The wait is almost over for Phoenix Suns fans. They just have to wait one more game, possibly.
No, we’re not talking about the NBA postseason just yet. We’re talking about the (second) return of superstar forward Kevin Durant, who is nearly three weeks removed from a sprained left ankle suffered in pregame warmups against the Oklahoma City March 8. Once Durant returns, the Suns will be at full strength. It has not happened often this season but will be needed with seven regular season games left after Monday’s game against the Utah Jazz.
But in the interim, the Suns needed to beat the Utah Jazz, a team that is 1 ½ games back of the NBA play-in. Utah returned its star player, forward Lauri Markkanen, and would be a scrappy opponent since it did not have starting guards Collin Sexton or Jordan Clarkson available.
Fresh off a double-digit win over the Philadelphia 76ers Saturday night, the Suns kept pace for a top four seed in the Western Conference with their 117-103 win over the Jazz Monday night at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City, Utah.
The Suns are 1⁄2 of a game ahead of the Los Angeles Clippers for the No. 4 seed with a 40-35 record. The Clippers won Monday against the Chicago Bulls.
Meanwhile, Utah fell to 35-40 and seemingly must win most of its remaining games to qualify for the play-in.
Phoenix returned one key player, starting center Deandre Ayton, Monday night. Ayton missed the last four games with a hip injury and was needed in a matchup against Utah center Walker Kessler, who entered the game ranked No. 4 in shots blocked per game (2.3).
The Suns led by as many as 12 points in the first half and even held a seven-point lead in the third quarter before Utah went on a 10-0 run to take a 73-70 lead with 5:04 left. The teams were tied at 78 before Phoenix scored six of the final nine points in the quarter, with a finger-roll layup from backup guard Cam Payne, a dunk from backup center Bismack Biyombo and a corner jumper from backup forward TJ Warren.
The fourth quarter figured to be back-and-forth since the Suns led by as many as 12 in the first half before Utah took the lead in the same period. But for the second straight game, Phoenix took control with an 11-2 run to start the quarter and did not look back.
Payne was fouled on a 3-point attempt and made each of his free throws, and then backup wing Terrence Ross hit a mid-range shot. Utah starting guard Talen Horton-Tucker hit a floater but the Suns responded with shots at the rim from Biyombo and Payne, which gave them a 95-83 lead.
Phoenix never saw its lead fall below double digits after that. The Suns built their lead to as large as 15 with a 3-pointer from backup forward Ish Wainwright with 1:38 left and closed the game with a 14-point victory.
Suns starting guard Devin Booker led the team with 24 points on 7-of-19 shooting (36.8 percent) with seven rebounds and five assists. In Ayton’s return, he had 14 points with eight rebounds, and Phoenix had all but one if its 12 players who entered the game score.
The Suns shot 43-of-101 (42.6 percent) from the field and 11-of-36 (30.6 percent) from the 3-point line. Phoenix had a noticeable edge in offensive rebounds (18 to 10), assists (31 to 25), steals (seven to two) and the turnover battle (six to Utah’s 13).
The Suns got off to a hot start and led 37-26 in the first quarter. Booker had 18 points and appeared to take advantage of matchups against Horton-Tucker, who is just 22 years old, and Jazz rookie guard Ochai Ogbaji. Six players scored for the Suns in the quarter and by halftime, Phoenix had all of its starters and four bench players on the board.
The second quarter was not as eventful. The Suns were outscored 26 to 20 by the Jazz and shot a poor 6-of-28 in the quarter. It was their second-worst shooting performance in a quarter this season after they shot 12.5 percent in the second quarter of a 111-97 loss to the Houston Rockets Dec. 13.
Kessler made an impact with three blocked shots and Markkanen had 13 points at halftime. Booker did not score at all in the second quarter but multiple players get on the scoreboard.
For those counting at home, the Suns played 12 players. Backup guard Damion Lee played four minutes after he had not played in four of five games and had a key 3-pointer to give the Suns a late second-quarter lead. Payne (21 minutes), Warren (18 minutes) backup forward Ish Wainwright (18 minutes), Biyombo (18 minutes), Ross (15 minutes) and backup guard Landry Shamet (13 minutes) were the key contributors off the bench.
Ross had 13 points to lead the Suns’ second unit, which dominated for the second straight game with 57 points total. Payne (12 points) and Biyombo (11 points) were also in double figures while Wainwright and Warren had nine points each.
Phoenix will have seven games left in the regular season to build chemistry before the playoffs. If Durant returns Wednesday at home against the Minnesota Timberwolves, that would be a huge boost for it.