After losing two straight and then losing their All-Star Devin Booker (COVID), the Phoenix Suns really wanted a win.
In came the youth moving, injury-deep Portland Trailblazers. The Blazers started the year with high hopes, but Damian Lillard got hurt, the team struggled to win games, and by the trade deadline the tank was on. Somehow the tanky Blazers had amassed four straight wins, including wins over the streaking Grizzlies and Bucks but recently have hit a skid.
The Book-less, Paul-less Suns say thank you.
Cameron Payne returned to the Suns lineup with his usual high-energy game, and distributed the ball very well as the new starting point guard (8 assists to 2 turnovers), but still needs to find his shot.
The Suns were buoyed by young core pieces Deandre Ayton (18 points), Mikal Bridges (15) and Cameron Johnson (20) among five Suns in double figures by the end of the third quarter with a lead that approached 30.
Bismack Biyombo got a loud cheer from the crowd when he got some fourth quarter run as the lead went well over 30, and the final eight minutes featured Elfrid Payton, Holiday, Shamet, Wainright, Craig and Biyombo.
Suns win in a blowout, 120-90.
Cameron Payne led the team with 8 assists, Aaron Holiday notched 9, and the Suns had another 32-assist game that’s becoming more the norm than not. Six Suns players had 10+ points, and all 12 players who touched the court scored.
The Suns now have 50 wins on the season (50-12), and a 7-game lead on the next closest team in the Association (Warriors, 43-19) with 20 games left before the playoffs in a race for the top seed.
With Book and CP both out, Monty Williams went back to his intuition anyway and moved Cameron Johnson back to a bench role to balance out the scoring between the first and second units.
Off the bench with CamJo will be JaVale McGee, Aaron Holiday, Elfrid Payton and Torrey Craig.
The Suns took an early 6-0 lead as the Rockets started the game either missing everything or turning it over, but the lead wasn’t bigger because the Suns were taking shots out of their comfort zone (Payne and Mikal both taking threes from the top of the arc, somewhere they never shoot from in games).
Eventually, they got into a rhythm and took a 17-10 lead over a really struggling Blazers team without almost all of their best players.
The Blazers stayed close in the game by making some threes, including a 3-3 start by Anfernee Simons for 11 points.
Eventually, Monty Williams decided to give Simons the Book treatment of blitzing him whenever he got the ball, forcing it out of Simons’ hands. Sure, Simons will get his points (like Book always did) but the rest of that team just can’t hold up the whole game. I’m sure Monty doesn’t like doing gimmick defenses like that, but he values winning over all so here we are.
Meanwhile, the Suns are really sharing the ball — seven different players scored in their first 26 points, no one more than Cam Johnson’s six.
Play got muddy when the full second unit got together. The group of Aaron Holiday, Torrey Craig, Cameron Johnson, Ish Wainright and JaVale McGee had never taken the floor together and it showed, allowing Portland to close the quarter on a 12-3 run.
Suns led only 29-28 after one quarter.
Monty started the second quarter with that we can assume is the preferred bench unit when everyone’s healthy, though this is the first time that group has ever taken the court as a unit: Cameron Payne, Landry Shamet, Cameron Johnson, Torrey Craig and JaVale McGee.
Just need to get them some run from here on out, and they will start to gel. Theoretically that’s a good shooting unit, but Payne and Shamet aren’t making enough shots yet.
We have yet to see Elfrid Payton (surprise, I guess) and Bismack Biyombo (no surprise, with Ayton and McGee both healthy).
Halfway through the second quarter, the Suns were making only 31% of their threes and 41% overall, and the Suns held only a tenuous 41-36 lead. Payne and Shamet were 4-for-13 between them.
The cover came off the rim for Jae Crowder, who drained a pair of threes to help the Suns go up 49-40 with 3:45 left in the half. Then Mikal Bridges and Cameron Johnson drained a pair of their own, and the Suns lead was 55-42 with just under three minutes left.
The Suns lead got up to 15 at halftime, 63-48. Mikal Bridges and Jae Crowder both had 13 points, while Cameron Johnson had 11 off the bench. Eight different Suns players have scored so far. Simons did not score again after the Suns shifted their defense to take the ball out of his hands.
The Suns had a slow start coming out of halftime, giving up a three to Josh Hart and then turning it over on their end.
Still, they kept the lead because Portland simply wasn’t very good. They were active, for sure. Tried super hard. Just not very good.
Suns led 75-58 halfway through the third quarter. Cam Payne couldn’t shoot straight (2 for 8), but has 8 assists to only 2 turnovers so far. Ayton is up to 16 points now, with 8 rebounds.
The lead ballooned to 20+ by late third quarter and the Blazers spirit was broken.
Big props to fans who packed the arena on a Wednesday night, late start, to watch a game that’s otherwise available on streaming (ESPN) for those without cable. They had a great time, cheering every Suns score all the way to end.