The impressive level of competitive fire shown from the Phoenix Suns was on display, yet again, while undermanned. A solid game plan was executed, and they were able to dig in, especially in the middle quarters. They’d come within one point closing the third, then fatigue and attrition would settle in, as expected from a rendition lacking offense that’s been relied upon for a sustained period of time, as they’d fall 98-112 to the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Let’s dig in.
1.) Lack of Fourth Quarter Horses
Through the first three-quarters of play, these were some of the Suns marks in the game:
· Down just 79-80
· Defensive Rating of 108.1
· Net rating of +1.6
· Rebounding percentage of 50.7 (were up 31-28)
They won the second quarter 28-22 and had a defensive efficiency of 88.0 (net of +28.7). Then, they won the third 25-23, with a defensive rating of 95.8 (net of +12.9).
They were outplaying the fully healthy Cavaliers in the middle quarters, via stout and attentive defensive efforts, but were just in need of just one push in the fourth quarter - one they simply did not have - in the current construct (sans Booker, Paul, Johnson, Payne, and Crowder replacements).
In the first half of the fourth, as their only healthy top-7 players (Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges) tried to catch their breath on the sideline before closing time, Cleveland would shut the door via a 17-4 run that was exemplary of my latter statement in the previous stanza, simply coming down to the Suns not having any of their fourth-quarter horses to provide a scoring punch.
Washington Jr. (22 points on 57.4/80.0 shooting in 16:49 of play) and Bridges (15 points on 66.7% from two) entered the fourth with these numbers, shouldering the offensive load with efficiency. Then, the Cavs made adjustments in ball pressure and pulled the curtain over this one.
Credit to the Eastern Conference elite team that the Cavs have amassed, but the Suns were certainly in this one, even while, again, severely undermanned.
The standard in controlling what they can control and competing, which Monty Williams and Jamee Jones have worked to establish as this team’s identity, was upheld in an impressive fashion given the context of what pieces they had to go to war with in this one.
Simply just was not enough, especially against a fully healthy Cavaliers squad.
2.) Diamond in the Rough
Against ice coverage, finishing through contact at the cup and challenging Jarret Allen unabashedly, via off-ball movement as a moving target of sorts, in isolation, in the secondary break, manipulating late-switches, Washington Jr. was (again) activated.
25 points in 25 minutes, off the bench on a true shooting percentage of 65.8 is unbelievable and downright impressive.
He registered 11 much-needed buckets while infusing the game with some frenetic juice offensively in the second quarter, then followed that with eight quick-hitting points in the third.
Talk about time on task, he understands just what he’s good at and wastes zero time operating where his strengths reside. This is via scoring in a multitude of ways operating as a pressure point for defenses to account for, and getting himself into scoring positions, consistently.
Having safe players is good, but especially off the bench, you need a hot rod or two that will “gun it” and has no hesitancy venturing off-script to explore in a positive unpredictable manner.
Washington Jr. has proven to be just that, truly a diamond in the rough with his multiple emergences, as he has oftentimes caught opposing coaching staffs and second units off guard with just how quick-hitting and instant his offense can be off the bench, to which Miami (21 points on the road), Memphis (26 points on the road), and now also Cleveland, can thoroughly attest to.
Also, in each of the aforementioned three games above, he’s knocked down five threes on efficiencies north of 55% from range.
3.) Mikal's Offensive Efficiency Resurfaces
Bridges saw his offensive efficiency return last night, via six-for-nine from two, with a true shooting percentage of 75.0.
He was able to get out on the break via a pick-six early, and, oftentimes, a transition bucket gets his offensive flow rolling.
Mikal typically has drop coverage applied to him when initiating pick-and-roll. He’s developed a good feel and knack for dragging the trailing defender, while also holding the attention of the big man who’s warding off the paint, as he maneuvers the mid-range to the elbows for the shot that’s stamped him as a member of the “Middy Committee.”
His progression from scoring in an opportunistic manner, to dictating with his offense, and specifically his scoring or the threat of it, has been gradual, and sometimes turbulent.
However, it’s important to remember that this, the ups as well as the downs, are all a part of the process for him. You want for him to have compiled more than enough reps operating in a manner that was once uncomfortable so that when the meaningful moments come when the lights shine brighter, it’s unquestionable as to what he’s capable of and what he may lack.
After a stretch where he severely struggled with an efficiency that's customarily associated with how he operates on the offensive end, it was great to see it resurface for him, and heavily in his favor.
An opportunity arises via injury, and the litany of injuries the Suns have seen has enabled the great opportunity for Bridges to hone in on his skills, expediting his growth via in-game reps.
Up Next: Phoenix heads back on the road for a four-game swing on the west coast. The first of which coming against the Golden State Warriors Tuesday night.
The Warriors are 4-2 over the last two weeks, with the 25th-ranked offense and the seventh-ranked defense in this window.
They’ve slowly begun to see some of their key cogs return to the lineup, via Wiggins and Iguodala returning recently. Stephen Curry (shoulder) remains out.