After melting down in close games so often this season, the Phoenix Suns may have finally learned that lesson of how to close out tough games with wins over the Orlando Magic and Charlotte Hornets, though coach Monty Williams is rightly still a bit skeptical.
“Yeah, I mean, have we learned? Whatever that lesson is, I’m not sure, but I know we’re learning a lot,” Williams said.
Yes, the young Suns have become masters at losing games after huge early leads, including the 21-point third quarter lead to Sacramento just last Tuesday before losing by 9. That loss made it 9 such losses where they had a 10+ point leads at some point among their last 14 losses.
But the Suns had also become quite adept at falling apart in the closing minutes, or even seconds, of tight games. Close losses to the Spurs, Blazers and Nuggets marred the 8-game losing streak, but solid clutch play ensured wins over the Knicks, Magic and Hornets in the past 10 days.
“In the huddles,” Monty Williams said. “I heard guys talking about possession importance and that’s something we’ve been preaching for a while: not taking possessions off.”
In these last two games, it was a lineup of Devin Booker, Ricky Rubio, Kelly Oubre Jr. and Deandre Ayton that closed out both wins when the game was in the balance.
“It is a really scrappy group,” Booker says. “One possession, Mikal (Bridges) got the steal and about four people hit the floor, we got it, Kelly went and dunked the ball. That is just one of the possessions I have seen in multiple games we have switched everything and used our length and athleticism as an advantage.”
That closing lineup is held together by a lot of things, but the coach and players equally recognize that Mikal Bridges, who doesn’t fill the box score, is the real glue.
“Mikal is all over the place,” young center Deandre Ayton said. “He can guard one through five and he is our secret weapon when it comes to switching on guys with mismatches whether it is a guard or a big. That is our secret weapon.”
Monty Williams talked a lot about Mikal at one point in his post-game presser. I know it’s 7 minutes long in total, but there’s a lot of great nuggets in here from Monty on their lineups and the good games from Booker (despite not shooting well), Oubre and Ayton, plus Mikal as the secret glue.
And here’s Devin Booker with a quick post-game presser talking about Kelly Oubre Jr. and how he can contribute even when he’s not shooting well.
Deandre Ayton has been good the last two games as well, especially on the defensive end and being a part of that closing lineup that can switch everything. He is nominally coming off the bench to start games, but is still playing starter’s minutes and finishing the game out.
“I am glad the coaching staff trusts me to close out the game,” Ayton said. “It really does not matter whether I start or not. It is whatever is best for the team and I trust the coaches and my teammates as well. When I step out there, it is just time to do my job.”
Another development from the past week is that the backup point guard situation has, for now, been settled.
“I felt like I’d done a poor job of getting guys in and out,” coach Williams said. “About a week ago, I said ‘Look, I’ve just got to settle on some guys.’ That’s hard when you don’t know when you’re going to play and I didn’t think I was giving the bench guys enough confidence to know when they’re going to go in and when they’re going to come out.”
Elie Okobo now has predictable shifts in the game, spelling starter Ricky Rubio while Booker remains in the game. Okobo plays next to Booker from mid-to-late first quarter and then mid-to-late second quarter, so that Rubio can play most/all the minutes when Booker rests from late-first to mid-second quarter. That seem sequence occurs in the second half as well. This way, either Rubio or Booker or both are on the floor at all times.
Okobo is happy with this development, and appreciates knowing his role.
“Every time I come into the game I know how long I’m going to play,” Okobo said. “So I just got to get ready and for like the 13-14 minutes I got on the court, just make sure I perform and I compete.”
Okobo still gets beaten off the dribble too much and is the primary playmaker for a lot of broken plays, but none of these guards — including Jevon Carter, Ty Jerome or Tyler Johnson — has played any better.
So now Monty is trying a different approach by giving one of the guys an opportunity to improve with consistent minutes.
The same could be said for Tyler Johnson, who is now the regular backup for Devin Booker in the few minutes Booker rests. Hopefully, Johnson will find his shooting stroke with a predictable rotation spot.
With this set rotation, the Suns now have five players (Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges, Cameron Johnson, Elie Okobo) aged 23 or younger, plus Kelly Oubre Jr. who just turned 24. Let’s hope they can grow together to become a consistent winning force in this league.
For what it’s worth
That’s two post-game comments in a row where an opponent, after a loss, just matter of factly says “definitely an All-Star” about trying to guard Devin Booker. Too bad their opinion doesn’t matter much. A year ago, Devin Booker finished 6th among guards in the West in player and media voting and 9th in fan voting. But the players, media and fans only pick the starters.
This year’s All-Star game will likely have 5 or 6 guards on the West roster, with all but two of them picked by the NBA head coaches. Locks for the West guard spots are James Harden, Luka Doncic and Damian Lillard. Beyond them are long-time incumbents Russell Westbrook and Chris Paul, and newcomer “next men up” Donovan Mitchell and Devin Booker. Also in the mix are rookie Ja Morant, whose Grizzlies are a shocking 18-22, and potential “lifetime achievement award” guard Lou Williams, who puts up basically 20/6 off the bench for the Clippers.