Something strange and unusual happened on Saturday night in Mexico City.
The win-starved, split-personality Phoenix Suns started the fourth quarter of a potentially winnable game (down just 85-80) against the vaunted San Antonio Spurs, and coach Earl Watson resisted the urge to match the Spurs veterans with his own.
While the Spurs began the quarter with a lineup of Tony Parker, Jonathan Simmons, Kawhi Leonard, David Lee, and LaMarcus Aldridge, Watson countered with Tyler Ulis, Devin Booker, P.J. Tucker, Dragan Bender and Alex Len.
That should have helped the Spurs seal the win. Parker would shake and bake Ulis. Simmons and Leonard’s length would stifle Booker. Crafty Lee would win the Bender battle, and Aldridge would frustrate Len into fouling him every time.
You know Watson was ready to pull the trigger on that lineup at the first sign of trouble, right? What coach wouldn’t?
But the Suns young lineup surprised everyone, surging to a 14-1 run to start the quarter despite the heavy mismatch of experience and developed skillsets.
That inexperienced Suns group stayed on the floor for more than seven minutes together as the Spurs subbed in Bryn Forbes for Parker and Danny Green for Simmons, and then Parker again for Forbes when the bleeding didn't stop. Aldridge, Lee and Leonard remained on the floor for the entire decisive Suns run.
Tyler Ulis hounded Parker and Forbes on defense, and made three clutch buckets. Tucker kept tabs on Leonard, allowing the Suns to double team elsewhere when needed. Bender and Tucker gobbled rebounds. Len, with Bender’s help, stifled Aldridge on the block by refusing to jump at his pump fakes. They employed some smart double-teaming at the right times to frustrate Aldridge and Lee.
And Devin Booker continued to be the Suns best 4th quarter scoring option (14 points of the Suns 28 points in the 4th), despite the constant presence of Green or Leonard on him.
Booker, Bender and Tucker played the whole quarter (the latter two grabbing six boards each), while Bledsoe and Chandler helped hold the lead over the last five minutes. Bender may have played his best defensive game of his short NBA career.
If a Suns fan had a dream of this season’s roster beating the Spurs, it would include clutch minutes from the team’s youngest players beating the Spurs’ best.
Patty Mills did not play in the game, but the rest of the West powerhouse did. And you could by the substitution pattern that Popovich was trying to win the game. All of their best starters were on hand as the Suns surged to the unexpected win.
Of course, some Suns fans will lament the lack of Warren and Chriss in the fourth quarter, but recall that Watson only went with one veteran (Tucker) for most of that period, and that Leonard was on his way to a career-high of his own. Playing Warren instead of Tucker in those minutes might have upset the upset bid.
The same is true of dreaming of Bender and Chriss on that front line instead of Bender and Len/Chandler. But Len and Chandler were phenomenal in that period and were much-needed against Aldridge. Plus, they were the only veterans besides Tucker in the game. Chriss would have been a nice token, but give Watson a bit of credit for his attempt to prop up kids by keeping 1-2 veterans on the floor with them at all times.
Of course, the Spurs made a game of it as time wound down. They even had a chance to take the lead, but a fortunate goal-tend call, some clutch free throws by Devin Booker and a missed three by Danny Green helped the Suns win the game.
Watch all the highlights here.
And rejoice that the kids are starting to have more and more impact on the team’s rotation as time goes by.