EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Phoenix Suns find right level of energy, pick up much-needed win vs. Nets

Jan 20, 2023, 12:49 AM | Updated: 1:24 am

PHOENIX — The Phoenix Suns need to be opportunists the rest of the season.

Whenever the schedule presents a favorable matchup, they need to take advantage of it. They’ve lost too much ground already to not put a full competitive effort into every winnable game.

This is even more of the case while Phoenix remains shorthanded, without its top four ball-handlers in Devin Booker (left groin strain), Chris Paul (right hip soreness), Cam Payne (right foot sprain) and Landry Shamet (right foot soreness).

So when a Brooklyn Nets team without Kevin Durant sleepwalked defensively through the first half and more on Thursday in Phoenix, the Suns had to pounce.

They did, doing enough damage in the first three quarters to hold off a Nets comeback for a 117-112 win.

“Book said it on the bench, ‘Way to get back on track,'” head coach Monty Williams said of the Suns’ second victory in January. “This is what we’re used to doing. We’re used to winning games.”

While the Suns (22-24) are still in a muddled-up state, represented by their starting lineup that had Mikal Bridges serving as the de facto point guard alongside Damion Lee in the backcourt, they can still pick up victories in a similar fashion to the last two seasons.

What I mean by that is the Suns’ established style of play and ability to execute gameplans designed for specific opponents was a huge part of their success, and while those types of elements can become less consistent, they don’t just vanish.

Brooklyn (27-17), known for its switching defense, was overwhelmed by the Suns’ insistence to get Deandre Ayton a switch and find a way to get him the ball.

That was the Suns’ main source of offense throughout the night and Ayton did a wonderful job most of the evening. In the first half he produced 17 of his 24 points and nine of his 14 rebounds. His elite touch was relocated and he distributed when he had to.

More importantly, the Nets’ defensive rotations stunk all night. Their flimsy structure only required a bit of ball movement before falling apart and the Suns obliged.

This allowed Phoenix’s offense to thrive without a lead guard.

It helped that they got an emotional boost in the form of a returning Cam Johnson playing in his first game since missing 37 due to a torn meniscus.

Johnson, on a minutes restriction as a reserve, received a huge round of applause from the crowd when checking in for the first time.

“I just thought he brought a level of juice to the arena that we hadn’t felt in a while,” Williams said of Johnson. “When he got off the bench, you could feel the fans and feel the community like, ‘That’s our guy. …’ To have your fans emotionally wrap their arms around a guy that’s grown up in this city and watched him battle through a tough injury and have him check in the game and feel that love from the community, from our fans, I thought it was awesome.”

Johnson responded by scoring eight points in the first three minutes, and his first triple was thanks to the Nets’ Kyrie Irving playing transition defense like the dad that lightly jogs around the track at a local YMCA.

The insertion of Johnson, his knowhow of the offense and shooting gravity seemed to free so much up. His twin, Bridges, played comfortable through floor general duties that included making a handful of complex reads, passes he’s been getting better at over the last month.

The Suns were up 14 at half, and 51 seconds into the third quarter, Brooklyn took a timeout after two bad defensive possessions let Phoenix extend the advantage to 19.

The amount of work on Bridges’ plate resembled someone trying to put every dish on their first of Thanksgiving when they know better than anyone it’s not all fitting on there.

He was defending Irving, one of the best scorers of his generation and owner of an all-time handle. When he switched to the other end after guarding a three-time All-NBA member, Bridges ran the offense while being marked by Ben Simmons, a two-time First Team All-Defense honoree and ace perimeter defender. And when ball screens came to help Bridges, manning that backline of the defense was Nic Claxton, a breakout success for Brooklyn this year that has a chance to make his first All-Defense team this year.

Bridges was great even before taking all of that into consideration.

Irving shot 3-of-16 in the first three quarters before catching fire in the fourth and Simmons got up to five fouls in the mid-third quarter, voicing his displeasures enough after checking out that he was ejected.

Offensively, Bridges once again looked like a guy who has made some substantial progress on feeling out how to score in his spots and playmake when the defense forces him to. As this type of offensive option, Bridges has to make the right decision in the heart of the defense once he takes his first or second dribble inside the 3-point line. That is a really hard skill to learn, and Bridges is a guy who didn’t even do this type of thing in high school, let alone college.

We’ve seen Booker master this but not before a lengthy growth process that took a few seasons, as it would for any young player. Bridges has had over a month, and while the results were not good for large portions of the stretch, it says something that mentally he has reached a point where constant aggressiveness is there. The basketball gods will reward you for that, and on the other end of the spectrum, will punish hesitation.

“Mikal is just finding different ways to grow his game,” Williams said. “A lot of it was in pick and roll and attacking the paint. The fact that he was taking those shots when it mattered is something that he and I have talked about, living with the consequences of whatever it is.”

Bridges’ 29 points and nine assists now puts him at 20.2 points, 5.7 assists and 2.3 turnovers per game on 46-of-87 (52.9%) shooting in his last six contests.

Ayton was superb in the first half but lost that touch in the second half. Brooklyn went to a zone and he was not able to execute in the pocket or find the right areas of the floor, missing eight of his first nine shots of the last two frames.

The Nets making it a game again midway through the fourth quarter wasn’t all on him but the empty offensive possessions with missed bunnies were rough.

Brooklyn entered the fourth quarter down 20 and a surge from Irving, who scored 21 of his 30 points in the fourth quarter, cut the deficit to five with under five minutes to go.

But through a lot of poor offense for both teams came a jumper for Bridges and a hook shot and middy via Ayton to match Irving’s next six points to maintain a five-point Suns lead with just over 90 seconds remaining.

Phoenix struggled to find Ayton in that last patch while the Nets had too many costly turnovers. It wasn’t pretty late but a win is a win.

“Typically in those moments that would be Chris and Book making those reads,” Williams said, noting how the Suns’ zone-busting play in that situation was something they had to teach guard Saben Lee on the fly.

The Suns, as they always do, won the free throw game late.

“We did enough to get a win,” Williams said. “On the road lately in those moments we’ve kind of run into a bit of a wall from a spirit standpoint, emotional standpoint and tonight I thought we just held the line as best we can.”

Johnson was awesome, and that’s even before factoring in this was his first game back from two-and-a-half months out.

In 22 minutes he recorded 19 points, six rebounds, two assists, a steal and two blocks. He checked out around the six-minute mark of the fourth quarter after just a brief three-minute shift, suggesting the 18 minutes he hit was the minutes restriction cap Williams spoke on pregame. But as Irving persisted, Johnson came back in for the last four minutes. Williams responded with “next question” when asked if Johnson went over the cap and Johnson jokingly said his number was right around there.

It is a credit to Johnson’s elite mindset that he was able to hit the ground running.

“Those first couple of possessions, I was kind of laid back in the corner just observing, catching the pace and everything,” Johnson said. “Because these NBA games are no joke. It’s big people, fast people, strong people, smart people. And guys can really play, so just respecting the game, respecting (that) it’s not an easy game to jump into when you haven’t.”

He got to fall to the ground a few times, a normal occurrence for him anyway, to really see how that knee felt. He embraced that contact through a perfect 9-for-9 mark at the foul line, a new career high for makes and attempts.

“I feel really good. Like I told everybody, I feel normal,” Johnson said. “Probably better than normal now. I don’t think about my knee, I don’t think about planting on it, twisting on it — it feels good.

Speaking of that philosophy on the basketball gods, Saben Lee has played downhill basketball since the Suns signed him to a 10-day contract and I suspect a second one is coming right around the corner.

Lee has provided some slashing and was great at capitalizing off Brooklyn’s defensive lapses. He, rightfully so, closed out the game and ended up with 15 points and six assists.

Damion Lee added 16 points in his start.

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