This was truly a battle of conference leaders. The most well-rounded team of the league vs. a pair of mack trucks.
The Sixers answered with a 10-0 run, pulling back to one point (101-100), before the Suns big guns executed surgically like they’d done all season: Devin Booker created a three-point play, Deandre Ayton made a hook in the paint and then Chris Paul drained a middy to put the Suns back up by eight, 108-100, with just under three minutes to go.
A three by Crowder a few possessions later put the Suns up 114-102 with just 1:35 left and the game was pretty much over. On defense, the Suns ‘turned off the water’ and on offense they executed with precision. The Suns outscored the Sixers 54-40 in the second half, including 23-18 in the fourth.
The Suns are now 61-14 — and become the first team in 50 years to improve by 10+ wins in three straight seasons (19 to 34 to 51 to 61+).
Devin Booker had 35 points, Chris Paul was machine-like 19 points and 14 assists, and Deandre Ayton had another double double with 14 and 12.
For the Sixers, Joel Embiid was excellent with 37 points, 15 rebounds, 3 assists, 3 steals and 2 blocks.
Let’s see how this game goes. Suns have just been an inevitability this year. No matter how the first half goes, the Suns just keep playing their game and eventually “it goes the right way”, as Devin Booker puts it.
Sixers coach Doc Rivers certainly didn’t want to incite the wrath of Book, who’d taken some pregame fodder personally over the last couple of weeks — from opposing players, coaches, game ops, and even TV announcers. Rivers went out of his way to say “He’s the best player in the world” multiple times, and promised to use the right pic in starting lineup intros.
The game started just as you’d expect, with quick scoring opportunities for each team’s best player: Embiid and Booker combined for the game’s first 13 points.
Book was clearly on a heater to start the game, scoring 13 points on 5-6 shooting in the opening minutes while barking at the Sixers bench. Someone didn’t get the memo not to rile up Book.
The Suns problem, down 23-22 late in the first, is already what we worried about: foul trouble. Both Ayton and Jae Crowder picked up their second fouls and had to sit down, replaced by Torrey Craig and Bismack Biyombo. Their problem was getting their first foul on moving screens on offense, reducing their margin for error on defending Embiid and Harden even more.
The basket opened up big for the Sixers for a bit, and their lead got up to 34-27 on 65% shooting (67% on threes).
Yet, like on Wednesday night against the Nuggets, the Suns just kept scoring too, and the Suns were down just 39-37 after one.
Devin Booker was hot, scoring 22 points on just 11 shots (8-11 shooting including 3-3 on threes, 3-4 on free throws). No other Sun had more than 4 points, and no one got to the free throw line.
Joel Embiid was his unstoppable force himself, with 15 points and 4 rebounds in the opening quarter. Philly played very well offensively: shooting 62% from the field, 67% on threes and had 11 free throws.
The Suns are going to have to play better defense or this will be a historic scoring game and not in the right direction.
Unfortunately, the Sixers went on a 15-2 run to start the second quarter to take a 54-39 lead Embiid and Harden both on the bench. This is weird to say, but the game looked fairly normal with both teams playing hard — it’s just all the Sixers shots went in and the Suns open shots did not. Danny Green did make an impact, with a pair of threes in that run.
Both teams starters came back, bit by bit, and the Suns righted the ship. They pulled to within 54-52 on a much more balanced scoring attack than the first half.
But then foul problems struck again. Chris Paul got some rest, the Sixers went back to constant paint attacks, Ayton caught his third foul, and the Suns rhythm took a hit. An 8-0 Sixers run later, Chris Paul returned. Cam Payne was just not having his best game in this one. He left the court missing 5 of 6 shots and the Suns were outscored by 21 points in his 11 minutes of play.
After Jae Crowder made a three with just seconds left in the half, the Suns were down just 64-60 at halftime. Considering the Sixers shot 19 free throws, out-rebounded the Suns 24 to 15, made more than 50% of their shots and got three fouls EACH on Ayton, Crowder and Booker... that’s a relief for the Suns to only be down by 4.
Booker still leads the Suns with 22 points (all in the first quarter). No other Suns player is in double figures (Paul and Bridges both have 9). The Sixers have 3 players in double figures: Embiid with 19, Harden with 12 and Tobias Harris has 15 on 7/9 shooting.
The Suns came out playing more aggressive on defense (though Jae Crowder got his fourth foul early) and would not let the Sixers get the easy shots they were getting in the first half.
The finally took the lead, 71-69, about four minutes into the third quarter on a Jae Crowder three, forcing Doc Rivers to call a timeout. That’s a 32-15 run since the Sixers had that 15-point lead about halfway through the second quarter.
The Suns grabbed a 83-81 lead, but then Deandre Ayton caught his 4th foul with 2:31 left in the quarter on a Tyrese Maxey drive. With JaVale McGee out sick and Bismack Biyombo not a great matchup in this one, the Suns have something to worry about again. Crowder and Ayton both have 4 fouls now.
In come Craig and Bizzy again with the Suns up 83-82. Let’s see how the second unit does this time. First offensive possession: shot clock violation. First defensive possession: letting Embiid get a pair of offensive rebound putbacks on a missed drive.
Bad news! Embiid rolled his ankle on that possession — landed on Booker’s foot on the second putback after missing the first — and limped down the court. The Sixers called timeout as soon as they could and he was replaced by DeAndre Jordan. This was at 1:52 left in the third quarter. He has 29 points, 11 rebounds, 2 assists, a steal and a block in 29 minutes so far.
The Suns closed the quarter well, and lead 91-86 after three.
Bismack Biyombo’s second big stint of the game went much better than in the first, and the Suns built a 98-90 lead, forcing a Doc Rivers timeout with 8:33 left in the game.
Embiid came back for his normal stint at that point — the ankle apparently not (much of) a problem. He got his second block of the game right away, but the Suns were undeterred. They took a 101-90 lead on Shamet’s second straight three pointer.
To harken back to my halftime point, the Suns defense needs to step up. And it did: the Sixers only had 26 second-half points in the first 17+ second-half minutes.
But the Sixers are good and not going away. They put up an 8-0 run, including a pair of threes, to pull back to 101-98 and force a Suns timeout.