EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Phoenix Suns find 5th straight victory in odd game vs. Warriors

Nov 23, 2023, 1:41 AM | Updated: 12:59 pm

PHOENIX — It was win No. 5 in a row for the Phoenix Suns on Wednesday, a 123-115 final over the Golden State Warriors that was as eventual as it was weird.

This one is going to be hard to top for most bizarre game of the Suns’ regular season, one that lasted two hours and 45 minutes. Along with some officiating shenanigans we’ll touch on in a bit, Phoenix once again proved susceptible to having a slippery grip when a game is in hand.

The Suns’ 16-point lead at halftime almost immediately expanded to 23 in the third quarter. But without an ejected Chris Paul and Draymond Green (suspension), plus Steph Curry and Klay Thompson resting on the bench at that time in the game, the Warriors went on a 6-0 run to open the fourth quarter and cut the deficit to 10.

Phoenix (9-6) quickly stabilized, bumping their advantage back to 18 points with just over six minutes remaining, enough for Golden State to pull Curry and Thompson. With Durant still in the game and Booker out, Golden State (7-9) cut it to 11 with 2:30 on the clock. But head coach Frank Vogel on the second game of a back-to-back was comfortable enough to remove Durant.

The Warriors turned to a triangle-and-two defense, a unique look the Suns hadn’t schemed for before and couldn’t generate good looks off, so Golden State crept closer. When it made the score 114-108 a minute of game time later, Booker and Durant checked back in. The Suns were briefly able to hold the Warriors off until a Durant turnover on an inbounds pass with 23 seconds remaining got the Warriors within four. Durant tossed the ball against the stanchion in frustration, an action he said afterward he knew gets him a technical foul, so Golden State was down three.

The hoopla sort of ended there, with Booker getting fouled for two free throws to put the Suns up five, the Warriors failing to score and then Durant drawing a flopping technical foul (yes, seriously) for one more point before Durant’s last two free throws concluded the game.

There were multiple points Golden State could have put Curry and/or Thompson back in but Warriors head coach Steve Kerr chose to ride the guys who got them in that position.

It’s a certified issue at this point for the Suns, who have lost fixtures in similar circumstances this year.

“We have to do better,” Booker said. “Simple as that. We have to take care of the ball, no turnovers, get stops. When that game is at 10-15 points in the fourth, don’t give any team hope, don’t give any team confidence because I’ve been in this business long enough where that’s amazing happens for real.”

Vogel wanted to commend the effort first.

“It’s a good win, first of all,” he said. “Second night of a back-to-back against a team that won a championship two years ago. Really proud of how our guys competed and took control of the game. Obviously want to close the game a little bit better but it’s not the first time I’ve had to put my stars back in. When a team comes back, they throw a different lineup out there, some junk defenses — you got to play through that stuff.”

Suns guard Grayson Allen confirmed the strange vibe to the game.

“It was just such a weird game, weird fourth. … Game felt like it was over three or four different times,” he said. “I don’t know. Sometimes it’s just a weird game, how it ends up.”

As far as how we got to a big Suns lead, a trip to the foul line for Allen with 8:47 left in the second quarter got Phoenix up to 17 free throw attempts, an unheard of occurrence for last year’s team. The Suns entered Wednesday night sixth in free throw rate after finishing 28th last year and 29th the season prior. Durant (8.1 FTA/G) and Booker (7.0) lead the charge there while Jusuf Nurkic (3.8) and Josh Okogie (2.5) doing a decent job getting there. This was not a good offensive performance in the first half, which is why free throws can be so important, given how Phoenix was up 16 at halftime.

Because of how often the Warriors, ranked 27th in opposing free throw rate, foul, the Suns did a great job attacking that weakness while also getting more free tosses through the aforementioned officiating shenanigans to attempt 52 on the night.

Prior to Paul’s ejection that really signaled we were done for the evening, the Suns swung the momentum of the game defensively in the mid-second quarter thanks to some tremendous efforts by Nurkic and Okogie. Golden State is quite a turnover-prone squad and the Suns generated six turnovers on the Warriors’ seven possessions across two minutes and change, directly responsible for a 14-0 run to put the Suns up a dozen. Okogie changed the game as much as one guy could defensively while Nurkic made a handful of solid rotations, once again emphasizing he can be competent defensively if his positioning is sound.

Unfortunately, this is when the story stopped being about basketball, thanks to the latest chapter in a ridiculous book of extracurriculars between Paul and long-time official Scott Foster, the crew chief on Wednesday.

Paul had a long losing streak in playoff games officiated by Foster, and Paul has previously had meetings with the league about it. After a playoff loss for Phoenix in the first round of the 2021 playoffs, Paul alluded to that run of consecutive defeats. Foster also officiated Suns losses Paul played in for Games 3 and 6 of the 2021 NBA Finals, as well as a Game 3 defeat to the New Orleans Pelicans in the 2022 first round before the Suns’ Game 2 win in the opening series versus the Los Angeles Clippers last postseason snapped the streak.

At 3:11 left in the second quarter, Paul was draped by Okogie as he was bringing the ball left-to-right and created some separation with a shoulder bump that Foster took exception with. Paul, in only the way he could, showed his distaste for the foul call by standing still with his upset body language before spinning the ball back to Foster and continuing a dialogue. The foul was actually on Kevon Looney for his screen, which a replay review confirmed after an unsuccessful challenge by the Warriors.

That was the precursor to Paul’s ejection with under a minute remaining in the half.

As Foster is prone to do, he stopped play to make his point known, calling the first technical foul on Paul as Durant was going through his free throw routine for his second attempt. Paul’s conversation with Foster had been bordering on lasting a full minute at that point.

Paul kept talking to Foster as the official moved away, and after a point toward Foster was involved, Foster saw that as enough to eject him. That really set Paul off, who only took a few steps in Foster’s direction before abiding by Curry’s request to back off with an arm tug.

If the momentum swing of the spell of Warriors turnovers was a RBI double, this was a three-run dinger. Golden State, despite facing the team on the second game of a back-to-back, lost all its juice. After the five total free throws that included a technical foul for Kerr as well, Phoenix took that 16-point lead into halftime.

The Suns had an 18-2 advantage in points off turnovers at the half, and that plus all the free throws put them in the driver’s seat. Durant and Booker were productive enough through all this to lead the offense.

Durant supplied 32 points (15-for-15 on FTs), eight rebounds, two assists, two blocks and six turnovers while Booker scored 25 points (13-for-14 on FTs) to go with eight rebounds, 10 assists and three turnovers.

Durant’s 32 made it the 14th straight game he’s reached 25-plus. He already broke the franchise record (12) and dating back over 70 years, it’s just the 99th time someone has had that run of games get that high, per Stathead. The highest streak last year was Damian Lillard getting to 19. Durant himself got all the way up to 41 in 2014, the third-longest stretch and best since 1963. This is the fourth time he’s had one reach at least 14 games.

Curry had an off night the Suns should take pride in playing a part creating. He shot 6-of-15 for 16 points with six assists.

Suns backup center Drew Eubanks rolled his left ankle and exited the game in the third quarter and did not return. Vogel said they’ll get a better look at the ankle the morning after.

Booker stayed down in the second half when he took a knee from behind before playing through it. He said afterward, as he always does, that he’s fine. Vogel referred to it as a knee in the glute or some contact with Booker’s hip, also saying Booker should be OK.

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