In many ways, Opening Night for the Phoenix Suns versus the Dallas Mavericks was a microcosm of their entire playoff series back in May.
That seven game series was close but not that close. Sure, it went seven games but every game felt like a blowout for one team or the other, like Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed (or maybe Ivan Drago vs. Apollo?) taking turns laying haymakers.
On Opening Night of the 2022-23 season, the teams faced each other again and guess what — this time, since it’s only a one-game series, they decided to land haymakers by halves. The Mavericks won the first half by 17 points, while the Suns won the second half by 19 points (there’s a better Rocky/Apollo comp!).
On the surface, it looked like the Suns were STILL reeling and dizzy from May’s haymaker at the hands of the Mavs during the entire first half. Pundits all around the world flooded social media timelines that the Suns, as presently constructed, were dead. Buried. Done. Lucky to get a play-in spot at best. That Luka had broken them. That Ayton didn’t even care.
But then, likely after all those casuals turned off their TVs, the Suns spirit came back to life.
Early in the third quarter, enough was enough. After losing to these Mavs on May 13 by 27, then on May 15 by 33 and now the very next game, after five months of stewing over it, down yet another 22 points a minute into the third quarter... they finally shook off the cobwebs in the second half and remembered ‘oh hey, we DO remember how to basketball!’.
On the surface, it looked like the Suns were on the verge of death but then magically found their mojo again. Out of the blue.
But it’s not that simple. Here are my takeaways from the game.
Mantle passed to Book
What has been Chris Paul’s team for nearly two years — and for good reason, as he’s made All-Star and All-NBA both seasons — has now become Devin Booker’s.
Paul was once again swallowed up by the Mavericks defense. They put long defenders on him, stayed in front the whole time, never let him attack a slow-footed big man, never let him get to his spots... and once again, he was a no-show. Paul’s only basket of the game came late in the second quarter, after the Suns were already down 20 points. Sound familiar?
Last time, head coach Monty Williams stubbornly stuck with Paul anyway. This time, even as the Suns were battling for the win in a close game late in the fourth, Williams made the biggest decision of at least his Suns tenure, if not his whole coaching career. He declined to bring Paul back for his usual last-three-minutes stint in the fourth, instead riding out Point Book to the end.
You see, the Suns mantle shifted last night.
Now, in a do-or-die moment (trust me, if the Suns had gone through and lost that game, their future was a unit was dead), Monty Williams has rightly seen the light: put the ball directly in All-Star, All-NBA, MVP-candidate Devin Booker’s hands and let him run the show in the clutch.
Booker’s 8-minute fourth quarter: 7 points, 6 assists, 0 turnovers, +17. He engineered a 17-point turnaround in that final eight minutes, most of it as the lead guard setting up the offense, attacking the paint and finding the right guy. And when the Mavericks trapped him at mid court, he passed out quickly and decisively to Ayton or another player flashing to the middle, who then made the play to get the score.
This was Booker’s game to close.
“Book was really good in the huddles even when we were down 15,” Monty Williams said of that final eight minute comeback.
Book’s closing lineup: himself, Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges, Cameron Payne and Damion Lee. (Cam Johnson had a cramp, which gave Lee the chance to close)
Williams said he took Paul out at the 6:41 on his prescribed rotation, expecting to put Paul back in the game at the three minute mark like usual. But the Booker-led group was rolling, so Monty let them stick with it.
“I just felt like it was the move to stay with Cam,” Williams said nonchalantly. “Chris was engaged and telling guys, almost like he was really out there...Cam did such a good job with that group, that group as a whole is pretty good on both ends and so I just rolled with it.”
Cam Payne was somehow a +15 for the game in only 19 minutes of play, but that’s really a -2 for the first three quarters and then a +17 along with Book for the first six minutes of that last 6:41. In that stretch, Payne didn’t do a lot (5 points, 1 assist) but the mix with Booker was working.
Did Book feel weird not having Paul out there the final minutes? Not at all, Book said. They were rolling and he trusted the guys around him.
Lee was a value signing
If nothing else happens this year, signing Damion Lee to a veteran-minimum contract in the offseason was a brilliant move already. His 11 fourth-quarter points in this epic Suns comeback were incredibly timely, and his heady play on both ends of the court really helped the Suns overcome the loss of Cameron Johnson (cramps).
Heading into the fourth, Cam Johnson was basically the only Phoenix Sun who could make a three pointer. He was 3-for-6 from deep and had 13 points overall. But then he suffered a cramp and came out of the game for good at the 9:35 mark of the fourth.
In his place, Damion Lee just simply made his own trio of three-pointers and then drained the game-winner.
“Coach just told me to be aggressive and do what I do,” Lee said after. “I passed up a couple of shots early, but it started to go in towards the end.”
Lee got the final shot because Booker was once-again double-teamed and Booker once again passed out quickly to the next open man. All night, Book made the right plays and in the fourth quarter it was more about passing than scoring (7 points, 6 assists in those final eight minutes).
“I knew it was coming,” Booker said of Lee’s impact on a game. Lee is four-year NBA veteran who’d played with the Warriors before coming to Phoenix, and averaged 7 points per game in Golden State. But he knows good basketball, and how to play his role around the big guns.
Lee was humble about the play, even pointing out how he’d allowed the Mavericks to tie the score at 105-105 just before that by fouling Luka on a drive. He said when he got to the huddle during the ensuing timeout, Williams looked at him and said, “Now go make a play.”
“It’s huge,” Lee said of that experience. “It really just goes to show that trust Coach Monty has, the front office has and the rest of the coaching staff has in me.”
Ayton could be better than ever
You know Deandre Ayton is not a guy who lives in foul trouble. One of his best traits is the ability to contest shots without fouling. Yet, here he was getting called for three fouls in his first seven minutes of play in the first half.
He only got those seven first-half minutes, which spelled disaster for the rest of the team. Luka Doncic just simply drew screen after screen to get isolations, and made backups Jock Landale and Bismack Biyombo look bad. And that kind of broke the whole Suns system, committing foul after foul, letting the Mavs live on the line, and getting down 20+ once again in the second quarter.
It was in the second half when Ayton showed how he can be better than ever.
Ayton had only 4 points and 2 rebounds in the first half, then put up 14 points and 8 rebounds in the second half while playing 23 of the second half’s 24 minutes. During that decisive 17-point comeback, the Book/Ayton pick and roll took over the game. Ayton scored three times off Book passes and grabbed a pair of crucial defensive rebounds.
“DA was amazing in the second half,” Williams said.
Throughout the second half, Ayton was really good popping into that short-roll area (halfway between the three point line and the basket) and being decisive with it — either attacking the paint for the shot or attacking-and-kicking to a cutter. This is a new Ayton wrinkle that could unlock a lot of good things for the Suns.
“Just being in that short pocket and for him to be a dominant post-up mid-range big, I think that is the next step he can take to his game is playmaking,” Booker said. “Especially when a lot of the attention is on me and Chris (Paul), he is usually around that free throw line being the first person you throw to out of the double. It is usually three-on-two or four-on-three on the back side.”
While it was only one game, those are my takeaways. And I feel those will continue to show themselves the rest of the year.
Next up: at Portland on Friday, facing Dame and the Blazers.