EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Phoenix Suns hold on vs. Magic to snap 3-game losing streak

Mar 16, 2023, 11:39 PM | Updated: 11:48 pm

PHOENIX — Sometimes getting that win to end a skid is like pulling teeth.

While it was only a three-game losing streak for the Phoenix Suns, that is what crunch time of Thursday’s 116-113 victory over the Orlando Magic turned into at times.

All three of those games included an early deficit for Phoenix and a strong comeback, only for it to lack execution over a few minutes in the fourth quarter that would ultimately decide the game.

The Suns could have (and should have) avoided it. They eventually held on but sacrificed a 9-0 Orlando run to have it tied at 101 with 5:15 left.

A 7-3 Suns spurt as an answer that included two Devin Booker jumpers was a good start but that wasn’t enough. Orlando (28-42) hung around, down just two with under two minutes remaining before Chris Paul hit back-to-back jumpers of his own to hold a three-point lead at 1:18 to go.

Still wasn’t enough. An over-passing possession for Phoenix followed by a Booker turnover was matched by two Orlando turnovers. After Booker was stripped by Orlando’s Markelle Fultz with 16 seconds left, the Magic’s transition sequence was a reset Booker wisely used it to foul eight seconds later.

Phoenix (38-32) in the Monty Williams era has been excellent at fouling up three, a way to trigger a game of free throws, one the Suns will rarely lose because of Paul and Booker, plus their ability to execute on the fouls.

After Fultz and Phoenix’s Terrence Ross each traded two free throw makes, Orlando had six seconds left with a sideline out of bounds play still down three. The Magic knew the foul was coming and perfectly executed quick ball movement to avoid the foul. Orlando’s stud rookie Paolo Banchero was able to get a decent catch-and-shoot look that he will normally just let fly right over a closeout.

Josh Okogie is not your everyday defender closing out, though, and got his fingers on the ball for the game-ending block.

In that type of situation when everyone’s mind is on “foul, foul, foul,” it’s a credit to Phoenix not to get caught fouling a jump shooter and Okogie still being a defensive playmaker.

“We don’t want to give them a chance to get a shot off but they swung it quickly,” Williams said. “And then once the time starts going and they’re facing the basket, you don’t want to risk it. And so, to be able to make a play like that at the end is huge for us.”

It was a much-needed bit of perfect execution after the aforementioned lack of it the last couple of games. Fouling up three has successfully clinched a handful of Phoenix wins this year, and it’s a few dozen at this point in the last three years.

Williams spoke on where that success comes from.

“The staff does a really good job, we scream it out enough, but the guys [are] locked into their situations,” he said. “They understand how important that can be to getting a win and not allowing teams to have a chance to spoil your night. We talk about it a lot and I give our guys a lot of credit. Since we’ve been here we’ve showed them situational stuff over and over and over again and I never see those guys roll their eyes or do any of that stuff you can do because you’ve seen it so many times.”

“Again, that’s just players executing,” he added. “And to be able to do that on the fly, I thought was huge for us.”

Phoenix gave up a season-high 27 fast-break points to Orlando, which let the Magic stay in it.

While Kevin Durant (left ankle sprain) remains out, Phoenix will overly rely on its top trio of Booker, Paul and Deandre Ayton. But it still needs some balance, and Thursday had loads of it. Booker (19 points), Paul (16), Ayton (16), Okogie (15) and Cam Payne (18) all broke the 15-point threshold while Torrey Craig (nine), Jock Landale (eight) and Terrence Ross (seven) all contributed. Phoenix had 41 bench points.

“We started to find a little synergy,” Payne said of the bench. “Starting to get comfortable. … We got a whole new unit, so we trying to figure each other out.”

The 18 points are the most for Payne since Dec. 2, a gap that included what was essentially a two-month absence due to injury. In his first nine games back prior to Thursday, Payne had been shooting 42.2%, so nothing too bad, but his night-to-night impact wasn’t there. On Thursday he added five assists and was bouncing with the ball in a way that suggested he was beginning to relocate his flow again.

Okogie did a wonderful job staying aggressive with his drives on a night his 3-point shot wasn’t falling (2-of-10). He’s now 16-for-55 (29.1%) from deep in his last 10 games. Craig had one of his best games of the season that included a defensive stretch in the late second quarter that Williams thought changed the game.

In a positive twist, there were two trends from the last few weeks that weren’t present on Thursday, and Phoenix will need that to continue for this upcoming stretch without Durant.

The role players all had some more pop to themselves, and there was also some pep in Paul’s step.

He shot 7-of-11 for 17 points with seven assists and two steals. There was zip to his movements and handle, a bit of electricity that had been previously missing. It was as close to a high-end scoring performance as we’ve seen from Paul in the last six weeks when taking into consideration how he was seeking out his shot.

Paul has now failed to reach 20 points in 19 straight games, the longest streak for him over a single season in his career, per Stathead. The previous longest run was 15 games and it’s only the seventh time a streak has reached double-digit games. We haven’t witnessed that Point God in a while.

The point guard’s role has fluctuated more than anyone’s on the team.

At times, he’s been the No. 1 option. For other situations, he’s been the fourth. Over most of the season, he’s had to adjust to being off the ball more than ever and taking more catch-and-shoot 3s. With that said, Phoenix still needs his on-ball scoring.

While its importance will go down when Durant returns, there will still come a time in the postseason when Booker and Durant don’t have it going and they need that mini-takeover across a few minutes to self-stabilize the offense we’ve all grown accustomed to from Paul.

Ayton’s in a similar position for at least this month. He was ready for the seas to part inside with Durant’s insertion, but once Durant was back out, the lane clogged up again.

Teams continue to have their big man sag off Ayton and roll out the red carpet in the touch shot areas, a part of the floor he is usually quite efficient in. It’s been more hit and miss lately, with some noticeable hesitation on where the openings are coming from. He shot 6-of-12 against Orlando.

Williams admitted again after the game that he played Booker too many minutes in Tuesday’s loss, 43 in the second game of a back-to-back. Booker was dealing with general soreness on Wednesday and wasn’t moving at 100% by the end of Thursday’s game.

As for Ayton, he took a knee to his right groin while in position for a rebound in the fourth quarter. Ayton will 99 times out of 100 eventually run off an injury like that and his limp will fade but it persisted for the rest of the game (he stayed in) and afterward.

The Suns will not practice on Friday to give their guys a full day of rest, both physically and emotionally.

“It’s been an emotional week I think for the guys,” Williams said of this four games in six days stretch. “The travel, playing in some close games all week — you could just feel it on the guys.”

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