EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Suns take care of depleted Spurs for 6th win in a row, lock in 4th seed

Apr 4, 2023, 11:00 PM

PHOENIX — The Phoenix Suns’ sixth straight victory, a 115-94 win over the San Antonio Spurs on Tuesday, was never in doubt. It also had some slippage, a common theme as of late.

Phoenix was up as many as 31 in the second quarter but let San Antonio cut it down to 18 at halftime before it got even as low as single digits later in the third quarter. By the end of that frame, the Suns were back up 21, but it was the third straight game in which a commanding position was briefly fumbled through bad turnovers and missed assignments defensively.

It didn’t get as dramatic as Friday, when Denver got within four points late. Or Sunday, when a 14-point lead late in the third quarter against Oklahoma City got down to four just a few minutes into the fourth quarter. But it should have been easy enough to avoid against a San Antonio roster that even avid basketball fans had to do some double takes at.

“I guess we did,” head coach Monty Williams said when asked about handling it better than Friday’s game against the Nuggets. “It’s just something that we have done when we’ve had leads early. It’s all stuff that we can control. It wasn’t anything that was out of the ordinary. It’s all stuff that we’ve seen before.”

The Spurs, now 20-59, would have been severe underdogs on Tuesday when fully healthy but were missing a handful of key players, including their two leading scorers. Charles Bassey (patella), Khem Birch (knee), Zach Collins (finger), Keldon Johnson (foot), Romeo Langford (adductor), Jeremy Sochan (knee) and Devin Vassell (knee) were all out. That made them a 19-point underdog at the sports books, one of the largest spreads you’ll find for a NBA game this season.

With that in mind, it is the NBA. Williams constantly references that, never overlooking an opponent because of how much talent is in the league. Don’t believe me? This same San Antonio group with Collins and Langford in put up 142 on the Sacramento Kings in a win on Sunday. Again, that’s a team that was supposed to be terrible, and on Tuesday without the 22.0 points per game from Johnson, the 18.5 via Vassell and Sochan, a versatile rookie starter.

The Suns are always cognizant of that and Williams makes sure of it. For whatever reason, the execution isn’t air tight like it should be right now, with Game 1 of the first round less than two weeks away. This is one of those basketball trends where I invite you to make what you will of it. In a past example, Phoenix’s defense in 2021 did drop off considerably in the last 20 games or so before the Finals run. It happens.

Footprint Center offered its giveaway for when the Suns score over 30 points in the first quarter with 4:02 remaining. Phoenix scored a season-high 42 points in that opening frame. The fourth quarter didn’t bring on any additional semantics.

Chris Paul made his first six shots of the night, four of them being 3-pointers, and had 18 of his 22 points in the first half, the most he’s put up in the opening two quarters since Feb. 2021, per Stathead. Paul’s 22 points also marks his first 20-point game since Jan. 28, ending a career-long streak of 27 games under.

Paul’s teammates have been borderline badgering him about shooting the ball more all year. Even the legend Al McCoy has joined in on that effort.

Paul has played off the ball this year more than ever before in his career, and his 1.4 catch-and-shoot 3-pointers per game coming into Tuesday are nearly double his 0.8 from last season. That will only climb higher with Kevin Durant in the fold.

Paul is still figuring out the rhythm and timing of those looks, hence the badgering.

“Seeing the way they guard K and doubling and trapping, I’m definitely gonna have to shoot more,” Paul said of the effect Durant has on that.

Torrey Craig was awesome with 15 points, 10 rebounds, three assists and a steal off the bench. He has really settled in nicely to that role of first wing off the bench, the spot Phoenix expected to play him before injuries for Cam Johnson and Kevin Durant made him a starter most of the year.

“He’s made an adjustment,” Williams said of Craig. “He was an offensive rebound guy, spot-up shooter and then on the defensive end he guarded the toughest guy. Now he’s coming off the bench and he’s still bringing the same effort but his role is different. I think he deserves a lot of credit for his mental stability to be able to have the capacity to take on new roles and he’s done a good job.”

Devin Booker provided a game-high 27 points with three assists and three steals while Durant added 18 points and five rebounds.

The Suns win makes them 7-0 with Durant and locks them in to the fourth seed, according to the team’s basketball communications department.

The timing is ideal, as Thursday will mark the beginning of a stretch with three games in four days that ends with a matinee 12:30 p.m. tip-off on Sunday. While the Suns will have almost the whole next week off of games as the play-in tournament unfolds, they can now be smart about who they want to play over that spurt. If there was any needed rest time, Phoenix can use that and then really get after it in the practices leading up to the first round. Or, they can play everyone to keep building continuity.

With the end of the regular season this week, the expectation was Williams would tinker with his rotations just a bit more to give anyone else an opportunity that felt warranted. To be clear, he never outright said this, it’s just been how he operates.

When Durant returned, Landry Shamet was on the outside of the 10-man rotation, with Cam Payne taking the backup point guard duties and the other guard spot going to Terrence Ross. On Tuesday, Shamet took that Payne spot as the sub for Paul and took turns with Booker running the offense. Payne is coming off a nine-minute outing on Sunday.

Williams said that decision came down to getting more size on defense and allowing Booker to have the ball in his hand more with those units that feature him plus reserves.

Perhaps Shamet will get a look for the rest of the week. It’s fair to say that the coaching staff knows what it has in Payne, but then again, the same could be said for Shamet. It’s hard not to react to the decision as something a bit indicative of where Payne’s role stands heading into the postseason. And with Paul, Booker and Durant expected to play heavy minutes once the fun starts, Payne’s ball-handling becomes less of the necessity it once was.

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