After a loss to the Phoenix Suns on Christmas brought their poor form of basketball over the past two weeks to a major stage, they responded and put together easily their best game of the month on Wednesday with a 129-113 win over the Houston Rockets.
Much of the talk surrounding the team's poor form didn't necessarily amount to anything complex or unique in terms of observations of what needed to change or what was revealing itself as a fatal flaw. All of these things could not be properly addressed or evaluated until the Suns showed some consistency in effort, energy, focus, speed, athleticism, etc. Nothing beats that.
Phoenix (15-15) didn't do that for an entire quarter, let alone an entire game. So, when the Suns finally found their way through the entire first half on Wednesday, it was no coincidence that they led by 18 points and put up 73 points. This was despite Devin Booker and Kevin Durant each contributing just 10 points in the affair. Simple basketball.
Some shots from Eric Gordon helped. In his first game against the Rockets since spending seven seasons with Houston, he had one of the best comebacks we've seen from the Sun in a while. He scored 21 of his 27 points in the first half, and by the end of it, he was in that hot zone where he comes in from nowhere.
Phoenix was 16 of 21 (76.2%) in the first two quarters. Keeping up with all the little things getting done is a gentle reminder of how often they coincide, not that the sun should need to in the first place.
The intent in the offensive operation, which was truly lacking in flow and organization, was the best it had shown in several weeks. Starting Grayson Allen and Gordon alongside the star duo and Jusuf Nurkic brings some 1-on-1 defensive issues but has really gotten the offense going, a side of the ball that was actually worse for Phoenix in December. Once Bradley Beal returns for the next two games, Allen will almost certainly continue as a starter. He was Phoenix's third-best player, and what he does for offensive rhythm (along with his efforts elsewhere) is more important right now than who defends the best ball handlers in the postseason.
Houston got a big night from Jalen Green (23 points) but wasn't able to generate a lot of good looks and knock down enough shots to hang around in the shootout.
The Rockets were down 20 points heading into the fourth quarter, and Phoenix entered a 12-minute stretch last night in net rating, being outscored by -14.9 points per 100 possessions. Per NBA stats. The previous night Houston hosted a fast-paced Indiana Pacers team with a narrow loss, so it didn't have a lot of energy for this big comeback. The team opted to play a supporting cast for most of the fourth quarter, a group that cut the lead to 13 with just over five minutes to go before Durant took over to make sure there wasn't any drama.
How does this relate to the low expectations we're currently seeing for this team? Don't get me wrong, it's a fair part of it!
But seeing the bench really come into this game, and how some of that energy came through a couple of duo signings and whatnot, created the Suns' first real building block in getting back on track.
Durant was there alongside everyone else in staying connected and engaged on every possession on both ends of the court, setting the tone early. After his turnover rate spiked in the last three games, he responded with just three to go with a career-high 16 assists. Ten of those came in the first half, the most for him in either half of his career, according to Stathead. He added 27 points, 10 rebounds, two steals and a block to give him his 18th career triple-double.
Booker's immediate focus was also evident. He's still struggling with what's going on with the team when it comes to finding high-level targets inside, and he even turned down some good looks on Wednesday by having the ball turned to him. It was the sixth straight game in which he scored fewer than 30 points, which is rare. While that's going on, he still played well overall, producing 20 points, seven assists and four turnovers on Wednesday.
Allen contributed 16 points, continuing his impressive recent form.
Center duo Udoka Azubuike was signed on first to support Nurkic, a move away from Drew Eubanks who was nominated this month. Despite the obvious positives Eubanks showed in Portland and at the beginning of the year as a big reserve player, he had some serious struggles through the Phoenix Panic and was nothing like that player. Azubuike took advantage of his chance in the 22nd minute, two matches ago. Like Chimezie Metu, Azubuike will make some mistakes but what he brings to the table with his skill set will help the Suns even more right now.
Metu later in the first quarter took Azubuike's place. He believes he has a fairly strong handle on the rotation spot, with him at No. 4 depending on the matchup while he could shift to No. 5 when a team like Houston gets young. This will be a luxury for the rest of the season if he continues to play well.
The bottom line with the center spot is that it will always be an uphill climb for the Suns as their group grades compare to the rest of the league. And that was before these recent developments, so thanks go out to the Phoenix coaching staff for stepping up and even going to the end of the bench to help with this process.
The little juggling games continue. Two-way guard Sabin Lee took another look at Jordan Goodwin, who has been good for the team overall but is shooting 32% from the field and 17% from 3-point range in December. Josh Okogie's return from injury took some playing time there as well.
Lee scored nine points while Azubuike finished with 11 points, five rebounds and a pair of blocks in 19 minutes.
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