EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Phoenix Suns’ 6-game winning streak snapped by pesky Rockets

Dec 2, 2022, 10:52 PM

Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker (1) and Houston Rockets guard Jalen Green scramble for the ball dur...

Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker (1) and Houston Rockets guard Jalen Green scramble for the ball during the second half of an NBA basketball game Friday, Dec. 2, 2022, in Phoenix. The Rockets won 122-121. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

(AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

PHOENIX — You wouldn’t take a quick glance at the Houston Rockets and say they match up well with the Phoenix Suns but the energetic young team has a knack for making the Suns work for wins.

After Oct. 30’s 124-105 Suns victory that Phoenix wasn’t able to create separation in until crunch time, the Suns couldn’t even get a win the second time around despite being heavy favorites. The Rockets pulled off the same stingy effort on Friday, this time handing the Suns a 122-121 loss.

The Rockets’ formula of crashing the offensive glass and generating free throws has a way of letting them hang around in these contests, with this edition being enough to actually come out victorious.

It was an excellent performance by a 6-16 team that will look back on Friday at the end of the year as one of its best wins of the season.

“That’s what they do,” Suns head coach Monty Williams said. “That’s what we said before the game. … They executed their gameplan perfectly and our force to keep them off the glass and keep them out of our paint just wasn’t there.”

The Suns (15-7), in the second quarter specifically, were frustrated by the officiating. Deandre Ayton and Devin Booker both picked up three fouls in the first half and Booker got a technical. Two of Ayton’s were especially debatable given the level of physicality the average NBA center is allowed to establish.

“The frustrations of our guys is understandable,” Williams said. “When you’re getting hit going to the paint and you gotta watch other teams go to the line, that’s frustrating.”

Houston led 25-6 in free throw attempts at halftime. With that said, it’s not like if every correct call was made that the free throw numbers would be even.

The Suns entered Friday 28th in free throw rate and the Rockets were sixth. Every half-dozen games or so they will have one like Friday when there is a large disparity with some bad calls sprinkled in that irk Phoenix.

It’s not like it did itself any favors in what had to be the top X-factor heading in: offensive rebounding. The Rockets are tied for the NBA’s best offensive rebounding percentage and grabbed 17 in October’s meeting. Even after that, they snagged 10 in the first half for 17 second-chance points.

An 8-0 run by the Suns in the third quarter put them up 15, indicating we were perhaps not going to see the same clingy Rockets. But Houston didn’t go away and kept its deficit between a few baskets to make the Suns remain engaged. It got it down to two with 7:09 left and that brought Booker back into the game.

That is when you would expect the Suns to begin closing up shop. The Rockets, however,  didn’t let up and surprisingly were the team to make less mistakes.

Houston was able to consistently create good looks and reach the foul line. In the fourth quarter, it shot 68% with six more points at the foul line.

“They just getting everything they want,” Bridges said. “Downhill, going to the paint, getting to the line and then hit key shots when we overhelped.”

That helped the Rockets hold a six-point edge with 1:33 to go.

Back-to-back 3-pointers from Booker and Cam Payne tied the game at 45 seconds left but another shooting foul by the Suns put Houston up a point with 28 seconds remaining.

It was a missed second free throw by the Rockets and Williams smartly elected to not call a timeout so an inexperienced Houston squad wouldn’t get a chance to regroup and set its defense. The decision worked out because the Suns got four shots off, all four of which you would have bet on going in off the release.

Booker attacked that defense quickly and swung it in the strong side corner to Payne for a slightly contested 3 that didn’t go down. Ayton grabbed the offensive rebound and kicked it out to Booker, who took a contested step-back deep two, a miss Mikal Bridges timed perfectly to snag.

He had a four-foot touch shot falling away with a hand in his face that also went out and the Rockets wound up saving a loose ball into Damion Lee’s hands. Lee found a wide-open Booker, who had to turn and fire on a quick release with under a second remaining. He got it off in time but that was short to end the game.

“Shots guys make, work on in practice and all that,” Lee said. “Just a tough game. Basketball, make or miss league. Missed ’em this time.”

Houston ended up with a free-throw mark of 34-for-43 (79.1%) compared to the Suns’ 14-of-19 (73.7%).

Phoenix was able to limit the second-chance points to only four in the second half for a total of 21 but the Rockets’ 62 points in the paint were far too many.

Booker had his third straight 40-point effort with 41 on 15-of-25 shooting, plus four rebounds and eight assists. Bridges added 22 points and Payne provided 20 and 12 assists.

Houston had six players in double figures and two-guard Jalen Green had 12 of his 30 points from free throws.

A right groin strain for forward Torrey Craig added him to the injury report on Friday morning and to the inactive list alongside Jae Crowder (not with team), Cam Johnson (right meniscus tear) and Chris Paul (right heel soreness).

Williams had a few choices to go with as Craig’s replacement. Two-way forward Ish Wainright has been solid in spot minutes while a smaller option in Lee would put arguably the Suns’ best reserve this year into the lineup.

Instead, Williams chose Dario Saric, a rare fixture in the rotation this season.

With Saric coming off an ACL year, the Croatian still looks like he needs some time to regain some of his athleticism. Saric was always a borderline fit as a 4 anyway, but with the way he’s moving right now, it’s a tough ask especially when he’s been a borderline shooter since arriving in Phoenix.

Taking that into consideration, I still agree with Williams’ choice. Saric is a playmaking big that provides a different dynamic to the team as a “connector” that Frank Kaminsky did as well. That’s a missing part of the offense right now that doesn’t make them necessarily better or worse, but is just another layer to make the Suns more dangerous.

Williams might as well take little chances like Friday over the course of the regular season to see if Saric can be that guy. He struggled against the Rockets with three points (1-for-5), four rebounds and two assists but should get a few more looks before it’s all said and done.

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