Power forward Deandre Ayton missed his first shot from the field after a slow first few minutes of the game. That’s a sentence I never thought I would type.
Even bigger than the Suns’ new starting frontcourt, though, was the chorus of boos Elfrid Payton received when he went to the stripe. Clearly dedicated to making every Suns fan rue the day they bid him farewell during the 2017-18 season, Payton scored six of the Knicks’ first eight points and attacked the basket aggressively.
About five minutes into the game, Elie Okobo subbed in for Ricky Rubio, again the first reserve guard onto the court for the Suns. Monty Williams said before the game he went to Okobo in Los Angeles to try to find energy during the comeback. It appears Okobo may have earned more leeway from his coach by bringing that energy.
On the other hand, Cameron Johnson was the first sub in the game after playing fewer minutes in Portland and LA. It’s hard to know night to night what the rotation will look like. Imagine what it’s like for the players.
Non-Devin Booker Suns shot 5-16 from the field in the first quarter, meaning the Suns couldn’t keep pace with the Knicks despite Booker’s 13 points.
New York led after one, 37-29.
The Suns fed Ayton to start the second. After a few of his usual turnaround jumpers, the big man pounded the ball patiently and hit a baby hook over Bobby Portis. While it’s frustrating that Portis can physically handle Ayton in the post, that sort of touch is a tool nonetheless. Any progress for Ayton creating his own shot is huge.
The next play, Ayton dribbled a bit in the post again, drew the double-team, and kicked out to Kelly Oubre Jr., who drew a foul and hit both free-throws. Offense!
Oubre returned the favor after a steal by hitting Ayton perfectly in stride on the fast break for a big dunk.
While Ayton’s offense came along strong in the second period, the Knicks’ rebounding posed massive problems. Williams mentioned it multiple times before the game, and still, there was seemingly nothing Phoenix could do. The Knicks are just a big, physical, veteran team that is committed to the glass.
Williams went to Baynes and Ayton on the floor together once more, and Ayton finally made good on the simplicity of his defensive assignment, rotating over for a block from the weak side.
But Baynes picked up his third foul with two minutes remaining in the half, meaning the presumed starting lineup with Dario Saric next to Ayton finally saw time together. The pressure the Knicks put on the rim was again a problem, as they created good shots on three straight possessions to finish the period.
New York went into the half up, 61-51.
A quick 7-0 run from the Suns signaled a strong response once again. Logic and time constraints would make the strong argument you can’t consistently compete in the NBA by putting yourself in a hole the first 12-24 minutes of every game, but these Suns beg to differ.
Part of the point of changing up the starting lineup was to get a different look out of the gate, but the Suns once again followed the same game script: Start slow, then come alive in the second half. November and December were about playing poorly in crunch time, so at least they’re not making the same mistakes ever night? I don’t know.
New York got into the bonus with a full 7:30 to go in the third, making their isolation-heavy style even more effective. Still, the Suns kept their foot on the gas offensively and took the lead with about 5:50 remaining after a brilliant possession ended with an open Oubre three.
Kelly Oubre has made 36 of his last 62 shots (58%), including 15-of-24 from three— Matt Petersen (@TheMattPetersen) January 4, 2020
If the Suns aren’t going to play any defense, then moving the ball and playing through their scorers is going to be the only way they win games.
Booker clinched his fifth-straight 30-point game with about 2:30 to go in the third.
Devin Booker has at least 30 points in five consecutive games, which is the longest streak of his career. It also ties a franchise high, set by Charles Barkley and Charlie Scott.— David Brandt (@davidbrandtAP) January 4, 2020
The games are starting to feel a lot like the first 400 or so of Booker’s career. If he’s not at his absolute best, the Suns lose. No defense, consistent secondary creation or shooting to hang their hat on, at least not recently.
Suns are about to get up to 8-4 this season in Booker's 30+ point games.— Dave King (@DaveKingNBA) January 4, 2020
Fouls plagued the Suns throughout the third period. A turnover on a second consecutive possession came when Booker was called for an offensive foul — his fourth — with under a minute to go. New York converted, and Oubre was just late on a buzzer-beating three.
The Knicks led, 87-83, going into the fourth period.
Baynes hit his first three in what feels like two months to open the fourth, and soon the Suns tied the game at 89.
A Mitchell Robinson lob dunk lit up Talking Stick Resort Arena but wasn’t enough to respond to a Rubio three.
Again searching for the size to match up with New York, Williams went back to Ayton and Baynes together midway through the fourth. Baynes hit another three right away, but New York kept getting open threes.
Until they didn’t. Baynes closed out strong on Bobby Portis, blocked Portis’ three, and then leaked out for a fast-break dunk off a feed by Ayton. The consequent and-1 free throw gave the Suns a four-point lead, 107-103.
That’s when Oubre caught fire. Williams went (finally) to a wing-heavy lineup with Booker at point guard, ran simple pick and roll between he and Ayton, and spaced the floor. That left Oubre open a couple times in a row, and he nailed both. The incredible shot-making continues for the original Valley Boy.
Knicks turnovers coupled with surreal late-game shot-making gave the Suns a much-need win after it looked for a while like it could be a real inflection point of the season if they lost.
Oubre’s second three gave Phoenix a six-point lead they would not relinquish.