EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Suns keep in-season tournament hopes alive, beat Grizzlies behind Booker’s 40

Nov 24, 2023, 5:53 PM

Devin Booker #1 of the Phoenix Suns handles the ball against Bismack Biyombo #18 of the Memphis Gri...

Devin Booker #1 of the Phoenix Suns handles the ball against Bismack Biyombo #18 of the Memphis Grizzlies during the first half of an NBA In-Season Tournament game at FedExForum on November 24, 2023 in Memphis, Tennessee. (Photo by Justin Ford/Getty Images)

(Photo by Justin Ford/Getty Images)

Even in a shorthanded state, the Phoenix Suns were just fine with Devin Booker, defeating the depleted Memphis Grizzlies 110-89.

Booker’s masterful form to begin the season continued with a season-high 40 points (15-for-21) to go along with five rebounds, four assists, four steals, a block and five turnovers. It wasn’t much of a contest when he was in the game. Booker was +28.

The Suns (10-6) have now won six straight games while the Grizzlies drop all the way to 3-15.

This was the Suns’ first game of the regular season without Kevin Durant, who was a late addition to the injury report on Friday morning with right foot soreness. The Suns, as usual, are tight-lipped on any indications of a timeline for the injury. Head coach Frank Vogel said the Suns are hopeful it’s more of a game-by-game situation.

Phoenix started Keita Bates-Diop in Durant’s place.

In addition to Durant’s absence and again no Bradley Beal (low back strain), Damion Lee (knee surgery) or Yuta Watanabe (left quad contusion), Drew Eubanks was unable to go after rolling his left ankle in Wednesday’s win over the Golden State Warriors.

That bumped up Chimezie Metu to reserve 5 duties, a spot he got called up into for the first time this year in Tuesday’s victory after Jusuf Nurkic and Eubanks were in foul trouble and Vogel wanted a different look.

Phoenix played a back-and-forth first half before going on a 14-0 run in the last 3:44 to put them up 13, which got off the ground right after Booker checked back into the game.

Coming into the second half, the solid effort Memphis was playing with disappeared, bringing some much less organized basketball to the table against a Suns defense that had also turned its own up a bit.

Possessing a double-digit lead against a team in a vulnerable position has often led to the Suns allowing the opposition to hang around too long if not get back in the game completely. So the mid-third quarter lead of 18 signaled not only an opportunity to make some progress in that area but add some necessary cushion to their point differential for their last fixture of in-season tournament group play.

Seemingly right on cue, Memphis put together a 14-2 run to slash the deficit all the way down to six, most of which occurred while Booker rested.

His return quickly brought some stability before Jordan Goodwin’s 10 points across four minutes in the fourth quarter made it a 12-point Suns edge with 5:49 remaining before two more Phoenix buckets put it up 16.

This is normally when the Suns would trickle in back-end reserves but with point differential likely deciding whether the Suns advance in the in-season tournament, the main guys stayed in and you could see the likes of Booker still competing. Memphis did this with 1:38 to go but the Suns persisted.

Booker, as you would expect, was fully engaged. He tossed in this ridiculous banked-in 3-pointer to get the lead up to 21.

He even wanted to try a full court heave after the buzzer.

The Suns wrap up in-season tournament group play at 3-1 and a point differential of +34, currently in possession of the sole Western Conference wild card spot.  They now have to wait and see who else finishes where, and other potential 3-1 teams not winning their group get the advantage of knowing what the Suns’ point differential is if they want to pursue beating it in what would otherwise be meaningless garbage time of a regular season game.

If that sounds unfair to the Suns, well, that’s because it is! And it’s why European soccer tournaments have the last games of group play at the same time so there is no advantage for teams aware of a potential goal differential to chase. The NBA did not want to go that far, maintaining the structure of its normal schedule.

Out of the teams who could take the spot from the Suns, the 2-1 Denver Nuggets face the 1-1 Houston Rockets later on Friday. The Rockets, 2-0 Sacramento Kings, 2-0 Minnesota Timberwolves and 1-1 Warriors all don’t even wrap up group play until Tuesday.

The Nuggets are tied with the 2-1 New Orleans Pelicans for the lead in Group B but New Orleans gets the edge because of a head-to-head win. If the Nuggets beat the Rockets on Friday and the Pelicans lose, that would give Denver Group B and benefit the Suns since it would eliminate the Pelicans and Rockets from a wild card spot. Denver’s +9 point differential also presents the argument of them winning by less than 25 and the Pelicans winning as a best-case scenario, which would advance New Orleans and eliminate the Nuggets and Rockets.

Phoenix would then wait and see how the Kings, Timberwolves and Warriors stack up in Group C. Sacramento and Minnesota face off on Friday while Golden State takes on the San Antonio Spurs. The Warriors need to win out to have a chance while the loser of Kings-Timberwolves on Friday must win on Tuesday and by a whole lot, since both Sacramento (+16) and Minnesota (+10) aren’t too high in point differential. Ditto for the two wins the Warriors (-1) would have to put together.

If the Suns do get the wild card spot, it’s a rematch with the Group-A winning Lakers in L.A. for the quarterfinals.

If you aren’t locked in on the everyday NBA happenings, I’m guessing you’re a bit surprised by that 3-12 mark for Memphis. But the Grizzlies, winners of 50-plus games each of the last two seasons, are ravaged by injuries and absences.

With star guard Ja Morant now 15 games into his 25-game suspension, they are also without Steven Adams (knee surgery), Brandon Clarke (Achilles), Luke Kennard (knee bone bruise), Jake LaRavia (left eye abrasion), Marcus Smart (left foot sprain) and Xavier Tillman (left knee).

Adams had season-ending surgery in October. Clarke hasn’t played yet this year and isn’t expected back until after the All-Star break. The other four players are on weekly timelines, with LaRavia now missing his 10th straight game while it’s four in a row for Kennard and Smart. Tillman sat out four games, played one and is now out again for the last four games.

Memphis was always known for its ability to keep winning shorthanded but without Morant and two-thirds of the NBA’s best frontcourt rotation, it has been a huge struggle, putting all the weight on the shoulders of Desmond Bane, Jaren Jackson Jr. and a young supporting cast.

This unsurprisingly led to the Grizzlies fouling a ton. They came into the day ranked 25th in opposing free throw rate, so after the Suns racked up 52 attempts against a Warriors team that struggles in this department as well, it was 28 for the game. Phoenix was all the way up to second in free throw rate, fixing a huge problem for the team in recent years.

Goodwin was great off the bench with 14 points, five rebounds, two assists and a steal. Eric Gordon added 20 points and Grayson Allen provided 14 more. Jusuf Nurkic has been much better with the Suns’ point guard (Booker) healthy. He amounted to six points, 10 rebounds, six assists, two steals, two blocks and two turnovers. Nurkic was +14.

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