EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Phoenix Suns’ depth steps up, produces in win over Thunder

Feb 25, 2023, 12:17 AM | Updated: 11:01 am

PHOENIX — The reality of the Phoenix Suns becoming a top-loaded roster is that their depth will not ultimately determine how far they go in the postseason. It will come down to how Deandre Ayton, Devin Booker, Kevin Durant and Chris Paul perform.

But a common misconception intertwined inside that is that all means the supporting cast doesn’t matter. They still very much do.

The playoffs will roll out the red carpet and don the spotlight on a reserve during a crucial game. There will be some type of 13-2 Suns run in a Game 5 or later when a player off the bench had a large part to do with it.

And potentially, a bench can pick up its stars on a night the top dogs just don’t have it all the way to a victory. Again, if the Big 4 play at a high level, that shouldn’t be necessary. But it might be!

The regular season version of that came on Friday in a 124-115 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder. Durant (right knee MCL sprain) remained out, Ayton was a tale of two halves, Booker was denied any driving room in the key and Paul was solid in more of a supporting role while OKC targeted him a lot on the defensive end.

The Suns’ focus as a whole wasn’t where it needed to be, particularly defensively. But key contributions from Josh Okogie (15 points), Terrence Ross (nine), Ish Wainright (10), Damion Lee (nine) and the returning Cam Payne (14) provided enough supplemental scoring to allow Phoenix to just outscore OKC, a team that rarely fades thanks to how hard and together it plays.

“It was almost like we got in shape tonight from being off just playing in the half-court against them because their pace, their body movement. … Their pace is second to none,” Suns head coach Monty Williams said of the Thunder. “I thought as the game progressed, we did enough especially in the second half to nullify it a little bit.”

The NBA schedule will always present challenging transitions but sometimes the basketball gods grant an opportunity to lessen its blow. Phoenix faced a Thunder squad without leading scorer Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (right ankle soreness), one of the best players in the league this year. On top of that, Oklahoma City was on the second game of a back-to-back after an overtime loss in Utah the night prior.

The Suns start a five-game road trip on Sunday but it’s an untraditional opening against the Milwaukee Bucks at 11 a.m. Phoenix time as a showcase game on ABC. Milwaukee have been world-beaters too, improving to a record of 42-17 on Friday, so the Suns not having to grind through the fourth quarter would have meant more.

This was not that. An 18-8 surge that included two 3s each for Ross and Payne, plus two more Payne buckets got the Suns up 14 with 9:33 to go in a game that was fairly close throughout. And then Oklahoma City crawled right back within six five minutes later, forcing Booker back in the game, but it didn’t have enough juice to make it any more interesting than that.

All indications are this was the last home game until Durant gets in the mix. The rotation choices begin getting complicated from there, and we’ll see what it looks like when they come back to face the Thunder again on March 8.

Ross and Payne were the first two players in. They feel like the safe bets for the two guard spots and the sixth and seventh men, in general. The fifth starter could complicate that, because if it’s not Okogie, getting his energy in the game as soon as possible could be a priority.

Beyond that, Williams elected for a smaller lineup featuring Lee and Ish Wainright on the wings, plus Jock Landale at the backup 5. Landale and Biyombo will presumably continue swapping in and out based on the matchup. No T.J. Warren was a little bit of a surprise given what he offers offensively. Then again, he’s only been in the system less than two weeks and the combination of defense and shooting from the supporting cast will be far more important than offense.

Ross was someone Williams cited pregame would have a bigger role on Friday, and after 23 minutes off the bench, it seems like he’s a true sixth man for the team.

Notably, he has been fine on defense so far, the part of his game that inspired the most hesitancy upon his arrival. His communication was constant and so was his energy, even though he still needs to figure out the rhythm of the rotations.

“I just like the way he reads — he has a good IQ for the game. … We’re just throwing a lot at him,” Williams said when asked about Ross’ defense. “I thought he spaced well. Tonight he got some open shots because he was just spacing well.”

The intent is what matters, and if it continues, Ross could even be a plus on that end by April.

That would be a huge bonus because Ross’ offense is going to thrive with all the open looks he’s going to get, something he wasn’t used to in Orlando.

“It’s crazy to think that T-Ross is a guy they had to help off on so he’s getting to shoot uncontested 3s,” Paul said. “It just shows the ability of what we can do.”

Booker brought up how Ross’ offense normally came through off-ball movement around screens with the Magic. Booker knows it well because he was the one chasing Ross sometimes, and Booker noted how it felt like Ross was open anyway because of how high he gets on his jumper.

“Those shots tonight now, he’s just wide open,” Booker said of the 3s. “He gets to take his time, line the seams up and he’s been knocking it down. If that’s teams’ gameplan to leave him open in the corner, it’s gonna be a tough time for ’em.”

Payne’s energy was sorely missed after he practically missed three months due to a right foot sprain.

“They do the thing before the game where they crank him up, they put the battery pack in his back and he gets to going,” Booker said of one of the many pregame traditions the Suns do in the tunnel. “That energy is second to none.”

Okogie filled that void nicely and keeps looking like a new player the last couple of weeks.

Booker initially couldn’t find his shooting stroke and struggled to diagnose some of his passes before getting up to eight assists off the crazy gravity he was drawing and was able to knock some shots down in the second half. His line ended up at a solid 25 points on 9-for-21 shooting. One of those field goals was a 3 in the fourth quarter that put Booker first on the franchise’s all-time leaderboard for triples, passing Steve Nash.

Booker’s not quite back to 100% yet despite having the break. The minutes restriction was still on him (30) and Booker, as he put it, “teetered the line a little bit” with 36.

Paul contributed 16 points and six assists while Ayton added 14 points, 11 rebounds and two blocks.

Isaiah Joe had a career-high 28 points for Oklahoma City.

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