PHOENIX – Since an epic collapse against the Brooklyn Nets last Tuesday, the Phoenix Suns have been conscious of keeping their heads.
Several players said it multiple times after a 132-100 win over the Portland Trail Blazers on Monday.
The Suns are just locked in.
The result has been three consecutive victories in the form of asymmetrical quarters. In 12-minute bursts over the past week, Phoenix edged New Orleans by 29, Memphis by 18 and the Blazers by 20.
In the third quarter against Portland at the Phoenix Suns Arena, the Suns used a pressing defense, 12 points from Devin Booker and nine more from Deandre Ayton to end the night.
Phoenix (20-10) kept Portland on 7-of-23 shots (30%) and shot 60% to beat the Blazers in the period.
“I love it when we defend like we did,” Suns head coach Monty Williams said. “They had 17 points in the third quarter. That for me was the game, right there. “
Booker had 34 points at the end of his evening. He was 10 more scored than Portland’s Damian Lillard, a viable MVP candidate who is averaging 30 points and has led a team without CJ McCollum, Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins to an 18-12 mark.
Lillard still scored 24 points and added seven assists in 29 minutes.
The Suns, however, used small doses of pressure across the court from Mikal Bridges to disrupt Portland’s offense and then aggressively protected themselves on screens, pushing Lillard to drive.
“It’s a term we use: cutting off the head of the snake,” Devin Booker said of the Lillard-focused defense. “With guys like him, if there’s any guy like him, you have to move on.
“Just make things difficult for him. No man can stop it. “
The Suns’ defensive support held up well, aside from a second-quarter instability against the pick-and-roll. After that “murky” period, in Williams’ words, Phoenix came out of halftime with a tear, scoring 10 points in four turnovers.
“We have great respect for that team and for Damian,” Williams said. “He’s destroying the league right now.”
One game after holding second-year point guard Ja Morant to 12 points, awarded in just 28 minutes during a blowout, Bridges started strong against Lillard.
He caused a fumble in the backcourt by putting pressure on Lillard and causing a Blazer to throw the ball out of range. Later, Bridges blocked Lillard’s drive at the rim.
Lillard had three turnovers in the first quarter and six at the end of his night.
He was 1 of 7 from beyond the arc as the Suns extended their defensive pickup point to keep him from attacking from more than 27 feet.
“I think he doesn’t play with the ball … if you’re backwards he’ll shoot it, if you push up, he’ll pass you,” Bridges said before Monday’s game. “It hits you with a dribble that you can bite into, but it gives you a chance to come back.
“I think he makes that deliberate move and it throws you off balance. He knows what he does. He is an incredible player. “
During his final three seconds on the court Monday, Lillard found himself defending Booker, who took his place in the All-Star Game as a backup last season.
Booker hit a triple throw that put Phoenix ahead by 26 points with 2.6 seconds left.
The Blazers immediately threw an on-court pass that went straight out of bounds. So the Suns, under their own basket, sent the ball to Cam Johnson for a corner kick three on the buzzer that capped off the whopping 12 minutes and felt like the official hallmark of a Phoenix win.
The end of the third felt like a summary of the entire game.
Williams said communication and understanding of his defensive scheme has played a role in Phoenix’s three-game unbalanced quarter-game streak.
Of the turnovers that helped the entire game, Williams started by giving credit to Bridges, who added 10 points, five assists and two blocks.
“I think Mikal Bridges is a big part of that,” Williams said. “His ability to protect tough offensive players, and many times his length, puts his hands on a lot of balls or forces a lot of passes in time-out because he’s long. In the back, our guys can get robbed or diverted. “
Halftime helped stabilize Ayton, who finished with 19 points, five rebounds and two blocks. He found himself on target for pick-and-roll actions late in the second quarter, but rallied to help Phoenix in the third.
At the end of the period, he was left in front of Lillard in a paint fit and forced a trip. Seconds later, Ayton smashed the offensive glass hard and sank the ball to put Phoenix ahead, 86-65.
Lillard, by the way, probably exerted a bit of energy early on defending Booker, a move that exemplified his competitiveness but failed on the court against a player three or more inches away.
Booker scored Phoenix’s first six points of the night and finished with 17 points in the first quarter. By the end of the third quarter and in just 29 minutes, Booker had dumped his 34 points on 12 of 17 shots.
Still, it was that locked-in defense that became a runaway offensive train for the Suns.
By the end of the night, they had forced 17 turnovers for 24 points.
“Once we make stops, we all trust the other extreme,” Bridges said. “It makes you play more confident when you know that when you make more saves on defense, you can go out there and be more aggressive because you have saves. This is how you play basketball. “