PHOENIX — After the Phoenix Suns’ bench carried them in the opening portion of the season, that impact hasn’t been there as consistently for the past two months.
Now, it’s ridiculous for the Suns to expect the level of contributions they were getting, but games like Tuesday’s 106-86 win over the Miami Heat reinforced what a different team Phoenix is when its bench has it going.
The reserves had 65 points, led by Cam Johnson (15 points), Cam Payne (14) and Dario Saric (13). Payne added six rebounds and seven assists in only 22 minutes.
“They know they need each other,” head coach Monty Williams said. “Whether it’s setting screens or the next pass, I thought they just made the right plays.”
That alleviated some of the extra pressure the Heat would have had on the game because the Suns couldn’t take care of the ball. They turned it over 21 times, the first time in 14 games that number had reached above 15. Miami’s lowly 86 points were thanks to a great Suns defensive effort, but also because the Heat missed 31 of their last 35 shots from three-point range, finishing at 20.5% (9-of-44).
The Heat (28-26) are a team that can execute and compete at the highest of levels. They’re really tough to stop when they get rolling. When the Suns beat the Heat in March, they played like they respected that, but that did not repeat in the early-going on Tuesday.
That resulted in a 13-point deficit for Phoenix in the first quarter, and it was very fortunate its reserves showed up.
Saric and Johnson brought a flurry of activity for the Suns in their first shifts, eventually tying up the game in the early second quarter before claiming a handle back on the game through Payne later in the period. Those three combined for 24 first-half points and were largely responsible for a six-point edge at the half.
Turnovers persisted in the third quarter, and despite the Heat’s poor shooting, the goofs by the Suns let Miami stay in the game. But then Phoenix’s bench came back in, with Payne and now Torrey Craig continuing to make plays.
With the Suns up 13 about 30 seconds into the fourth quarter, Miami star guard Jimmy Butler hurt his right foot and had to briefly check out. The Heat went zone out of that timeout, but Craig and Payne each hit big 3s to crack it. Butler checked back in, but then a Devin Booker jumper made it a 17-point advantage for the Suns with 7:27 left, one that held the rest of the way.
Craig had 14 points in 20 minutes on 5-of-6 shooting. All four of those key Suns reserves grabbed at least five rebounds, with five for Payne, Johnson and Saric, along with six snagged by Craig.
I don’t know what the fair timeline is (2-3 weeks?) on how much longer this needs to go on consistently, but we’re not that far away from feeling safe enough to declare that Deandre Ayton is back on track with where he was expected to be at entering this season.
He was a problem for Butler to finish over at the rim, deterring a few of his shots that played a part in keeping Butler at a 6-for-16 shooting night. With four of Ayton’s 13 rebounds on the offensive glass, he got the Suns a few free buckets, and also showed some nice aggression in the post for the second straight night.
“DA (has) been amazing these past few games,” Chris Paul said. “Pretty much all season, but he’s been a little bit more aggressive the last I don’t know how many games.
“Me and some of the guys were just talking about it in the locker room and it’s great to see. He’s a big, big part of the team and anything we’re going to do going forward — he’s the anchor of the defense and then when he’s aggressive offensively, it opens up everything.”
Ayton had 19 points on 10 shots, making it six straight games he’s had double-digit field goal attempts. In those games, he’s shooting 52-of-74 (70.3%). The ball will always find you when you’re playing the way Ayton has the last week.
Booker had maybe his worst game of the year. He was 4-of-16 from the field with six turnovers in 23 minutes. The minutes were down because he was in foul trouble, aided by two fouls he’s proven to be too smart to commit: a third in the second quarter to stop a transition opportunity and a fourth in the third quarter by extending his arm on a push-off.
With the Suns (39-15) earning the label of contender, it’s easy to get lost on their progress and how they can now win games Booker is bad in. Every time Booker had a rare performance that low the past few years, the Suns’ players at the end of the bench would check in to finish out a blowout loss.
With the likes of Ty-Shon Alexander and Jalen Smith subbing in on Tuesday with under four minutes to go, this one was a blowout win. Still hard to believe.
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