PHOENIX — Surrounded by danger and shrouded in doubt, the Suns went to the locker room at halftime as one of the more perplexing teams in the postseason.
They returned to the court like NBA champions.
Order has been restored. Faith has been renewed. For the third time in the past two seasons, the Suns have prevailed in a pivotal Game 5.
“It was the defense tonight,” Suns head coach Monty Williams said. “When we get stops like that and are able to get out in transition, it gets us going. It gets the crowd going. And I firmly believe that defense travels. It’s the one thing you can do in any gym.”
The dominant second-half performance was comforting, like the recognition of an old friend. The Suns seemed to find their gravitas and their spirit during a lopsided 110-80 victory. And so did the crowd, where the home-court advantage finally reached the decibel level that marked last year’s run to a title, when a new generation of rabid Suns fans became the talk of the tournament.
There have been many unexpected potholes during the first half of this Revenge Tour. Let’s hope this runaway victory will liberate the Suns, leading to miles of open road ahead.
“That Game 3 and 4 (in Dallas), it really bothered us a lot,” Suns star Chris Paul said.
After looking vulnerable and out of sorts in Dallas, the Suns made major adjustments to their lineup. Cam Payne was effectively benched. Devin Booker played backup point guard. Bismack Biyombo took JaVale McGee’s spot as backup center. It worked.
The Suns survived a first-half slog and an early Dallas assault. They took care of the basketball, cleaning up the turnover issues that plagued them on the road. They received 38 points from their reserves. And they finally ignited a tinderbox crowd yearning to tilt the playing field.
During the first half, it was clear there was a different energy inside Footprint Center. But the Suns failed to capitalize on most of the combustible, momentum-swing moments. The most egregious was a dazed Deandre Ayton squandering the chance for a thunderous dunk, the kind of daffy moment that drives fans crazy.
But Ayton came out with a different vibe in the second half. He played with a newfound aggression. He converted a pair of offensive rebounds, exploiting a size advantage the Mavericks can’t counter.
Meanwhile, the Mavericks cooled off considerably in Game 5, missing 24-of-32 shots beyond the three-point line and finishing with only nine team assists. Mikal Bridges provided his typical buffet of defensive wizardry. And Booker did the rest, scoring 28 points in 35 minutes.
Before Game 5, former Suns great Charles Barkley called out Ayton and Booker, saying it was their time to shine, to take some off the load of Paul’s shoulders. Consider that another one of the Suns’ small victories on Tuesday.
“Book has shot-making ability that’s unique to very few people,” Williams said.
Experience was one of the many things the Suns gained while losing their bid for a championship in 2021. This was their fifth Game 5 as a group since Paul arrived two seasons ago. One of those losses was a chance to clinch a playoff series at home against the Clippers. The other cost them an NBA championship against the Bucks. They were very aware of the implications and consequences attached to Tuesday’s game in downtown Phoenix.
With the victory, the Suns did a solid for Williams. Their beloved servant leader won NBA Coach of the Year honors before Game 5, just as this Western Conference semifinal seemed to be slipping from their collective grasp. The juxtaposition was perilous.
Had the Suns lost this game, they would be in imminent danger, facing an elimination game on the road. And that award would begin to feel hollow, mocked and ridiculed by Suns detractors.
Williams didn’t deserve that. He deserved exactly what he received in Game 5, a team that entered with “heightened respect and appropriate fear” of the Mavericks. And they responded accordingly.
Once again, it’s safe to exhale on Planet Orange. The Suns looked like themselves. And now it’s time to take that team and that show back on the road, putting another opponent in the rear-view mirror.
Reach Bickley at email@example.com. Listen to Bickley & Marotta weekdays from 6 a.m. – 10 a.m. on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station.