A night full of lineup changes: the Magic were without Aaron Gordon and D.J. Augustin, two of their five best players. Phoenix moved from Aron Baynes and Deandre Ayton in the starting lineup to Baynes and Dario Saric all over again.
Both teams still looked like their usual selves to start the game.
Orlando’s guards were able to penetrate against an iffy Suns defense to create one-on-one, while the Suns took advantage of Devin Booker’s gravity to score easily early on. Booker scored or assisted on three of the Suns’ four made baskets to begin the game.
The first subs for the Suns were Mikal Bridges and Ayton, in for Kelly Oubre Jr. and Baynes. Perhaps as a result of the increased spacing, Booker got a wide-open, catch-and-shoot three from the wing on the next possession. Making those would go a long way for his overall efficiency, so other guys generating those shots for him in rhythm is good to see.
With about 2:15 to play, Tyler Johnson replaced Booker, a little earlier than Williams typically pulls Booker. The Suns lost the final couple minutes, 5-2, which isn’t too bad. Williams was likely trying to get some extra rest for his backcourt stars after running them pretty hard the past couple weeks. So long as the Suns can survive minutes like that, we might see something resembling a real rotation in the backcourt again soon.
To start the second, the sequel to the hit 2019 comedy “Fouling Terrence Ross” premiered at Talking Stick Resort Arena. The Suns again could not guard Ross without fouling him, gifting the slashing wing easy points.
Ross had 9 points in his first nine minutes.
On the other end, Ayton started 1-7 from the field. Part of the thinking with moving him back to the bench has to be to run more offense through him going forward, and Ayton will (obviously) need to do more with those opportunities to help the Suns win.
However, Ayton did grab three offensive boards early and block three shots. Williams will probably take the production in those areas over scoring any day from his young big man.
Despite Ayton’s lack of scoring, the Suns fared well during the minutes with one or none of Booker and Rubio on the floor.
Suns won the minutes without Booker, 13-12.— Brendon Kleen (@BrendonKleen14) January 11, 2020
Monty pulled him early tonight and rode Tyler a little longer, and it worked out.
Tyler Johnson continues to be aggressive even though his shot has disappeared. The floor is often spaced better in the second unit as well. It’s all progress for the bench unit, even if the results aren’t as massive as the Suns would hope.
As the Suns continued to build their lead, they still had trouble guarding dribble drives from the perimeter by Markelle Fultz and Evan Fournier. With Elie Okobo in the game, the Suns’ defense was compromised immediately from Okobo puzzlingly sagging off everyone he checked. Their defensive communication was poor as well, meaning they couldn’t recover to stop those guys.
Fortunately for the Suns, Orlando doesn’t space the floor very well and not many of their players have the skill to get a good shot driving to the basket. So even considering all their struggles, the Suns went into the half up, 58-48.
The bizarre thing about this game being the night the Suns chose to finally revert their starting lineup back to normal is that the Magic are actually the roster to go big against. Not only do they start two bigs, but over the course of the game, Ayton was better against Nikola Vucevic in the high post, while Baynes was a better matchup against Mo Bamba.
To adjust, Williams went to Ayton early in both halves. It wouldn’t surprise me if the Suns allow Ayton to earn back the starting job quickly. If this lineup change is a challenge, Ayton responded to it well as far as energy and defensive intensity go.
As with many of the past month of games, the Suns sort of took their foot off the gas with a lead in the third quarter. They turned the ball over three times in the first few minutes. Then, Oubre got a three blocked. Then, Rubio missed two free throws. Simple mistakes that result from a lack of mental focus and competitive intensity.
Those mistakes did create perhaps the highlight of the night, as a pissed off Oubre thundered back up the floor following his blocked three to return the favor on Terrence Ross.
To start the fourth, a few shots didn’t go in for the Suns and soon enough, Josh Magette of the Magic banked in a three. You can’t make it up.
Williams noted before the game that the Suns continue to generate open shots and just aren’t making them. The numbers back that up, and the trend continued on Friday. Between Rubio’s threes, Johnson’s threes and Ayton from midrange, no one could make an open shot. Needless to say, that’s not what you want.
Even as the Magic left their backups in for a prolonged stretch to open the fourth, the Suns couldn’t take advantage.
Orlando held a 82-81 lead a few minutes into the fourth, and both teams went cold.
At this point, the Suns were 8-27 from the field in the second half. For a while, they struggled to open games strong. Lately, they’ve done the opposite, falling apart in the second half. These games shouldn’t be so close.
The Suns seemed to find an offensive groove once Ayton, Rubio and Bridges checked back in late in the fourth. Ayton got back-to-back buckets inside on designed plays, as Rubio was able to gain separation and manipulate the defense.
Vucevic responded with a three, then Fournier got to the line and made on. Magic up, 91-90 with two minutes to go.
Phoenix got a steal and turned it into a contested Rubio fallaway (his second in a row). Miss. Another Vucevic three put Orlando up, 94-90.
Though his deep shot hasn’t been falling, Booker came up big on the next two plays to hit back-to-back triples and put the Suns up two. 96-94. After the first one, he actually got the steal and took it up the floor himself for the second one. Both unassisted.
Put the man in the All-Star game.
As I type that, Booker aces a switch onto Vucevic in the post and got his second straight steal. Aggressiveness on defense by Booker wins the Suns the game, just like the oddsmakers in Vegas had it.
But a win is a win.