Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges fuel Phoenix Suns again to win vs. Nets

Feb 7, 2023, 9:15 PM | Updated: Feb 8, 2023, 7:57 am
Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton goes to the basket during the second half of an NBA basketball ga...

Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton goes to the basket during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Brooklyn Nets, Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2023, in New York. The Suns won 116-112. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

(AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

This game is the vision.

With the Phoenix Suns getting Devin Booker back on a minutes restriction and only nine points from Chris Paul, they faced a Brooklyn Nets team on Tuesday night that shot 48% from the field and got 27 points at the foul line.

While the Nets were down a few key players, including Kevin Durant, that is the type of summation that would typically doom a Suns squad that has rightfully been criticized for the lack of offensive firepower within its supporting cast.

But the way Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges starred in a 116-112 win is why their development is so important. It’s why the outcry for Ayton and Bridges to be featured more prominently in the Suns’ offense has repeatedly come. If Phoenix rounds out the margins on Thursday’s trade deadline instead of creating a ground swell with a significant move, it’ll need more nights like Tuesday’s from Ayton and Bridges in the postseason.

Ayton tied his career high of 35 points and grabbed 15 rebounds while shooting 14-of-18 (77.8%) from the field. After a 31 and 16 outing on 86.7% shooting in Saturday’s win, Ayton became the fourth player in NBA history to have back-to-back contests with at least 30 points and 15 rebounds on 75% shooting or better, per Stathead.

Bridges scored 15 of his 21 points in the third quarter and added eight rebounds.

Ayton’s scoring production by quarter was six, 11, nine and nine. As a big man in his offensive role, he’s focused on running the floor, setting hard screens, diving to the rim with purpose and establishing firm position around the basket. In an offense like the Suns’, the ball will naturally find him if he does that.

Even if Ayton’s not scoring, it’s impossible for him to not affect winning on offense when he’s playing like that. Check out how he opens up space for Paul here.

And to our aforementioned point, the Suns will prioritize getting Ayton the ball in his midrange areas and in deep, especially against switching teams like the Nets.

It was one of those nights where you could tell right away Ayton was attentive and decisive with his play. That was reflected in perhaps the game’s biggest sequence.

After the Suns were able to grab two of their own misses up seven with four minutes to go, Booker failed to convert on a 3-pointer.

Ayton was able to snag that one too, and in a moment where he will normally look to kick the ball back out, he immediately used one dribble to get under the basket and shoot through contact for an and-1.

Bridges predictably got fewer reps on the ball within the offense with Booker back in the lineup, but that didn’t stop him from still utilizing the confidence that now has him at 11 20-point games in his last 13 outings. That is going to be an adjustment for both Booker and Bridges to deal with the next couple of weeks.

This next type of play goes back to our original point.

When Booker is standing still off the ball and it would be predicted he is receiving the ball, defenders will often drape all over him. Booker likes to use this to advantage sometimes by turning that defender into a super screen.

So, in a last-shot-of-the-quarter situation, Booker did just that to set up a downhill drive for Bridges for the wing’s own and-1.

The offensive injection Ayton and Bridges inserted throughout a close game allowed the Suns to eventually pull away in the fourth quarter before sweating out the usual foul-up-3-shenanigans late.

Head coach Monty Williams has been using Bridges as more of a primary ball-handler than ever the last two weeks and has been emphasizing Ayton just as much too. It was crucial growth for both those two and the Suns’ system that they hope can be called back upon when the games really matter in April and May.

Booker played 26 minutes and had 19 points (6-of-15). His touch was there from the jump but it’s obviously going to take some time for him to get physically back to the level of best two-guard on the planet.

Paul provided 12 assists, five steals and two blocks to go with his nine points. Cam Johnson added 14 points.

Phoenix has now won nine of its last 11 games and moved up to fifth in the Western Conference standings. They are 1.5 games out of third.

Brooklyn’s Cam Thomas scored 43 points, making it an absurd streak of three straight games for the second-year guard with 40-plus. Thomas has been unable to find a concrete role yet with the Nets but the way he’s taken advantage of the latest Kyrie Irving mess has definitely earned him a long look ahead of the playoffs.

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