For the 12 months from the start of the Bubble in July 2020 to the end of the NBA Finals in July 2021, the Suns were locked in. Every game, every quarter, every play. They had something to prove on a nightly basis, becoming only the third team in NBA history to rise from one of the two worst teams in the league to one of the two best.
Yet the first two weeks of this new season have been the ebb to that flow. They have been unfocused and low energy. Thanks to an easy schedule, the Suns came into the game against the Hawks with a respectable 4-3 record but needed huge second-half runs at home against lesser competition to get three of those wins. Even their drubbing of the Lakers during opening week is no crowning achievement considering LA’s struggles against other competition.
What woke the Suns up from their slumber?
Maybe it was the #SarverOut scandal. Chris Paul said the other day that what he’s learned in his storied and bumpy career, including dealing with the Donald Sterling racist avalanche right at playoff time almost a decade ago, is that the players and coaches just need to tune all that out and control what they can control: basketball.
Maybe it was the Ayton injury (knee bruise), forcing everyone to lock in to overcome the loss of their best interior defender and easy offensive points generator. Devin Booker and Chris Paul had been in cruise control, but stepped up big time recently as their contributions have been necessary to win these games.
Or maybe it was just the natural flow that comes from every ebb. Maybe the Suns were going to lock in again on Saturday night regardless of those two challenges.
Whatever the reason, the Suns showed on Saturday night against the Hawks, who made the Eastern Conference Finals last year and are healthier now with Cam Reddish and De’Andre Hunter back, that they can lock in for 48 minutes again and beat a good team playing well.
The Hawks made a big run late in the third quarter, keeping their starters in while the Suns went to their bench to give the starters rest. Quickly, a small Hawks lead ballooned to 12 and the Suns looked like they were on the ropes.
“We didn’t panic. That’s what I was proud of most,” shooting guard Devin Booker said after. “Everybody kept their composure and we just came up to the idea that we got to take it step by step, stop by stop.”
The 12-point lead for the Hawks extended into the 4th quarter, and was still even a 9-point lead with under eight minutes left. But then the Suns clamped down, turning that 9-point deficit into a 4-point win with a 26-13 closeout.
“It’s a game of runs and when it comes to down to the come down,” Booker said. “You got to turn it up a little bit and that’s what we do.”
Booker finished with 38 points — his season high — on 14-21 shooting, including 5-9 on threes and a pair of huge shots in the closing minutes to seal the Suns win.
But it was Chris Paul once again who ignited the fire early in the 4th. The quarter started with the Suns down 10 points (98-88) and Paul, who played 11 of the 12 minutes, proceeded to drop 10 points (3-3 shooting), 5 assists, 3 rebounds and even blocked a shot for a +16 on the scoreboard. On the other side of the ball, young superstar Trae Young had only 4 points (1-7 shooting) and 2 assists in the 4th.
“Chris is a guy that runs to the ball and that’s his mentality,” head coach Monty Williams said after the game. “He wants to make those plays, he puts the work in and our guys believe in him. He’s a bit of a safety blanket for a lot of us because of his ability to score and find guys and just make plays, so he certainly makes us look a lot better than we deserve. He’s just that good of a basketball player on both ends of the floor.”
Other big contributors besides Paul and Booker were a pair of bench players: Frank Kaminsky and Landry Shamet.
Kaminsky had an incredible first half, getting big minutes because of Deandre Ayton’s injury (knee bruise) and JaVale McGee’s first quarter injury (poked eye). Frank dropped 14 points in 15 first-half minutes, helping the Suns grab a one-point halftime lead against a good Hawks team playing very good basketball.
“I’m not the most athletic guy in the world,” Frank said afterward. “I don’t think that’s a secret. But I’ve always been able to affect the game with my mind.”
Chris Paul says that Frank is always in the right place at the right time, and coach Monty Williams gives Frank props for helping generate more of those much-needed three point shots.
“And then Frank Kaminsky,” Monty Williams said, including Frank in his keys to the game. “His ability to play in the pick-and-roll and facilitate in the short roll and find guys on the backside. He was a big reason why we generated so many threes tonight. I don’t know if that’s our season high, but it probably is at forty-three (attempts).”
Yes, the 43 attempts were a season-high for the Suns, and their 14 makes tied their season high (matched twice already). For a while, it seemed like the Suns reliance on threes might be their death because they just kept clanking off the rim, but backup shooting guard Landry Shamet came through big for the team in the 4th quarter with two makes and drawing a shooting foul on another. Shamet has scored 35 points in the last two games, a welcome sight from a bench unit struggling to score this year outside the paint.
Shamet, a new acquisition this season, is still trying to figure out his best spots in the Suns offense.
“We collectively have been just slowly building and building,” Shamet said. “Each night out, we start to show some growth on some front and things we’re talking about in practice are carrying over.”
Your Suns are now 5-3 on the season, riding a 4-game winning streak.
The Suns head back out the road for the first time in two weeks and will play some winning teams in 4 games this week.
They play at Sacramento (5-4 this season) on Monday, return home to host Portland on Wednesday (5-5), and then head to Memphis (5-4) on Friday.