EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Suns hold off Grizzlies’ comeback, Chris Paul’s return sparks 3rd straight win

Jan 22, 2023, 10:46 PM

Chris Paul of the Phoenix Suns...

Phoenix Suns guard Chris Paul (3) runs away from Memphis Grizzlies guard Ja Morant (12) during the second half of an NBA basketball game, Sunday, Jan. 22, 2023, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

(AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

PHOENIX — The Phoenix Suns were going to start to get bodies back eventually. It was just a matter of how they responded to it.

So far, the returns on the, erm, returns have been overwhelmingly positive.

Sunday’s 112-110 win against the Memphis Grizzlies saw Chris Paul’s first game in the last eight jolt the team in a similar fashion to Thursday’s victory over the Brooklyn Nets when Cam Johnson played for the first time in two-and-a-half months.

The Suns weren’t nearly whole, still without Deandre Ayton (non-COVID illness), Devin Booker (left groin strain), Jae Crowder (not traded yet), Cam Payne (right foot sprain) and Landry Shamet (right foot soreness). And the Grizzlies’ only absence was Danny Green (left knee surgery), who hasn’t played this year.

But the way Paul vibrantly moved with the ball in a way he hasn’t all year for a team that hasn’t played with an experienced point guard in two weeks was an overdrive shock into the system.

This should have been a blowout. Phoenix led by as many as 29 and was up 62-37 at halftime.

But in all three of their wins to start a five-game homestand, the Suns have slowly lost control in the fourth quarter and could have dropped all three if there were a few more minutes left on the clock. Sunday might have only required one more possession.

That’s now how it works, though, and all victories count the same. That phrase holds true for no team more than the Suns, who are now 24-24 after three straight victories and have grasped onto some real momentum for the first time since the end of November.

They are up to seventh in a Western Conference that offers a tight mix from third in the standings all the way to 13th.

“We definitely need it,” Suns forward Mikal Bridges said of the momentum. “Come home, get this home stretch. Just the trust in confidence, and getting guys back is great. Once you get that winning feel, it’s contagious. We all feel it and we all know what that feeling is. … We just wanna keep it going and going. We got a lot of catching up to do.”

Paul was moving with excitement. It was almost like at a certain point in the second quarter he realized what he was capable of physically. Like his body had signed off on it.

After a season-high 15 points in the first quarter, most of which came off a pull-up jumper that looked lively again, maybe how his body responded afterward was enough positive affirmation to keep him going.

With Phoenix leading by 24 in the mid-second quarter, Paul got a rebound and streaked ahead with the ball in a way we’ve rarely seen this season. When he crossed half-court with the advantage in semi-transition his hustle had earned him, Paul ferociously faked a drive to his left, with his footwork fooling Memphis’ Steven Adams.

That forced Ja Morant to help and opened up a Bridges 3.

Paul’s greatness is highly tied to his ability to manipulate the game, something far easier to accomplish when he is physically all there, as that play showed.

Paul loves getting into his bag with his handle when he’s really feeling himself. His signature yo-yo dribble is a classic giveaway of this but plays like this assist in the second quarter qualify as well.

That’s the Hot Sauce special from the And-1 Mixtape Tour

Speaking of … When’s the last time you saw a pocket pass like this?

The Grizzlies’ last meeting with the Suns was one where both teams played very well offensively and then they just blew the doors off Phoenix in the second half. Perhaps that had them approaching this game too confidently, especially with the Suns on the second game of a back-to-back and still missing key players.

Their offense was mundane and lazy. By the seven-minute mark of the second quarter, the Suns had 16 points off Memphis’ 10 turnovers. Once that Bridges 3 fell to put Phoenix up 27, Morant was all of a sudden ruthlessly attacking the rim like we’re used to seeing.

Memphis’ 37 points in the first half were one off its season low and 18 points in the second quarter came after 17 in the first. Shooting (2-of-14 from 3) did not bail it out.

Morant’s spark carried over to the initial stages of the second half but it did not appear to inspire his team. The Grizzlies were still floating around, particularly defensively.

They kept coming offensively, though, and eventually Phoenix wore down.

Memphis scored 35 points in the third quarter and 38 across the next 12 minutes.

The Suns resisted the push to make it a game again fairly well, still leading by 15-plus for all of the third quarter until Ziaire Williams’ 79-foot heave at the end of the period made it 87-72.

A few minutes earlier, it was a question of if the Grizzlies were going to pull their starters. Now, there was a feeling they had a real chance at it.

Suns head coach Monty Williams sensed this and didn’t pull Bridges, all while re-inserting Paul after just over two minutes of rest. Both would play the rest of the game.

Once again, Phoenix shoved back enough when the Grizzlies made a few runs at it, but a 12-0 Memphis run in 3:06 cut the Suns’ lead down to seven with 5:18 remaining.

That meant the Grizzlies could taste it, so even after a 9-2 Suns surge over 90 seconds, Memphis cut it down to four at 58 seconds on the clock.

Phoenix’s execution was brutal for the last five-ish minutes and continued. It designed a play to get Adams switched onto Paul so Paul could get free off the ball to receive it but Adams still prevented that and it led to a turnover on a Dario Saric drive. Saric was only in the game because both Jock Landale and Bismack Biyombo fouled out earlier in the quarter. More on that in a few.

Morant then drew a shooting foul and sunk both free throws. The Grizzlies had enough time not to foul at 28.9 seconds remaining down two, so they didn’t.

The next Suns play design was more direct, with Paul receiving the ball early while Grizzlies pest Dillon Brooks hounded him. The ensuing ball screen action drew a trap, which Phoenix was prepared for. Bridges flashed within five feet of Paul 40 feet away from the basket, triggering a quick boom-boom sequence of Bridges getting the pass and flinging it to the diving screener, Saric.

He drove again and saw Morant recovering over from Torrey Craig in the weak-side corner. Morant got there quickly and went vertical, and Saric elected to challenge that instead of pass to Craig. It was the right decision, as a late whistle with 12 seconds left got Saric two free throws he drained to put the Suns in the driver’s seat.

Memphis got a quick two on their trip. Without a timeout and in fear of knowing the Suns will foul up 3, it tried to trap Phoenix on the inbounds play with seven ticks remaining instead of fouling right away. The Grizzlies were unable to corral Cam Johnson long enough and time expired. The Suns have won a lot of games under Williams not only for how good they are at fouling up 3 but also due to other teams knowing that and actively trying to avoid it.

As was the case in a great team win on Saturday, the Suns’ unheralded supporting cast stepped up.

Saric ended up with 14 points, eight rebounds, four assists and three steals. Landale added a dozen points and Craig shot 7-of-9 for 20.

Paul finished with 22 points, six rebounds, 11 assists and three steals. He wound up at 38 minutes in his first game back, a total Williams admitted was way too high.

“I was good. … It was nice to play all them minutes actually, because that meant I was in the game,” Paul said of how he felt physically.

Even though the Suns would have probably lost if Paul rested, Paul did the same whole fourth-quarter stretch to close at 40 minutes in a Jan. 4 loss and got hurt the next game. It seems like playing with fire every time Paul’s number gets north of 35.

Bridges played 41 minutes — including the entire second half — the night after 38 and still managed his fifth straight game of at least 20 points. He scored 24 and is now posting 20.2 points, 4.3 rebounds, 5.4 assists and 1.7 steals per game on 47.4% shooting in his last nine games. Remember this stretch from him if the Suns wind up finishing a game or two ahead of someone at the end of the regular season.

“‘Kal been amazing,” Paul said. “As y’all already know, ‘Kal lace ’em up every night, ready to go. But the way he’s played with all of us guys out, I think it’s going to help us in the long run because he’s so much more comfortable handling the ball, making plays.”

Bridges is also averaging 37.6 minutes a night in that stretch and that is not a normal 37.6 with his offensive and defensive responsibilities. The Suns have got to find a way to not wear him down in the regular season. Even Ironman has his limits.

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