EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Devin Booker’s return helps Suns beat Grizzlies in learning session

Dec 2, 2023, 11:45 PM | Updated: 11:55 pm

Devin Booker and Desmond Bane scrap for position in Suns-Grizzlies...

Devin Booker #1 of the Phoenix Suns and Desmond Bane #22 of the Memphis Grizzlies go for a rebound during the second quarter at Footprint Center on December 02, 2023 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Zac BonDurant/Getty Images)

(Photo by Zac BonDurant/Getty Images)

PHOENIX — The depleted Memphis Grizzlies got into the chests of the Phoenix Suns’ two stars consistently Saturday night.

On the Suns’ second night of a back-to-back after falling to the reigning NBA champion Denver Nuggets, they used that gritty play against the Grizzlies, hammering the undermanned roster with an aggressive, foul-baiting attack for a 116-109 win at Footprint Center.

Oh, and it was nice for Phoenix (12-8) to have Devin Booker back after a one-game absence due to an ankle injury.

By the end of the night, he led the Suns with 34 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists, scoring 13 at the free-throw line.

Phoenix scored 35 points at the stripe with 43 attempts taken.

“The other teams’ … gameplan or scheme against us is probably: be physical with (Kevin Durant) and Book the whole entire game,” Booker said. “We have counters for that and we know how to use peoples’ contact against them. It’s something I’ve been doing a long time.

“I remember in high school, every opposing team I played, the one football player on the court was the one guarding me. Just trying to use their contact against them.”

The Suns are now 9-2 when Booker plays and 3-6 when he doesn’t due to a handful of minor injuries this season.

Booker said he’d seen improvement in the ankle quickly after his injury happened Wednesday in a loss at Toronto. But Phoenix head coach Frank Vogel added that the team held out the star Friday night despite his desire to play.

“Story of my life this year. Nah, once it got better after the four-hour flight back from Toronto, I knew I was in a good place,” Booker said of the ankle. “Different than the one I had first game of the season at Warriors. When we landed in L.A. after that game, I could barely walk.”

For Memphis, Saturday was another moment to make a statement. Two wins after injured Marcus Smart laid into his teammates during a timeout in a loss to the Timberwolves, the injury-stricken team had showed a little more life physically.

But the Suns got a learning lesson out of the Grizzlies and their overly aggressive defense.

Memphis’s face-guarding and top-locking with defenders denying screen actions were part of the gameplan Friday night against the Dallas Mavericks in stopping Kyrie Irving (fellow star Luka Doncic was out due to the birth of his child).

“They had a big win last night, watched the game closely how they were defending,” Booker said. “Making everything tougher, top-locking every action and forcing everything to the hoop and leaving Bismack (Biyombo) there (in the paint to block shots).

“I think it’s a learning thing, too, where teams will try that defensively and just having a counter for every defense teams throw at us is the goal. Through the regular season, seeing those looks is important … learning from them so we have an answer to every test a team throws at us.”

Grizzlies starter David Roddy and two-way rookie Vince Williams Jr. were the primary agitators, face-guarding Durant and Booker.

Williams did enough instigating to bait a first-half technical out of Josh Okogie, who reentered Phoenix’s starting lineup to match up against one of the Grizzlies’ only regular starters, Desmond Bane.

While Bane scored 27, Okogie’s three points and seven boards didn’t exactly reflect his impact — he led the Suns with a plus-minus of 12 — for a Phoenix team that reacted well to Memphis’ physicality.

Booker himself didn’t take long to figure out Williams’ assignment and make it Memphis’ problem.

The Suns guard engineered off-ball switches in two late first-quarter possessions that gave him and then Yuta Watanabe open threes that they made.

Still, Phoenix and Memphis were tied at 27 heading into the second quarter, and the Grizzlies led 51-50 at halftime.

The first two quarters included 12 lead changes and 12 ties before Phoenix used a 14-0 run in the middle of the third quarter to pull away, finally.

Booker scored 12 points in the third quarter then hit a three out of the break to begin the fourth, triggering a Memphis timeout with a 15-point deficit. Booker flashed a smile at Memphis’ bench, and Grizzlies head coach Taylor Jenkins laid into his team as it let a competitive game slip.

Fifteen of the Suns’ 34 points in the third came at the foul stripe, part of a 12-point free-throw scoring advantage for Phoenix for the entire game.

“They were super aggressive and they fouled us every time we were trying to get open,” Vogel said. “They were holding us, grabbing us.”

Durant added 27 points and five assists, as he got a taste of operating with Booker against a unique defense.

Jaren Jackson Jr., the Grizzlies’ defensive leader forced into a No. 1 scoring role with all the injuries, gave his team a chance. He frequently slithered past and over the Suns’ Jusuf Nurkic.

Jackson scored 37 points on 13-of-20 shooting despite getting into foul trouble early.

“I’m really impressed with him just playing with force, physicality, getting angles on guys one-on-one,” Jenkins said. “Touch, finishing ability, it’s always been there. And then obviously he unleashed it tonight. He knocked down threes, so that inside-outside game that he’s capable of.”

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