The Phoenix Suns made key plays when they had to on Friday night, but they were fortunate there wasn’t an extra minute or two on the clock.
They eeked one out 104-100 against the Toronto Raptors thanks to clutch moments like Deandre Ayton’s block, Chris Paul and Devin Booker’s free throws and Mikal Bridges’ offensive rebound to secure the victory.
“Just a lot of huge, grind-out plays tonight,” head coach Monty Williams said.
Phoenix needed those, though, because after Paul’s midrange jumper with 6:18 left put the Suns up 98-88 with 6:18 left, the Suns scored six points for the rest of the game and had only one field goal. Paul and Booker combined to go 4-of-4 from the foul stripe in the last minute.
A game after a loss to the Orlando Magic in which the Suns registered 20 points in the fourth quarter, it was 21 on Friday.
“I liked everything until the fourth quarter,” Williams said of the offensive execution. “We scored 21 points, but [Toronto] only scored 23.”
Williams went on to describe a brand of playoff basketball that broke out in that fourth quarter he called a “slugfest.”
One of the contributing factors was Booker’s funk as of late in the closing 12 minutes.
In a turn of events we haven’t seen from him in his young career so far, Booker is 3-of-18 from the field in the fourth quarter of the last seven games. He was 0-for-4 against the Raptors and missed two shots with the Suns up by two and under 70 seconds left.
That last miss was the one Bridges snatched with six seconds left and then the Suns called timeout. The inbound went to Booker, who, to his credit, sank both free throws to seal it.
Booker is now shooting 39.9% in the final frame on the season and 30.4% in the clutch, aka the last five minutes of a game when the score is within five points. He’s proven himself in Phoenix through six years as a clutch player, and when asked if he’s noticed anything in particular on his film the past few games, Booker said he hadn’t even noticed.
“The wins are coming in,” he said. “That’s the main objective every night. I’ve shown many years of scoring the basketball, so whatever I have to do to win: If it’s defensively, offensively, leading by example, leading by voice. We have a selfless team. We can win by one point, we can win by 20 — I’m gonna be happy regardless.”
And he’s been a happy man a whole lot this year, as the Suns improved to 30-14 with the win.
Booker finished with 16 points, six rebounds and two assists on 6-of-14 shooting. When combining Booker’s shot attempts and assists to a number of 16, that’s the lowest that’s been in 24 games, a testament to Toronto head coach Nick Nurse’s gameplan of limiting his impact working out.
To that point, Nurse threw a variety of defensive looks at the Suns. The core principles were heavily helping to Booker on dribble penetration to force Phoenix’s shooters to make plays and collapsing on Ayton’s post touches once he dribbled the ball to force him to make decisions.
The Raptors won a championship because of their ability to do things like this as a defense, like having the defenders furthest away from the action in the correct spots to help and then having the ability to scramble and recover from there. They are far from a championship-quality defense anymore, though, and the Suns were able to poke holes in it routinely enough.
With that in mind, the Suns still only shot 9-of-36 (25.0%) from three-point range, so that part of Nurse’s plan also was successful.
But Ayton wasn’t all that bothered, as he was assertive and was acting like the biggest guy on the court, which he was. With Toronto going small and putting the long and strong 6-foot-7 OG Anunoby on him, Ayton was 9-for-12 with 19 points and nine rebounds.
His defense continues to trend upward in the last half-dozen games and back on track with the level he played at last year. That aforementioned block on Toronto’s Pascal Siakam was a big-time play with under two minutes remaining:
Ayton credited his technique with his hands and feet while saying that Williams has been on him about that.
A strong first half from Paul and contributions from all over the bench helped the Suns be in a position to win.
Paul ended the night with 19 points, six rebounds, eight assists and two steals. Langston Galloway (eight points), Cam Johnson (seven), Cam Payne (four) and Dario Saric (eight) all made at least two field goals while Johnson (three assists), Payne (two) and Torrey Craig (three) combined for eight of the Suns’ 26 assists.
The Raptors’ biggest lead of the game was four points and they were trailing for the entirety of the second half. Siakam performed well with a game-high 26 points and 11 rebounds, plus six assists.
As the Suns near the end of the four-game road trip with a Sunday matinee game in Charlotte against the Hornets, avoiding a losing streak over the last two-and-a-half months once again, even with the way the win came on Friday, is always a positive.
“I’d rather have an ugly win than a pretty loss,” Williams said.