The Phoenix Suns returned from another successful Eastern Conference road trip and treated their fans to a 131-107 victory over the defending champ Milwaukee Bucks in the first meeting between the two teams since the Final’s last June.
Deandre Ayton was aggressive early against the Bucks, scoring 15 points in the first half as the Suns took a 64-56 lead into the halftime break. The Bucks stayed with some good shooting from their starting backcourt, as Jrue Holiday and Grayson Allen went 5-6 from downtown. Holiday led both teams at the break with 17 points, while Giannis Antetokounmpo racked up 10 points, 6 rebounds and 6 assists in support.
But the tide turned in the third quarter, as the Bucks shot 30.4% from the field and were outscored 33-21 to give the Suns a 20-point lead heading into the fourth. Ayton continued his dominant performance, scoring eight more in the third as he finished the night with 27 points on 12/14 from the field.
After the game, coach Monty Williams commended Ayton for his recent performances against key competition.
“He’s had a really good week,” Williams said. “Playing against Joel and playing the way he did and getting the win in Philly and then wake up two days later and you got Giannis at your doorstep.”
“That’s a big-time week for [Ayton] and then offensively, I thought he was pretty dominant in the paint. His ability to seal and get to his jump hook, his rebounding is always something we could rely on. I thought his seals tonight were about as good as he’s ever been since I’ve been here.”
And yet, the most impressive stat line of the night has to belong to Chris Paul, with 20 points and 19 assists, tying his season-high set less than two weeks ago against the Spurs. Eight of those assists went to Ayton, as Paul sliced and diced the Bucks’ interior defense with vision.
The pain from losing in the Finals has been a major driving force for the Suns this season. But last night’s game highlighted many of the Suns’ improvements as a team since last June, and to showcase those improvements against the defending champions was impressive.
At 45-10, the Suns are sitting atop the whole league by a healthy margin. While other teams have struggled to maintain their focus and consistency in this tumultuous season, the Suns have shown just how serious they are as a championship contender with their performance thus far into the season.
The team’s drive to win and prove themselves was shown quite thoroughly on their recent Eastern Conference road trip. After dropping the first game in Atlanta, the team refocused and earned crucial wins against the Bulls and the 76ers.
Winning on the road against two of the other conference’s top teams was always going to be special. But doing so back-to-back? That’s indicative of something more, that this level of play is not so special, but rather the norm.
That’s a scary message to send to the rest of the league and that was not lost on Monty Williams.
“You’re talking about the best teams in the East,” said Williams after Tuesday’s win in Philadelphia. “[We] played three MVP candidates in [DeMar] DeRozan, Joel [Embiid], and our next game [against Giannis and the Bucks] is well-documented.”
“It’s huge for us. There’s a lot more for us to achieve as a team and this is part of our mission. Our goal is what everyone knows it is, but our mission is to do stuff like we did tonight along the way, you can have these victories like this that are huge for your confidence [and] huge for your program.”
The team as well understood the significance of this moment and the power that comes with sending the right message.
“Man, we’re grinding through,” said Suns’ All-Star guard Devin Booker. “If you had look at the schedule at the beginning of the season, you’d look at this [stretch] right before our All-Star break, you’d be like ‘Yeah, that’s a tough little run there’.”
“[But] like I already said about our team being competitors top to bottom, it’s not just Chris [Paul]. 1-15, our coaching staff is just like that also, so we ready for ‘em.”
Needless to say, a lot has changed in the past 24 hours in regards to Eastern Conference contenders. The 76ers, the Brooklyn Nets, and the Bucks all have made significant trades during yesterday’s trade deadline to bolster their chances to come out of the East.
While the Suns will not have another chance to face the Nets, the Suns will get to see what James Harden looks like with Joel Embiid and the 76ers on March 27 at the Footprint Center.
As for the Bucks, Serge Ibaka could provide some support to the Bucks’ interior defense, which has missed the season-long absence of Brook Lopez dearly against better teams. The Suns will head to Milwaukee to face Bucks on March 6 at the Fiserv Forum.