PHOENIX — As a new team that also lacks experience, the Phoenix Suns will take every playoff-esque environment they can get before the real thing comes in late May.
Wednesday certainly qualified.
“I think it’s good for us to experience those types of games instead of getting caught off guard once the postseason starts,” Suns guard Devin Booker said. “You can’t really emulate a game like that in a practice or a regular game.”
The Utah Jazz rolled into town with the league’s No. 1 record and brought on a chess match in the first half that turned into a war for the second half and overtime. They made the Suns exhaust themselves just for slight moments in a game Utah never went away in.
And yet, Phoenix took that all on the chin, continuously fighting back for a 117-113 win.
“I think we did a good job of weathering the storm,” Suns point guard Chris Paul said. “We needed a game like that where guys had to play heavy minutes, the intensity of it, the crowd was great, and just that energy. We haven’t played too many games like that so it’s good to get a few games like that under our belt in this stretch run before the playoffs.”
Paul (29 points) and Booker (35) combined for 64 points and took 55 shots. Their team required an immense scoring effort from its All-Star ball-handler duo, and it delivered. Paul’s took 24 shots and made 12 of them. The 24 attempts were the most he’s taken in a regular-season game in over two years.
Booker started the game 1-of-6 with five turnovers in the first quarter before converting all four shots he took in the second. He shot 5-of-16 in the second half before a 3-of-5 performance in OT that helped seal the game.
Do not mistake this for two great individuals carrying a team, though, because, man, this was a team win.
Phoenix clawed for every rebound, going plus-16 on the glass. Deandre Ayton played a large part in that, getting seven of his 12 rebounds on the offensive glass and morphing into the role of interior bruiser against Utah’s Rudy Gobert. Paul screamed at Ayton during one timeout, imploring his big man that the team needed him to get every 50/50 ball he could.
He did, a huge moment for the young center who doesn’t get enough credit for being a great team player.
“We treated this game like a playoff game. We did everything we wanted to do,” Ayton said. “We made them feel uncomfortable and we stuck to our gameplan. No matter how the game went, we stuck together and we kept positivity and energy in the year. And that’s what teams struggle with, our energy.”
“Everybody got a job on this team,” he added.
Like most wins for Phoenix this season, this was one where it was the team with an edge and in control of the game.
The Suns opened with the defensive scheme that was successful from the teams’ first meeting on Dec. 31, one they won.
Phoenix had its center in deep drop coverage, meaning Ayton or Dario Saric stayed far away from the ball-screen action, welcoming the Utah ball-handler to take a midrange jumper or a 3 off the bounce.
— Kellan Olson (@KellanOlson) April 8, 2021
Phoenix’s help defense out of these situations cut off the Jazz’s space enough to get to the rim or to make crisp ball rotations for 3s. That allowed the shape to not be a detriment.
It’s designed to limit a Utah team that takes more of its shots from deep than any other team and hits over 40% of them on the year.
It worked. The Jazz took a bunch of 3s off the dribble in the first half and shot a putrid 3-of-21.
“To force teams to shoot off-the-dribble 3s, contest them without fouling, is a huge win for us,” Suns head coach Monty Williams said.
On the other end, the Jazz entered the night allowing the second-most midrange jumpers in the league. That’s where Booker and Paul thrive, so to no surprise, they were open to taking a bunch of those attempts.
While Phoenix shot 19-of-41 (46.3%) from that area in the game, the Suns had only 12 three-point shots at the end of the first half, which kept Utah within range.
That strategic tradeoff on both sides of the court led to a bizarre statistical nugget of both teams combining for only 10 total assists in the first half.
Essentially, that made it a shot-making competition between backcourts, which is exactly what the Suns should want and is an area no other team can match them except Brooklyn. They led by 11 at the half and held Utah to only 40 points.
In the third quarter, however, the Jazz finally found some cracks in the Suns’ armor and the game’s intensity overtook the dueling strategies.
In a testament to how terrific of a team Utah is, the Suns only had maybe 2-3 total minutes of slippage defensively in those 12 minutes. But with the Jazz making some difficult shots and capitalizing on almost every Phoenix error defensively to give up more desirable 3s, Utah went on to score 38 points in the third quarter and the Suns were suddenly down one.
Jazz All-Star guard Donovan Mitchell had a good chunk of those tough makes, scoring 10 of his 41 points in the third.
Again, though, it wasn’t as much of a response from the Suns as it was a consistent counterpunch while the Jazz tried to clasp back onto the game.
Paul played the last 19 minutes of the game and scored back-to-back midrange pull-ups to put the Suns back up two with 4:31 to go.
As the game became more about Booker and Paul making a play, the Jazz obviously ditched some of their principles and wanted to cut off their space more. That meant someone else was going to need to hit a couple of key shots for the Suns, and they came.
Jae Crowder made only one of his first eight shots, all 3s, but his ninth was a make via Paul with 2:05 remaining that put the Suns back up four.
Paul answered a Jazz three-point play with another midrange make, and after misses on both ends, Booker’s left-handed floater with the Suns leading by three and 16 seconds left went in-and-out.
Mitchell got the outlet, and less than four seconds later, drilled a leaner 3 to tie the game and give him 23 points for the second half.
Booker missed the game-winner on a half-decent look at the right wing, and in overtime, it was all Suns.
Booker scored on the tip-off, and in what is a signature play for him if you’ve been paying attention enough, set a crucial improvised screen a minute later for a massive Cam Johnson 3.
Johnson’s big bucket in OT matched Crowder’s from the fourth and the stars this time carried Phoenix from there.
Booker would score two more buckets after, and in the biggest play of the night, it was actually Utah that made the pivotal mistake down three with a minute left.
Paul received a pass out from Booker, and the Jazz’s Mike Conley and Royce O’Neale botched a switch. The Point God received just enough room and nailed the would-be dagger.
Free throw shenanigans would ensue to close it out, with Booker hitting only 1-of-2 up two at 12 seconds remaining before the Suns were able to foul Mitchell up three. He missed one, Paul made both of his on the other end and that was that.
Paul added nine assists to those 29 points while Ayton’s final line was 18 points, 12 rebounds, two steals and three blocks in 41 minutes. Booker played 44 and Paul 43 right before flying to Los Angeles to face the Clippers on Thursday night.
Johnson had 11 points off the bench in 37 minutes, playing over Mikal Bridges in crunch time, as Bridges struggled with foul trouble and had a rare defensive day of his primary cover — Mitchell — continuously getting the better of him.
The second-year wing Johnson is a good guy to bring up in closing.
In his first shift of the game, he had a corner 3, a chase-down block, drew two fouls and even successfully boxed out Gobert. After a foul call brought on a timeout, Johnson was at the bench with his hands on knees. He was flying around during those nine minutes, looking exhausted before going on to play 28 more throughout the night.
That right there was exactly what Paul was talking about in this team needing to experience more of, and how the Suns got through that for a win against an outstanding team is what made their coach happy.
“They may not find anybody that wants it for them more than me because I’ve been in games like this,” Williams said. “It’s gratifying when you execute your gameplan somewhat, but then when guys just will each other to win.
“I just felt like we hung in there with each other tonight. Even when they made runs, I didn’t see anybody dropping their heads. I could see their eyes focused on me waiting for the next play and waiting for the next coverage. That’s a level of growth and that’s an experience we have to have as a team to grow.”