general, everybody else being aggressive because they’re going to try to take out Book and CP. So it’s just everybody else stepping up.”

The matchup in Houston presented a new challenge without Jae Crowder (left groin soreness), a late addition to the injury report. That put trade deadline acquisition Torrey Craig in the starting lineup, and after finding out he was in when he arrived at the arena pregame, Craig had one of the best games of his NBA career.

Craig was perfect from the field (8-for-8) for 21 points while also amounting to 14 rebounds, three assists and two blocks.

“It was indicative of the kind of year we’ve had with guys not being able to play and somebody else stepping up,” Williams said. “You don’t expect that kind of production but I thought he had great balance tonight. Defensively, he was covering for a lot of people, he was getting Cam (Payne) off a bigger guy so he could take him in the middle of a play, which is huge.”

All of the Suns’ (56-14) extra contributions are coming while they are maintaining their core principles. Looking at post-All-Star break numbers, Phoenix after Wednesday’s win ranks fourth in defensive rating (109.2) and in the percentage of its baskets it assists (65.4%) and second in assist-to-turnover ratio (2.38).

That last number is an area where Payne has really done his part, continuing it against Houston with six points, 11 assists and two turnovers.

Houston plays hard, and that plus an 11-of-21 start from three-point range over the first two quarters and change allowed the Rockets to be within one possession. But just like the Suns’ win the night prior, they used a significant run in the third quarter that wound up as the difference-maker. This time it was a 26-13 surge in the final eight minutes of the frame.

The Rockets (17-52) kept the game alive before consecutive baskets by Ayton, Bridges and Booker with under five minutes to go saw the Suns’ advantage grow from nine to 15. Houston responded with six straight points of its own and then Booker took center stage in his role as master of the closing ceremonies with back-to-back 3s.

Wednesday marked the Suns’ 56th win. The second-seeded Memphis Grizzlies hold a 48-22 record, meaning they can only reach 60 wins, so Phoenix is now five more away from clinching the Western Conference’s No. 1 seed. And depending on how the Grizzlies and 47-23 Golden State Warriors close out the year, the Suns might not even need to win any more games.

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