EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Phoenix Suns grind through another bizarre home win vs. Warriors

Dec 13, 2023, 12:37 AM

Devin Booker #1 of the Phoenix Suns greets Chris Paul #3 of the Golden State Warriors following the...

Devin Booker #1 of the Phoenix Suns greets Chris Paul #3 of the Golden State Warriors following the NBA game at Footprint Center on December 12, 2023 in Phoenix, Arizona. The Suns defeated the Warriors 119-116. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

PHOENIX — If this new Phoenix Suns team we are still getting to know has any defining traits 23 games into the season, it’s playing themselves into ugly games.

To their credit, they’ve won a few, the latest a 119-116 victory over the Golden State Warriors on Tuesday.

Through no Grayson Allen (groin), Kevin Durant (ankle) or Nassir Little (concussion protocol) for Phoenix, Bradley Beal getting comfortable again on the court in his first game back in a month and the limited reinforcements allowing Golden State to aggressively help on both him and Devin Booker, this was a real grind.

Games like this are ultimately decided by which team does less wrong and the Suns were that squad.

Booker persevered through ridiculous defensive attention for the second straight game to 32 points, four rebounds, seven assists and two turnovers while a good stretch for Beal in the fourth quarter got him up to 16 points, three rebounds and three assists in 27 minutes on a restriction.

Phoenix trailed by double digits in the second quarter after Beal’s first go in the Booker-less minutes went south before the Suns rallied to make the game tight again, beginning to pull away in the fourth when go No. 2 for Beal in that time went much better, a +5 result. Beal got moving off the ball more, where he is excellent, and a tweak of including Jusuf Nurkic and Keita Bates-Diop as the frontcourt instead was big.

“I thought that was the difference in the game, honestly. … To get us to that point, I thought our second unit responded,” Suns head coach Frank Vogel said. “(Got) called out at halftime for the run in the first half and told them they need to outplay their second unit (in) the second half and they did.”

Booker took it from there, hitting two pull-up 3s in 66 seconds before the lead grew to 13 with 3:56 remaining.

If we get a playoff series between these two teams we will need all hands on deck for the games in Phoenix, because following the Suns’ win three weeks ago, this one also included an eventful ejection, both teams playing poorly for large stretches and Phoenix tripping over itself in the closing moments.

To get it out of the way, Draymond Green was ejected in the early third quarter after responding to his latest jostling with Nurkic by turning and swinging his right hand at Nurkic’s head, making contact. Green appeared to go for some version of a “get this guy off me” motion we see from a lot of players when tangled up but the part about throwing a head shot Nurkic’s way was baffling.

He was already suspended five games earlier this season for putting Rudy Gobert in a headlock, and that was an act that at least had a (wrong) argument with Green thinking he was coming to the defense of one of this teammates in a scuffle. Green apologized to Nurkic through his postgame press conference afterward.

It was as mindless as it was indefensible, putting the NBA in a position to really doll out a serious, long suspension with his littered past in this department. Green’s actions have never reached this level before, and given the Hall of Fame one-of-a-kind player he is,  it’s really disappointing how right he is proving a lot people this year.

Golden State at the half was up 30-6 in bench points, continuing a strange theme of the Warriors’ historically good starting five struggling as a unit. Warriors head coach Steve Kerr responded emphatically by benching both Kevon Looney and Andrew Wiggins for the majority of the second half. Wiggins was -19 in his 15 minutes while Looney reached only 11. Klay Thompson checked out with 6:19 to go and never came back in, meaning Curry closed with four reserves. Unfathomable, and yet the right decision by Kerr.

Curry had one of those weird nights he looked like a mere mortal, missing lots of shots he normally converts on. He was 8-of-24 for 24 points.

Jordan Goodwin deserves a bit of credit for that in another strong outing for the reserve who keeps separating himself amongst a group battling to establish a role. He added 16 points, five rebounds, six assists, two steals and a block, a pretty box score that won’t paint the picture of his huge hustle plays.

Without Durant and Allen again, Vogel got a little funky with his starting lineup, putting center Chimezie Metu alongside Nurkic for the type of frontcourt we saw almost exclusively a decade ago.

Rebounding has been an issue for the Suns, and while that honestly comes down to the mentality of those lacking Metu’s size more than anything, it was a bold move against a Warriors team that has more of a modern starting lineup. It’s easy to forget Durant is a seven footer in his own right and snags nearly seven boards a night, the second most on the team, so that’s something to account for when he’s out.

Metu is a switchable defender and the 26-year-old has worked on his 3-point shot (3-for-13 this season) to become more of a stretch option. He’s still got something left to prove in terms of playing the role positively in real NBA minutes as opposed to being a screen-and-dive 5, an opportunity Phoenix has started to give him more. The defensive aspect is the most important, and Vogel of all people would know if Metu is either ready for it or showing enough promise to earn a harder look.

On the size front, we also even saw Bol Bol in the rotation for the first time this season, getting five minutes that did not go well at all.

Once the team is healthy, it’s quite small on paper. That’s the rub with how well Allen and Goodwin have settled in beyond the expected roles for Eric Gordon and Josh Okogie. If any wing with size has separated themselves thus far, it’s Little, but Phoenix surely wanted to see more positive steps from Bates-Diop (DNP in first half) and Yuta Watanabe at this point in the year.

If anything, to me, this from Vogel was a “Kevin Durant is back soon with a healthy Big 3 and I want us to hit the ground running so let’s take some of our last peeks now.” It’s the type of open-minded thinking with giving players on the back-half of the bench chances we discussed prior to the season, and commendable from a head coach of a 13-10 team not meeting expectations at the moment to see the long-term picture.

Prefacing that, Beal’s first time commanding the time Booker rests was a disaster, beginning with a -13 stretch in a little over four minutes. Basic stuff like transition defense was a problem while Drew Eubanks and Bol committed too many simple mistakes. With Goodwin also in that lineup, Beal had absolutely nowhere to go offensively around dreadful spacing. This was all occurring with Curry also getting a breather across a stretch Chris Paul and Dario Saric affected in droves, a start-of-the-second-quarter shift Suns fans know well.

Metu, however, was part of a surge after that spurt, knocking down a trio of 3s after missing his first two attempts. Golden State’s doubles in Booker’s direction were extreme, and because Durant is out and someone like Goodwin or Okogie has to be out there to guard Curry, it put shooters in positions the Warriors were OK with. Booker was even bringing his defenders with him toward half court at times, completely taking them out of the play and leaving it to 4-on-3 situations once he got off the ball.

The second quarter began with this game trending toward a blowout and ended at Phoenix down just three.

A team that dressed just 11 players, though, lost Okogie at the half due to an issue with his right hip.

Phoenix took it from there in the aforementioned second half, and to Vogel’s point, with that start to the fourth quarter swinging things. The Suns, however, once again had awful late-game execution with a lead, committing terrible turnovers and looking lost against a press defense. Golden State actually made it a one-point game at 15 ticks to go. Booker made both of his free throws and an immediate off-balance heave by Curry off the sideline out of bounds didn’t go.

The same thing happened three weeks ago against the same opponent. It’s an issue. Vogel is not one to stray into negative thoughts after games but he went there on Tuesday.

“We got to stop doing that (expletive) to ourselves,” Vogel said. “It’s getting old.”

Booker added more.

“We just need to put emphasis on not being a team that only learns through losses. … That’s just urgency, attention — things we can all control and we have too many talented guys in this room to be doing that for the third or fourth time,” he said.

The Warriors had five reserves in double figures, including 15 points and 11 assists for Paul, 15 points for Saric and a double-double of 20 points and 11 rebounds for rookie guard Brandin Podziemski with five assists as well.

Nurkic used a 10-for-11 night at the foul line to put together a solid game with 17 points, 13 rebounds and seven assists.

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