PHOENIX — It wasn’t pretty in the fourth quarter for the Phoenix Suns in their last four games, especially once crunch time came. And with the Atlanta Hawks in town on Tuesday, there the Suns were again with a surge from the opposition making the game close with under five minutes remaining.
While it took an extra push or two to at least get through the wall they kept crashing into the past week, they eventually did. Phoenix won 117-110.
The Suns played like a team that was aware of the issues and had been working on it, as the offense had a bit more purpose to it.
It wasn’t exactly flawless, though, with some struggles still coming, and it was another one where Phoenix probably should have closed up shop earlier.
Head coach Monty Williams said “everybody wants a pretty win (but) I just want wins” while point guard Chris Paul wants to see more improvement.
“We close the game out but we shouldn’t have been in that situation,” Paul said. “I don’t know how many games we got left but at some point we gotta start showing signs of getting better at that.”
The Suns led by 14 midway through the third quarter before the Hawks got within two near the end of the 12 minutes. After the Suns’ bench stretched the lead back to eight early in the fourth, Atlanta got back down two with four minutes remaining.
Chris Paul missed an open corner three-pointer and then Atlanta’s Trae Young converted on two free throws to tie it. Paul answered with a midrange bucket, then the Hawks did again with a crisp post-timeout play design to take advantage of the Suns’ switching.
Following a failure to score by each team, Deandre Ayton got one of the bigger baskets of his career thus far, battling hard through Hawks center Clint Capela to knock down a hook shot Williams called “a huge bucket for us (and) a growth moment for him.”
Atlanta’s Bogdan Bogdanovic blew it on a bunny at the rim the next trip down, and after a timeout called by Williams, his play design worked perfectly to get Mikal Bridges an open dunk that put Phoenix up four with under 90 seconds left.
Williams called that a big moment to keep defenses more honest in the future.
Bogdanovic came back and hit an extremely well-contested 3. It was Devin Booker’s turn next, and a drive with two defenders set up Ayton wide open on the other side of the basket to get a rebound and putback to have the Suns back up three with 50 seconds remaining.
Ayton stopped Young at the rim on the other end, and then Jae Crowder’s four-point play via Paul locked it in at a seven-point edge.
With the Hawks starting two natural bigs in Clint Capela and John Collins, Williams employed a switch-heavy scheme defensively. While it’s something the Suns have done at times, they haven’t often for the majority of a game. Playoff basketball will usually boil down to some form of that defense played by both teams, so it’s a good idea for Phoenix to start to get more reps with it before the postseason.
As Williams said postgame, Atlanta is a dynamic offensive team with a lot of firepower, so it was a great test.
The benefits of switching are obvious, as it restricts space if teammates have sound enough rotations for each other. In the below example, Paul makes the biggest play because he covers for Ayton and Crowder after they get back to their original matchups.
This can, of course, lead to mismatches. But, again, a team can cover for one another.
Here, Cam Payne gets switched onto Danilo Gallinari and makes the effort to deny Gallinari the ball. But keep an eye on Dario Saric getting all the way across to the other side of the floor to contest a possible lob pass over Payne.
It’s still a work in progress. The Suns give up a few free buckets a game doing this, which can be attributed most times to a communication breakdown, and communication specifically was something Williams said he didn’t like overall on the night defensively. It’s also not switching absolutely everything, so getting a feel for when to do that and a teammate’s timing is something that takes a while to develop.
“We had times where we [relaxed] and they got back into it because (of) our communication. We’ve been talking about that,” Crowder said. “But once the communication picked back up to where it needed to be we got stops. Timely stops as well.”
Dario Saric had 20 points, five rebounds and two assists, and it was an important contribution because he needed to get himself back in rhythm.
Saric was well on his way to Sixth Man of the Year consideration entering March, with a case to be made that he was Phoenix’s fourth-best player to that point. Then, over his last eight games prior to Tuesday, Saric shot 15-of-49 (30.6%) from the field and 2-of-16 at three-point range (12.5%) with nine assists and 13 turnovers.
Williams had spoken with Saric a few games ago about playing with “passion and force” and just getting back to the way he plays.
“It was kind of tough for me last 10 days I was up and down, it was kind of hard,” Saric said. “I don’t know really how that happened. Sometimes it’s a part of life.”
Saric was plus-12, getting back on track with his very high net rating that is one of the best in the league.
He’s also building chemistry with new teammate Torrey Craig, who has shown an awareness already to cut for Saric when the Croatian big man gets the ball. That’s surely something Craig got a feel for doing in Denver with MVP candidate Nikola Jokic.
Craig in 19 minutes posted 12 points and eight rebounds.
“His rebounding really helped us,” Williams said of Craig. “Everybody loves scoring but to be able to rebound from that position, the offensive rebounding really helps us.”
Crowder hit five three-pointers a game after shooting 0-for-9 from deep and it speaks to his mentality as a shooter that he said postgame he didn’t even know the number in the win on Sunday was that bad. He scored 19 points.
Booker was one of seven Suns in double figures with a team-high 21 points while Paul added 12 points and eight assists. Ayton grabbed 14 rebounds with 13 points.
Young was 5-of-16 for Atlanta, as the switching on him through Bridges’ primary defense was successful and the Suns also went at him quite a bit on offense. Bogdanovic, a first-round pick by the Suns in 2014, led the Hawks with 22 points, four rebounds and six assists.
To go back to crunch time, it was a step in the right direction for the Suns far more than emphatically overcoming a reoccurring problem.
Crowder admitted he felt his team on its heels in the last 4-5 minutes before Paul’s basket with 3:20 left gave them a chance to get the energy right.
“I felt like once that switch flipped over — I think we came out the timeout and CP went out and got his little jump shot. And (when) [Atlanta] called a timeout immediately after, we talked about our sense of urgency and I think it picked up in a timely manner.”
The nine-year vet went on to say that it’s a situation where Paul and Booker will have the ball, as they should, and that guys like him need to be ready to capitalize on an opportunity when it’s presented to them. Bridges did with that dunk and so did Crowder on the game-clinching four-point play.
But while it’s easy for everyone to understand what’s supposed to happen, the execution is still getting there and the team knows it should be a key point to work on before the playoffs.
“We gotta continue to get better, continue to watch film on it,” Crowder said. “I think we have concepts of what we need to get to but we gotta do it with a little sense of urgency and we gotta focus in on that down the home stretch of the season.”