After six months of trying to assemble rotations that work together over the course of a 48-minute game, Suns head coach Igor Kokoskov is finally seeing the first bits of sustained success on the court.
Lately, that has manifested itself in wins over three teams the playoff hunt just in the past seven days. First, the improbable win over the Miami Heat. Then the giddy back breaker over the Lakers. And now it’s closing out a season sweep of the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks.
On Monday night, the Suns overcame deficits of 16 points in the first half and 10 points late in the third quarter, forcing their will on the Bucks throughout to finally close the game on a 23-7 run.
“A lot of credit to Phoenix, the competitiveness of their group,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said afterward. “The energy they played with tonight, they deserve a lot of credit.”
This young team would love to spend the rest of the season ruining playoff dreams or knocking opponents down the playoff seeding totem pole.
“You can feel the energy in the locker room,” guard Devin Booker said. “You can feel the energy on the court. We see it. We’re just playing with high passion, high energy and a winning mindset. So, everyone’s helping each other out, making each other better and talking to each other.”
The Suns may only have 14 wins against 51 losses, but they’ve beaten each conference’s top team at home (Denver, at the time they played).
That five minute lull
Even in the best win of the season, the Suns had their patented five minute lull where they completely forget how to play the game of basketball. This time, it was in the late third quarter, where the Bucks erased a deficit and built themselves a 10-point lead that had some on media row proclaiming the blowout was about to begin.
But the Suns rallied, again and again. All year, the Suns have folded once the going got tough. Mid-season acquisitions Oubre and Tyler Johnson have seen it, and have been preaching to the guys not to hang their heads.
“We’ve got to stick with it for forty-eight minutes,” Oubre said. “The NBA is a game of runs. So, you know, we can’t back down when a team goes on a run. We’ve got to make our own, too, coming back at them.”
Both Oubre and Johnson were excellent on both ends of the court in the fourth without taking away from any of the other guys’ success.
The Suns recorded a season high in blocks and rebounds despite playing against one of the tallest lineups they’ve seen all season.
Much of that was thanks to “Tsunami Papi” Kelly Oubre Jr. — all of 6’7”, 200 pounds — who grabbed 13 rebounds, blocked 3 shots and drew 17 free throws on shooting fouls amongst the trees.
At the end of the game, as Oubre Jr. took four straight free throws, grabbing his own miss to draw a second pair to ice it, the crowd cobbled together an MVP chant that was much appreciated.
“Just Phoenix man,” he said, “Showing love to the kid.”
Kelly Oubre Jr. on the MVP chants he received late in the game:— Evan Sidery (@esidery) March 5, 2019
“Just Phoenix, man. Showing love to the kid.” pic.twitter.com/HBcg9oW9Sl
Oubre definitely lived up to his Tsunami Papi nickname, going all whirling dervish on both ends of the court to the most impactful game of his Suns career.
“Man on a mission,” rookie center Deandre Ayton said of Oubre. “And we were all on the same mission right behind him. He set the tone and, you know, just crashing the glass and showing that physicality and intensity early. And once you spread energy like that, DA catch on to that and the team catch on to that, and yeah. It was just an intense game and I’m still tired.”
Speaking of Deandre Ayton, that young man had what I consider the best game of his rookie season. He was engaged and supremely effective both offensively and defensively.
Just watch some of these moves.
Ayton credits his biggest move — the fake handoff for the drive/spin/finish — to teammate Devin Booker himself.
“He talked about it in shoot around,” Ayton said. “He showed me how to do it, and, yup, I did it. I just added the spin move to it.”
Want to see the whole Ayton interview? Here you go.
A thing of beauty. If those two can develop a killer two-man game the rest of this season, that will be a nice nice glimpse of the future.
What’s not in the highlight reel above are Ayton’s defensive plays versus Giannis to discourage the MVP candidate from dominating the game. Ayton slid his feet to stay in front of Giannis — like he did against LeBron on Saturday as well — to entice Giannis to pass off, while also staying with him all the way to the paint to force a tough shot or block it.
“I don’t want to sound too cocky,” coach Igor Kokoskov said of putting Ayton on LeBron and now Giannis, “but I felt very comfortable and confident he was going to be okay with those matchups. He’s a very mobile big, lateral movement was never his issue, he was playing four in college just last year. I never had doubt that he was going to be okay.”
The Suns next play the Knicks on Wednesday night, and that will be a real test of their newfound success.
Despite beating the Heat, Lakers and Bucks in the past week, this same team also allowed the reeling Pelicans to beat them on Friday. All season, they’ve seemed content to play teams close enough to lose.
“It was a great feeling,” Oubre said afterward. “It’s in us every game when we step out on the court. We stuck with it for forty-eight is the only difference. So, I’m just really happy that we came out with this win.”
How they show up against New York — a very winnable game at home — will show us what corner the Suns have really turned.