Wins for the Phoenix Suns like Tuesday’s 110-100 final over the Miami Heat are what the team could use the most.
They were tested by a good team on the road, with Miami (22-22) launching a counterattack late in the third quarter after the Suns (29-13) played an incredible 14-minute stretch from the middle of the second quarter to the final. late third that made them go up to 22.
Phoenix was only leading by 12 at one point early in the fourth when that hit came, and a combination of the second unit and Deandre Ayton had to stabilize.
They did, and that was all Miami had in them. The Suns have shown great trait in a handful of wins over good teams where they keep getting punched on the chin, and then in the fourth quarter, there are no more shots left to throw at the opposition. That wear effect is the quality of a tough, tough team.
Ayton had one of his best games of the season and, for the first time in more than a month, he had a kind of two-way impact that’s nothing but heartening.
“His pick-and-roll coverage was really good,” head coach Monty Williams said of Ayton’s defense. “His attention on the rim to avoid fouling, to put his hands up and make it difficult… those are dominant performances. I just thought his focus was on a high level. “
Ayton finished with 17 points, 16 rebounds, three assists and three blocks.
“When he plays with that kind of strength and focus, he gives us the opportunity to be that kind of defensive team that you saw tonight,” Williams said.
Devin Booker had his mojo offensively and made some tough shots for 23 points.
Four of the Suns’ five starters were at least 19 plus, a breakthrough given the season-opening lineup’s surprising difficulties in consistently outperforming their opponents. Phoenix had 29 assists and seven turnovers.
The Suns held the Heat’s star guard Jimmy Butler to 14 points on 11 shots, without letting one of the best in the world reach the free throw line after averaging more than eight free throws a night in his last 10 games. . Williams said avoiding rim fouls was part of the game plan. Butler also had five turnovers.
Williams was able to play Booker, Chris Paul and Jae Crowder, all in under 30 minutes with one game in Orlando on Wednesday, while Ayton and Mikal Bridges played 34 each.
In a close game over a quarter and a half, there was a swing in the middle of the second where that aforementioned surge from the Suns came from.
If you watched or listened, you may have missed the specific work to which it was attributed.
Williams said after a recent home game that Paul has a combination of stealing feelings and instincts that he’s never seen before.
Paul, almost like a basketball spirit from afar in some butterfly effect type shenanigans, will often sway and redirect the flow of a game with a play or two that you could only imagine him making. At the moment, it seems like a heady move. But then looking back, it can sometimes turn out to be a turning point.
Heat rookie Precious Achiuwa lost his balance and missed a bunny after Paul’s hit here midway through the second quarter with the Suns leading by three, and Paul took the rebound afterward.
Paul advanced that rebound for an eventual pitch to Booker and then set Bridges up for free throws with a dirty kick behind his back next time.
After that bounce pic.twitter.com/ORmP3ESWzt
– Kellan Olson (@KellanOlson) March 24, 2021
The Suns closed the first half on a 16-4 streak after that opening shot from Achiuwa that would have put Miami within a point.
Would it have happened without that slip and the next two passes from Paul? Maybe. But it’s one of those things that it’s been a pleasure to catch from watching Paul every night that is a testament to his all-time status as a point guard.
Sometimes it’s a lot more than the box score on a night of eight points and nine assists suggests.
Most of that incredible momentum had to do with the great friend.
Part of why Ayton has been such a confusing young player to watch this year isn’t just because he’s inconsistent. Sure, the source of their inconsistency is a mystery, but inconsistent players can still be pretty easy to figure out.
Ayton has not been the case this season, as his performances have been more erratic from turn to turn in a game and his mistakes are, at times, abominable. At times he has seemed like a rookie in his first weeks adjusting to the NBA. It’s strange.
The player we saw on Tuesday, however, returned to last season’s schedule. When Ayton brought activity into the offensive crystal and got the ball early, that would normally get him going most of the time. That was the case against the Heat.
With Miami changing sharply, the Suns tried to engage Ayton from the jump. And perhaps in the best development of the whole night for him, it was not very early. Butler blocked him on his first shot, missed the second and Butler pulled the chair toward Ayton on the third attempt to make him travel.
Rather than snowball, Ayton kept trying to earn a position at the post and it finally paid off. He made his next three shots.
From there, he remained a bouncing and rolling presence to the basket as he did his job on defense.
And when he goes beyond “doing his job on the defensive” to really impact most possessions, that’s when he’s playing tremendous basketball.
The third quarter was one of the best changes of Ayton’s career.
Crowder said that because of the way Ayton moves, they can exploit that as a team to make them a superior defensive team because Ayton is not just a one-dimensional defender on ball screens. Crowder said there is “a feeling” that Ayton can improve on by putting himself in the right position, like when to be in certain places, when to crash the offensive glass, when to run the court, and so on.
That feeling came together completely in that change.
Ayton said a lot of going into that type of zone is knowing the staff and communicating with their perimeter defenders, something Crowder said they have constantly been emphasizing to Ayton and what he has improved on.
“Defensively in general, we communicated throughout the game, and that’s what brought the intensity and the sense of urgency tonight,” Ayton said.
Ayton altered nearly every shot at the basket in an eight-minute stretch.
By the time Ayton left the court, the Suns ‘lead had shot up to 22. And after Dario Saric committed his fifth foul early in the fourth quarter with the Suns’ lead reduced to 15, Ayton was the starter who returned with He booked it and made sure the game was in good hands.
It’s too high an expectation to set given Ayton’s third-year lows, but if that’s the player the Suns can get in the playoffs, they can go all the way.
“In an ideal world, I actually want even more … For me, I’m never satisfied with pushing him because there’s so much there,” Williams said of Ayton.