PHOENIX — The Phoenix Suns have skidded of late, but Saturday was an opportunity to get back on track.
The Suns had lost three straight games and six of their last seven contests entering a home game Saturday against the Philadelphia 76ers, who are a very challenging opponent. It did not play All-Star guard James Harden due to an Achilles injury but still had MVP front-runner Joel Embiid, who posed a headache of a challenge since he averaged the second-most free-throw attempts in the NBA entering Saturday’s game.
Phoenix may soon find a positive trajectory when it returns starting center Deandre Ayton, who is currently sidelined with a hip injury, and starting forward Kevin Durant, who may return Wednesday against the Minnesota Timberwolves from a sprained left ankle. It started back on the right track Saturday.
Fueled by an 11-2 run to start the fourth quarter, the Suns finished a game they led for most of the second half at Footprint Center Saturday night.
The Suns improved to 39-35 and are back to fourth in the Western Conference after the Los Angeles Clippers were defeated by the New Orleans Pelicans. Philadelphia, the No. 3 seed in the East, fell to 49-24.
The Suns are on course for better days, but Saturday was a positive sign. Phoenix led for most of the game against the 76ers, who are statistically a top-10 team in multiple major offensive categories — including No. 2 in the NBA in 3-point percentage — and No. 3 in opponent points per game.
Phoenix struggled early as it had just eight points with fewer than seven minutes remaining in the first quarter, but per the norm, starting shooting guard Devin Booker carried it. He played the entire first period and had 13 points, which helped the Suns overcome a 9-of-24 shooting period.
Booker had 18 points at halftime and finished with 29 points on 9-of-18 shooting with eight assists and five rebounds.
Phoenix faced a literal tall task against Embiid, who figured to be a difficult guard considering the Suns did not have Durant or Ayton available. Suns center Bismack Biyombo started for the fourth straight game and had a terrific impact with a double-double at 17 points and 13 rebounds with five blocks.
Collectively, Biyombo and the Suns held Embiid to 28 points — five below his season average — on 8-of-19 shooting. Perhaps the play of the game was when he blocked Embiid on an isolation play above the free-throw line, when Embiid went behind his back and tried to use his nimbleness to create space. Biyombo did not have any of it.
Philadelphia stayed in the game in large part due to the effort of point guard Tyrese Maxey, who started in place of Harden. He had 21 points at halftime and finished with 37 points on 14-of-19 from the field (7-of-11 from 3-point range) with seven rebounds and three assists.
Maxey was able to generate open looks, but the Suns were able to stop Philadelphia when they employed a 2-3 zone for a greater part of the game. The 76ers shot 13-of-31 from 3-point range and 34-of-78 (43.6 percent) from the field.
Phoenix ran away with the game quickly in the fourth quarter. It went on an 11-2 run that included five points from backup wing Ross, a baseline shot and then a 3-pointer. Backup forward TJ Warren also had a 3-pointer in that stretch.
The Suns’ fourth quarter was their best overall, as they outscored the 76ers 36-22.
Booker and Biyombo may have kicked the starters in the gear, but the Suns’ bench won them the game. They had 50 points — led by 16 from Warren, 15 from Ross and 11 from backup guard Cam Payne — in comparison to Philadelphia’s 14.
Saturday’s victory was a positive one for the Suns. They beat a top team in the NBA on the second night of a back-to-back and will likely have their two tallest players back in the next week.
Phoenix will have to continue to build toward playoff time from that point.
The Suns will next play Monday night on the road against the Utah Jazz. The game will tip off at 6 p.m. MT and be televised by Bally Sports Arizona.