EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Phoenix Suns grind with Rockets again for home win

Feb 29, 2024, 11:28 PM

Devin Booker #1 of the Phoenix Suns and Cam Whitmore #7 of the Houston Rockets are separated after ...

Devin Booker #1 of the Phoenix Suns and Cam Whitmore #7 of the Houston Rockets are separated after each receiving technical fouls during the second half of the NBA game at Footprint Center on February 29, 2024 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

PHOENIX — For whatever reason, the Houston Rockets have a way of making things ugly for the Phoenix Suns. After beating them in Houston on Friday, the Suns got that one back on Thursday in a 110-105 win, albeit one that was more difficult than it should have been.

Just like the defeat, Phoenix jumped out to a big early advantage, this one 21 points. But Houston grinded it down to within a few possessions soon after, and every time the Suns extended the lead back to around where it was, the Rockets cut it back down.

It happened in winning time as well.

An 11-2 Houston surge across 1:43 made it a six-point game with 2:22 remaining. The hex on Devin Booker once he reaches six 3-point field goals in a regular season game that our world’s greatest scientists will have to investigate did a number on his shot-making to close out the game. He knocked down a 14-footer to answer that run after missing a few before a Jabari Smith Jr. tip-in got it back to six. That’s when a Kevin Durant missed 3, Cam Whitmore missed 3, Booker missed 3 and Jalen Green missed 3 saw the Suns’ chance to close out the game and the Rockets’ chance to get back in the game both end. Time just ran out.

Booker scored 20 of his 35 points in the first quarter and knocked down four of his six triples. It was the 25th time in his career he has reached that mark and failed to knock down the seventh. Across those 25 games, he’s now taken 37 3s once reaching six and failed to convert on all of them.

“That’s why I shot that last one,” Booker joked, as he was made aware earlier this season of how much an inside joke this has turned into on social media over the years. He has hit seven in the playoffs before, something he noted.

It was a rare bad shooting night for the Suns as a team. They were at 40.4%, tied for a bottom-five mark on the season. They were also able to hold the Rockets to 33.3%, a season low for a Suns opponent.

“Some games are gonna be offensive battles, some games are gonna be defensive battles. … Proud of what we did on that side of the ball,” Suns head coach Frank Vogel said.

Booker seemed motivated by something from Friday.

Booker and the rookie Whitmore had some, let’s call it heated competition then.

Booker was presumably jawing from the jump on Thursday but it was really evident after he knocked down his third 3 of the game, tossing plenty of words Whitmore’s way. If it wasn’t clear who he was upset with then, he was defending Whitmore on a baseline out of bounds play and provided him a generous love tap out of bounds as Whitmore came around a screen.

It’s been a motto around here for a half-decade at this point but it bears repeating: do not make Devin Booker angry.

In the fourth quarter when Booker’s sixth 3 went down, they got too close for comfort and Whitmore tried to brush Booker off. Whitmore then impeded Booker’s path on the way back down the floor while resuming the talking. That was enough for Booker, who did his own version of a blocking foul. A light scuffle ensued.

Call it poking the bear, call it whatever you want. But as long as it stays within the zone it did on Thursday, Booker respects it. And he loves it regardless. After all, he was that scrappy kid poking around at the top of the food chain himself.

“Just competing, being extra physical,” Booker said of it. “I like it. I’ve been in these situations plenty-a-time before. I was that same young player doing that same thing. I remember doing it to Jimmy Butler my rookie year. … Plenty of people. You never want to back down and I respect going at a top player. You just gotta be ready for it.”

 

We’ll see if there’s any carryover to that individual matchup or the team one on Saturday, the third time in nine days these teams will play.

The trey balls going down for Booker was a good sign across an under-discussed rut from 3 for both he and Durant. Since Jan. 28, Booker entered the night shooting 33.3% in a dozen games while Durant’s 13 appearances over that time yielded a 34.2% knockdown rate. The percentages around them were still great so the team’s overall number wasn’t taking too much of a hit. It’s a slump all players go through.

Jusuf Nurkic ended the night at 16 points, 13 rebounds, three blocks and seven turnovers. It was your standard good Nurkic outing beyond the turnovers, which obviously negate a good chunk of that. Given his low usage in terms of shot attempts, those giveaways could have been a real backbreaker in a more competitive game. Fortunately for the Suns, this was just his fifth game with five or more, so it hasn’t been common enough to warrant concern. But it’s the type of thing that absolutely cannot happen for Phoenix in the postseason.

Nurkic immediately started shaking his head when turnovers came up postgame.

“It’s a bad night for me but obviously not a really big turnover guy. … It’s bad,” he said. “I gotta get it right. Especially as a team we have a problem with turnover, tonight is just not my night.

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