The Phoenix Suns are going to win in the playoffs being led by Chris Paul and Devin Booker, but they won’t make it that far if they have to be carried by them.
The team’s 134-118 overtime win over the Cleveland Cavaliers showcased that through a tale of two different Suns teams.
For large portions of the game, the play for the Suns outside of its two All-Stars was largely uninspiring.
This is something the Suns can rely on at times, such as the win in early April over the Utah Jazz when the duo combined for 64 points with 55 shots. But in that game, Deandre Ayton had a big impact, the defense was locked in and the role players hit some key shots.
Those are the three factors that will swing what happens to the Suns in the postseason, and they came alive in overtime as Phoenix smashed Cleveland 20-4 in those five minutes.
The first half saw Booker drop 22 of his team-high 31 points and Paul added 12 of his 23. Despite that, Phoenix’s below-average play defensively and a 4-of-14 mark from three-point range kept it at a six-point game.
After Cleveland’s Collin Sexton whacked Paul in the neck for a technical foul in the third quarter, the game was tied at 65.
From that point on, Torrey Craig hit a 3, Booker scored in transition off an Ayton stop at the rim and Craig got a layup. Then, a 3 via Bridges came from space created by Ayton’s hard rim running on a fastbreak. Two more Ayton buckets off pick-and-rolls with Paul were followed by an Ayton putback on the offensive glass.
Suddenly, it was a 12-point lead for the Suns, the biggest of the ball game.
And right after that, it was an 18-8 Cleveland run to have the game tied after three quarters. Because any NBA team, even the now 21-44 Cavaliers without seven players, will make you pay for lackadaisical play for a majority of the night.
What the Suns had to pay with was closing out a team full of energy in the fourth quarter and overtime, something they could have avoided the night before playing in Atlanta against a pesky Hawks team.
This is the regular season. In the playoffs, it could instead be a loss and the costly game that sends the Suns packing.
Paul made a big-time solo push for the first six minutes of the fourth as the Cavaliers continued to deliver countering shots. Cleveland’s Isaac Okoro had a career-high 32 points and Sexton chipped in 29, with most of their field goals late coming against good defense. Too late, though.
“I thought a lot of their shots we contested well,” Suns head coach Monty Williams said. “They beat us down the lane a little bit and they made tough shots over length. There’s not much else you can do. I thought our guys were there for the most part.”
In shades of the Suns’ loss at home to the Minnesota Timberwolves, those two and the Cavs getting rolling made it difficult for the Suns to patch together enough stops.
Instead of a defeat, however, it brought on that overtime destruction.
In overtime alone, Bridges had eight points, two blocks, a rebound, assist and steal. Along with an Ayton block, those three quick changes of possession led to a 7-0 Suns run they used to fully seize the win.
That included a Cam Johnson deep ball and the dunk of the team’s season on Cleveland’s Jarett Allen.
Paul had 16 assists and zero turnovers to go with his 23 points while Bridges stuffed the stat sheet with 22 points, five rebounds, four steals, three blocks and three steals.
Bridges had 18 of those points after halftime. Ayton blocked five shots and had 15 points plus eight rebounds.
With the level the Suns got to in overtime and where the plays came from, it was a nice win overall. In the grand scheme of things, though, it spotlighted how much the Suns are relying on inexperience.
Ayton’s play has trended downward in the last handful of games after a very encouraging stretch of play where his team-first contributions were immense. Tuesday was the type of performance we’ve grown accustomed to, with Ayton not as engaged as he should be for most of the game. Outside of that dominant few minutes in the third quarter, Ayton was not quite in position on defense or offense, missing extra bursts of energy that were there through most of April.
To bounce off that, Bridges and Johnson find themselves a bit too often in need of three-point shots to get them going offensively. Even though Bridges has improved as a midrange shooter and Johnson as a driver, those two are not consistent sources of offense at the moment.
Bridges’ overtime flurry speaks to how much they rely on him.
“He’s just the consummate team guy, and when he’s going, we go,” Paul said of Bridges.
The Suns are 22-5 when Bridges scores at least 15 points and 20-2 when Johnson reaches 11. With Ayton, it’s a 17-3 mark when he records at least two blocks.
And to set things straight here, those three are good young players and have been big pieces of the Suns’ success that has them now 29 games over .500 (47-18). This is part of their development, and over the next couple of years, the Suns will get what they need from the trio almost every night.
But we aren’t there just yet, and their ability to adapt to playoff basketball and potentially find consistency in it will be the X-factor of the Suns’ playoff run.