Suns find winning breakthrough vs. 76ers, Devin Booker stays hot

Mar 25, 2023, 11:34 PM | Updated: Mar 26, 2023, 1:38 pm

PHOENIX — While the results were starting to get eerily similar with devastating runs given up in the second half of close games, a stretch of six losses in the Phoenix Suns’ last seven games included them finding some nice energy and purpose in the back-half of it.

That just wasn’t bringing on any wins yet, but if that persisted, a breakthrough was coming.

It arrived on Saturday, a 125-105 win over the Philadelphia 76ers.

Phoenix’s victory was a needed one to not only end the skid but to also immediately show far more fortitude after a severe lapse in that mentally from the loss to Sacramento the previous night. The cherry on top was doing so against 76ers big man Joel Embiid, perhaps the best player in the league at drawing fouls.

“I thought the emotional stamina was in a good place today. … Sometimes it’s just frustrating when you’re playing great defense and big dudes like that just run into you and I thought we held the rope as far as mental stamina tonight,” Suns head coach Monty Williams said. “That helped for sure.”

The Suns only committed seven turnovers against the 76ers, and even with the free throw margin at 27-19 in favor of the 76ers, they did not inch too close to the black hole that has sucked them in lately of getting enamored with nearly every whistle.

That level of stability allowed them to expand a six-point lead through three quarters to 15 three minutes into the fourth quarter that got to 20 at 6:21 remaining. A nice bit of progression would have simply been holding onto that lead but multiplying it to eliminate any potential dramatics was a few extra steps forward.

“You gotta be able to be competitive (and) be emotional but get it back to competitive where you can make good decisions and play good, instinctive basketball and not get too swayed with whatever’s happening in the game that you don’t like,” Williams said. “And I think that’s something we all, players and coaches, have to be better at.”

With both teams on the second game of a back-to-back, the 76ers were without guard James Harden (left Achilles soreness) while Deandre Ayton (right hip contusion) and Kevin Durant (left ankle sprain) remained out for Phoenix.

Harden, the league’s leader in assists, has been a sorely needed injection of offensive initiation from the perimeter for Philadelphia. When he sits this year, the 76ers have a 112.4 offensive rating, which would rank 25th in the NBA. Still, the 76ers were 13-7 without Harden coming into Saturday, so this was not a layup against a really good basketball team.

His absence, however, cratered Philadelphia’s offense on Saturday to finally let Phoenix find some momentum through generating stops and avoiding fouling. Getting to constantly take the ball down the court against an unset defense that can’t switch schemes is a gigantic breath of fresh air for any offense, and the Suns used it to fuel 35 assists and 15 3-pointers.

76ers guard Tyrese Maxey, 14-of-19 with seven 3s for 37 points, was the only one really keeping Philadelphia in this and was the primary reason the game was a back-and-forth affair for two-and-a-half quarters.

“To hold these guys to 105, that’s a huge accomplishment for us,” Williams said. “I thought we got timely stops tonight. Maxey was shooting the ball well but nobody else got loose and that was huge coming off a back-to-back. Our best offense is a defensive stop. I’ve said that my whole coaching career.”

Chris Paul backed that up.

“That’s been the way since I was a kid. Defense is always the start to good offense,” he said.

Phoenix did a tremendous job of limiting the MVP candidate Embiid by involving him in plenty of the Suns’ offensive actions and keeping him away from the basket when they could. That opened up enough gaps for the offense to find throughout, and even let Bismack Biyombo pick up some points around the paint with Embiid recovering back.

Biyombo had his best game of the season. He, like the team, still had some bad energy on him after the Kings loss. So when he was halfway through his traditional pregame nap at home, he was over it, and showed up to the arena four hours before tip-off and got on the floor since he was so eager to start getting locked in and move past that bad energy.

His process of quickly turning the page and the personal story behind it spoke to the professionals these guys are.

“All my brothers, my sisters — we have a little group text,” Biyombo said. “We were just talking about things that went down yesterday and how I could have done better. … They always keep me accountable. Outside of my teammates, it’s always my family.”

Biyombo produced 17 points, 13 rebounds and five blocks.

Embiid shot 8-of-19 for 28 points, just the 14th time in 61 games he’s shot under 50%, a remarkable feat considering how many jumpers he attempts. Biyombo did his best against the physical force, using his combination of strength and quickness to make Embiid earn paint touches and settle for jumpers if he didn’t want to battle before double teams showed up.

Thanks to another great night of bench scoring (53-17 Suns) that included back-to-back encouraging performances for Terrence Ross (15 points) and T.J. Warren (16), all Phoenix needed was a consistent source of offense to take this one home.

That, of course, was Devin Booker.

Booker’s torrid pace in March continues. A 9-of-18 mark on Saturday actually takes down his monthly field goal percentage to 57.9% and his 29 points makes it just the third game of the dozen he’s failed to reach 30 points. In half of those games, he’s shot at least 60% and is now averaging 33.4 points per game for the month.

This is nothing new. Booker typically rounds into form around this time of year, with his monthly career splits in November (21.8 PPG) and December (20.4 PPG) indicating that’s when he gets his feet wet before the turn of the new year in January (25.0 PPG) really gets him going. By March, he’s cooking, with a ridiculous 27.9 points a night.

A notable difference, at least in the last two games, has been his insistence on getting to the rim. Booker for a long time now has represented the Suns’ only consistent pressure on the basket from the perimeter, hence his free-throw numbers as the outlier on the team, and after all the hullabaloo about officiating it seemed he took that into consideration by mercilessly trying to get inside on this back-to-back.

Williams noted how Booker’s downhill mentality gets the Suns playing in the action-pass-point-five style of basketball with quick-hitting movement.

Cam Payne got in on the scoring with the reserves as well, contributing 14 points and seven assists.

Those 35 assists for the Suns bested the amount of overall field goals (34) for Philadelphia. Its 21 assists speaks to the lack of a great offensive process.

In a wrinkle I’m going to continue mentioning when we see it, this is the third straight game the Suns used someone as a small-ball 5 in. Phoenix rarely does that, even when the matchup calls for it, but it’s one of the many ways to maximize the value of Durant. With the way Williams used rotations when Durant was healthy, finding a few minutes at the opening of each quarter to use him as a center could be on the horizon. There are certain playoff matchups where it could be a big-time factor.

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