EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Suns find 1st breakthrough to quality basketball in win over Rockets

Dec 27, 2023, 8:45 PM

Devin Booker #1 of the Phoenix Suns shoots a three point shot during the second quarter of the game...

Devin Booker #1 of the Phoenix Suns shoots a three point shot during the second quarter of the game against the Houston Rockets at Toyota Center on December 27, 2023 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Alex Bierens de Haan/Getty Images)

(Photo by Alex Bierens de Haan/Getty Images)

After the Phoenix Suns’ Christmas loss brought their poor quality of basketball the last couple of weeks to a big-time stage, they responded and put together easily their best play of the month on Wednesday in a 129-113 victory over the Houston Rockets.

So much of the discourse surrounding the team’s poor form did not have to reach anything complex or unique in terms of observations of what needed to change or what was revealing itself as a fatal flaw. All of that stuff couldn’t be properly addressed or evaluated until the Suns showed some consistency with effort, energy, focus, pace, physicality and so forth. Nothing trumps that.

And Phoenix (15-15) wasn’t even doing it for a full quarter, let alone a full game. So when the Suns finally found that over the whole first half on Wednesday, they not so coincidentally led by 18 points and put up 73. This was despite Devin Booker and Kevin Durant contributing just 10 each to the cause. Basketball is simple.

Some shot-making from Eric Gordon helped. In his first game against the Rockets since spending seven seasons with Houston, he had himself one of the best revenge games we’ve seen from a Sun in a while. He scored 21 of his 27 points in the first half, and toward the end of it, he was in that white-hot zone of it going in from anywhere.

Phoenix was 16-of-21 (76.2%) in the opening two quarters. That going along with all the little things getting done is a nice reminder of how often that coincides, not that the Suns should need that in the first place.

The intent within the offensive process that really lacked flow and organization was the best it’s looked in several weeks. Starting Grayson Allen and Gordon alongside the star duo and Jusuf Nurkic brings some 1-on-1 defensive issues but really got the offense going, which is the side of the ball that has actually been worse for Phoenix in December. Once Bradley Beal comes back in the next couple of games, Allen will surely continue to start. He’s been Phoenix’s third-best player and what he does for the offensive rhythm (along with his effort elsewhere) is more important at the moment than who defends the best ball-handlers in the postseason.

Houston got a great night out of Jalen Green (23 points) but wasn’t able to generate a ton of good looks and knock down enough shots to hang around in a shootout.

The Rockets were down 20 going into the fourth quarter, a 12-minute period Phoenix entered the night last in for net rating, getting outscored by -14.9 points per 100 possessions, per NBA Stats. Houston the night prior hosted the fast-paced Indiana Pacers in a narrow loss, so it wasn’t going to have a ton of energy for that big of a comeback. It chose to play a supporting cast for most of the fourth quarter, a group that cut the deficit to 13 with a little over five minutes to go before Durant took over to make sure there were no dramatics.

How much of this is to do with the low expectations we have watching this team currently? Don’t get me wrong, it’s a fair bit of that!

But seeing the bench really get into this game, how some of this energy came via a pair of two-way signings and so on sprouted the first true building block for the Suns in getting back on the right track.

Durant was right there alongside everyone else in staying connected and engaged on both ends of the floor every possession, setting the tone early on. After his turnovers spiked the last three games, he responded with just three to go along with a career-high-tying 16 assists. Ten of those came in the first half, the most for him in either half over his career, per Stathead. He added 27 points, 10 rebounds, two steals and a block to give him his 18th career triple-double.

Booker’s immediate focus was clear as well. He’s still battling through what’s going on with the team when it comes to finding his high-level scoring inside it, even turning down a few quality looks on Wednesday through ball rotations to him. This was the sixth straight game he’s scored less than 30 points in, a rare occurrence. While that’s happening, he’s still playing well overall, and produced 20 points, seven assists and four turnovers on Wednesday.

Allen contributed 16 points, continuing his stellar form as of late.

Two-way center Udoka Azubuike checked in first to back up Nurkic, a move away from Drew Eubanks that has been percolating over this month. Despite Eubanks’ clear positives he showed in Portland and early in the year as a reserve big, he has had some serious struggles across Phoenix’s funk and has not been resembling that player. Azubuike took advantage of his 22-minute opportunity two games ago. Like Chimezie Metu, Azubuike is going to make some mistakes but what he provides with his skill set is going to help the Suns more at the moment.

Metu later in the first quarter took Azubuike’s spot. He figures to possess a fairly solid hold on a rotation spot, with him at the 4 depending on the matchup while he can pivot to the 5 when a team like Houston goes small. That’s going to be a luxury the rest of the season if he keeps up the good play.

The bottom line with the center position was it would always be an uphill climb for the Suns with where their group grades compared to the rest of the league. And that was before these recent developments, so kudos to Phoenix’s coaching staff for getting on top of it and even going to the end of the bench to aid the process.

Smaller juggles continue. Two-way guard Saben Lee got another look over Jordan Goodwin, who has been good for the team overall but is shooting 32% from the field and 17% at 3-point range in December. Josh Okogie’s return from injury took up some playing time there as well.

Lee scored nine points while Azubuike ended up with 11, five rebounds and a pair of blocks in 19 minutes.

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