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Stephen’s Study: How Johnson sparked the Suns back into the win column

The Suns kick-off a five-game homestand with a much-needed win against the Brooklyn Nets.

NBA: Brooklyn Nets at Phoenix Suns Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

A hot start, behind appropriate process in operation offensively, saw the Phoenix Suns get off to a hot start. That, in turn, enabled them just enough room for error to navigate the riggors of closing without their two-headed closing attack. The Suns would barely endure the puzzle that was the 3-2 and 2-3 zone of the Brooklyn Nets, which stole all momentum and flow, and finish this one on top, 117-112.

Let’s break it down:

1.) The Return of Cam Johnson

I mentioned recently the many dynamics in play with a looming return of Cam Johnson.

His invaluable spacing, the quick trigger threat off the catch really help to take the top off a defense that certainly wants to pack the paint, playing heavy on the blocks and elbows, against a Suns team without Devin Booker and Chris Paul.

His immediate shooting and aggression in his first shift spoke to confidence, and the off the dribble juice and aggressiveness were as refreshing as his spacing was.

He’d take a career-high nine trips to the freethrow line behind unabashed aggression off the dribble as well as fighting for position on the glass.

His general presence, alone, shifted the philosophy of the defense, as it not only allowed for him to serve as an ever-present pressure point, but it also opened up plenty of space underneath for Ayton and Bridges to operate in a manner that is closer to what they are accustomed to.

It also engaged the crowd and gave the entire team a breath of fresh air, which snowballed into instant production, as he finished with 19 points, six rebounds, two blocks, two assists, and a steal.

The underrated part of his performance will be the defensive efforts put forth. He was on time with plenty of his rotations in help, with activity, solid containing the ball, and played in multiple efforts.

Postgame, he’d reiterate that he “felt better than ever before,” which was all the more reassuring.

2.) Ayton vs switching defenses

Deandre Ayton had an all-impressive performance in this one, operating just as you’d like for him to against any switching scheme.

This was a big step in growth for him, as he struggled against the switching scheme of the Mavericks last playoffs. He had successes earlier this season against a few different iterations of it, but yesterday saw a very steady and consistent process and method of attacking the Nets.

He’d start the game leading the Suns in points (10), rebounds (7), and assists (3) in his first shift through the first quarter. His early operation really helped to stamp a tone on this one.

Diving instantly to his proverbial office, just below the freethrow line, or directly at the front of the basket, and making quick decisions before hand help or doubles could surface, was on repeat for Ayton.

There was a steady diet and volume of the Suns three-player actions (Chicago and Miami) that helped to manipulate advantageous switches time and time again, and they’d alter angles and locations on the floor of said actions to keep the advantage-inducing method at the base of their offensive process early.

“Decisive Deandre” was abundant, and really helped to calm the Suns while also inverting their offense via constant paint touches and points in the paint (18).

He was also dominant on the glass (14), playing hugely to the Suns +15 mark on the glass.

3.) Saben’s Ingratiation

Saben Lee, amidst a 10-day contract, has provided ample deposits of juice and activity to a Suns guard room and team that’s been in deep desire of just that from the point of initiation.

He had 15 points off the bench last night, with six assists, and helped to close the game, but it was his constant paint and rim pressure blend that kept the Nets defense on edge in help and at the point of attack, as well as continuously generating advantages, in flow, for the Suns to play off of.

You can tell from the general reaction of Suns players, in celebration of his successes, how accepted he is.

He'd also tally a team-best four deflections, speaking to his defensive activity levels as well, making for a solid general impact on the game as he (re)finds his way on this stage.

His dynamics, rooted in a lightning-quick first step aided by a shifty handle and unpredictability of moves, are an entity of offense this team just truly hasn’t had, and enabled them a sustained method of operation that they’ve sorely desired past just pick-and-roll or reliance on three’s.

Tip of the cap: Mikal Bridges (20.2 PPG/5.7 APG/4.3 RPG/1.3 SPG his last six games) had himself another impressive showing, operating as a primary option both as a scorer and playmaker, finishing with 28 points and 9 assists.

His operating down the stretch, as things grew uneasy, however, was the stamp in his growth in confidence, as he’d applied himself in a manner we haven’t seen quite often enough in opportunities prior.

Up Next: The Suns host the front end of a home back-to-back, as the Indiana Pacers come through the Footprint Center.

Over the last two weeks, mostly sans Tyrese Haliburton, they’ve had a league-worst offense (105.1) that’s been aided by a middle-of-the-pack defense (116.3), with a record of 2-5 to show.

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