EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Phoenix Suns rally after familiar 1st half, stun Mavs in comeback win

Oct 20, 2022, 12:42 AM | Updated: 10:09 am

PHOENIX — The Phoenix Suns are tired of hearing about Game 7, the blowout loss and playoff elimination at the hands of the Dallas Mavericks.

This season for them is going to be about doing everything they can to ensure it is not their legacy. The Suns have been the butt of every joke since mid-May and will continue to be until they do something about it.

However, the Mavericks rolled back into town in the season opener on Wednesday playing at an extremely high level — like it will be what this Suns group is known for, instead of Phoenix playing with an urgency to start the process of righting last year’s wrong.

Well, at least in the first half that was being dubbed “Game 8.” Then the second half happened in a dumbfounding 107-105 Phoenix victory.

The Monty Williams-era Suns we’ve come to know suddenly showed up. After they were down as many as 22 in a first half that shared far too similarities with that Game 7, a 31-19 third quarter fueled by ferocious defense and an intent to push the pace offensively had it down to a five-point game going into the closing 12 minutes.

Williams said his squad in the first half was making so many small mistakes in defensive rotations, with guys making the wrong decisions and allowing the defense to get really stretched out, thus much easier to dissect.

Those mistakes got cleaned up, and the good-defense-to-good-offense cohesion was full steam ahead.

“It was night and day,” guard Damion Lee said of the defense. “Night and day from the first half. First half we kind of, call it, let ’em get the whole menu. … We weren’t locked in on our concepts and schemes.”

Even stranger was how quickly the Suns got back down 15 points in the fourth thanks to new Mavs big man Christian Wood scoring his team’s last 16 points.

But guard Devin Booker checked back in with 8:30 to go and did the superstar thing, leading a comeback through a wonderful two-man game with Deandre Ayton. Dallas’ traps that had plagued Booker in the past were neutralized by a quick pass to Ayton in the short roll before the trap collapsed and the two of them thrived in that space the rest of the way.

Booker scored or assisted 15 of the Suns’ next 18 points, all while the defense self-stabilized again. What had been working for Mavericks star Luka Doncic in the first half did not in the second. He shot 4-of-13 with three assists and three turnovers after the break, as Phoenix’s rotations were back in sync and forced Doncic’s teammates to make the possession’s most important pass instead of letting Doncic break them down so easily off one play.

“It’s infectious,” Lee said of the defense putting together stops. “Really, the main difference from us from the first half to the second half was we weren’t getting those deflections, we weren’t engaging the ball, we weren’t getting stops so they were able to pick us apart and get whatever they wanted. Second half, we picked that up.”

That 18-7 run had the Suns within four, and after a Lee 3 and Cam Payne layup, the Suns had their first lead, 101-100, since the score was 13-12.

In the middle of this, Suns forward Cam Johnson had been pulled for cramps and sat out the rest of the game. Lee was already in at the start of the fourth quarter, and despite his big-time struggles in the first three quarters, he would finish it thanks to some big-time plays over the course of the game’s conclusion.

On top of that, starting point guard Chris Paul checked out at 6:41 remaining, which is typical for his rotation pattern that will see him normally get anywhere from 1-3 minutes of a mini-rest.

Paul, though, had been ineffective to that point and Williams saw that his team was rolling on both ends with Paul’s backup, Cam Payne. So he stuck with Payne.

“I’m always open-minded in those situations and I think as much as you want to have Chris out there. … When I took him out my plan was to get him back in at 3 (minutes left) but then the game was going in a good way and Cam was playing well so I didn’t want to take him out,” Williams said. “I didn’t think it was that big of a decision but I guess it is because it’s Chris.”

Lee to that point had hit a pair of 3s, drawn a charge via Doncic and made roughly a dozen more key defensive plays in the Suns’ swarming defense.

He wasn’t done yet.

Lee drilled his third triple of the quarter, and a technical free throw for Booker added one more point for the scoreboard to somehow read 105-100 Suns with 1:38 to go.

Thank goodness the Suns weren’t wearing their Valley jerseys from last year, or else I would have convinced myself I was warping in and out of different dimensions and outcomes of Game 7, ala “Community’s” Remedial Chaos Theory episode with all the timelines. Game 7 surely was the darkest timeline, no?

Anyway, Doncic scored five straight from there to tie it. Dallas’ defense had found its balance again in forcing Booker off the ball and making the right guys beat him.

With 32 seconds left, Booker carried out the possession and was forced to pass out of a double not once but twice.

“I mean, I got double teamed so I made the right play,” Booker said of it. “You throw out the double, I trust my teammates, I trust everybody out there.”

Both times he swung the ball to Lee. The second go wasn’t pretty, as Lee got a bad shot up.

And then it went in. And then Dallas didn’t call a timeout at nine seconds remaining. And then Doncic got to his step-back jumper from 34 feet for the win. And then he missed. And then the game was over.

And then the Suns won?

Booker was +20 and Doncic was -16, a crazy pair of numbers because it accurately portrays how much the Suns had issues when Booker was out and when Doncic was too.

Ayton was, as Williams put it, “amazing” in the second half after foul trouble sent him to the bench for much of the first. He finished with 18 points and 10 rebounds in 30 minutes while Booker was the leading scorer at 28 points on 10-of-20 shooting in 41 minutes to go with nine assists.

Doncic ended up at 35 points, nine rebounds and six assists. He was the best player on the court by far in the first half but what Booker got done in winning time made that gap a lot tighter by the closing ceremonies.

Paul was 1-of-6 from the field for six points with nine assists in 30 minutes.

Wednesday night was not the Suns exorcising their Game 7 demons.

“To beat the team that knocked you out, it doesn’t erase that feeling and that hurt but it does help you grow the next season,” Williams said.

Then again, who am I to say?

“I was just proud of the fact that we didn’t give in. I think we were down 17 at half, 22 in the third and 15 in the fourth. … Book was really good in the huddles,” Williams said. “Even when we were down 15, I heard he got the guys together and told them, ‘This is nothing. But we gotta stay here.’

“And we’ve been talking about that all of training camp: How can we deal with the emotional ups and downs of the game? I thought that helped us win the game tonight.”

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Johnson said afterward he’s fine after suffering from a cramp. He said he will be ready to go for Friday’s first road game in Portland.

Booker turned his left ankle in the third quarter, and as Williams was about to sub him out, Booker waved it off and stayed in the game. He looked OK the rest of the way but that ankle will surely be quite sore.

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