With the Phoenix Suns missing Kelly Oubre Jr. and Aron Baynes, two pieces that rounded off their depth, it was hard to imagine they’d win a game in Orlando if their best players didn̵
And one could argue that three of their top four weren’t against the Miami Heat on Saturday. Yet they found a way to win 119-112 for the franchise’s first winning streak in five games since December 2014 to keep the league’s only undefeated record in the bubble.
Devin Booker was sensational as always, with 35 points, three rebounds and six assists. He’s only made sales, despite the fact that Miami aggressively double-teamed him when they could.
Booker’s hits throughout the game kept the Suns afloat, while a Heat team without three of the top four goalscorers was still in control of most of it. The biggest discrepancy in a quarter was just seven points, and it wasn’t until eight minutes that Phoenix led by at least five points.
Jevon Carter was massively off the bench, hitting six three-point for 20 points, four rebounds and three assists, which gave the team the much-needed boost to create a breakup in the fourth quarter.
But the story was the bad play of Deandre Ayton, but also of Mikal Bridges and Ricky Rubio for stretches of the game. The Suns were defensive enough as a unit that they didn’t have to watch this game consistently, but they did.
The Heat had a game plan to stop Ayton’s offensive, and it worked.
“I think that slowed our pace in the first half,” said Booker.
It wasn’t the only reason Ayton had one of his worst games of the year because much of it, as always, was down to his low involvement, but it’s fair to say it had an impact.
Miami’s strategy was to have the all-round center Bam Adebayo turn on all the ball screens and then the other defender who introduced Ayton at the post with help always under the basket.
If Ayton got the ball, a high entry pass would have to be out of reach and he would hold the ball high. Adebayo can defend most of the guards decently enough that most of the disagreements there are largely resolved.
Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra was essentially telling Ayton to hit him like that and Ayton couldn’t.
After a stretch of the second quarter during which he failed to get the ball on some properties he was not faced on, Ayton was zoned on either end and responsible for a couple of buckets in a row.
In the meantime, Bridges and Rubio started shooting 0 to 8 together.
Williams took responsibility for his team’s struggles with the concept, noting that he expected the heat to go well into the zone, which Miami often does, but not even on Saturday.
After half time, Williams attempted to tamper with the switches by bringing Miami’s Jae Crowder into the switches on Ayton in an attempt to get a cheaper mismatch. The way they did this was also an improvement on their normal offense which opened the ground up for rides a little more in ways that it didn’t in the first half.
Booker said it was discussed at halftime and he liked the way they adjusted.
It didn’t exactly work to help Ayton right away, but he had an offensive rebound in his lap and Rubio was preparing him for a dunk to get something going for him in the third quarter.
In that sense, one could feel the suns forcing themselves to put Ayton in his place. Bridges threw ridiculous praise when Ayton called for it, and Bridges held his arms in the air for a second when Ayton misadjusted the jump.
The Suns’ crunch-time offensive resulted in Adebayo being constantly switched to the ball handler, which made little sense considering that Ayton never took advantage of the mismatch, even when the fronting strategy faded. But here, too, it opened up the ground more, a profit they were prepared to make at the expense of it.
“We have to find out a few things when the teams change like this [by finding] Ways to punish them, ”said Booker.
In the fourth round, Carter made enough shots while Booker was making “best player in the arena” to let Phoenix get away.
Carter played a more balanced type of basketball in Orlando to avoid excessive dribbling and to be more of a willing passer-by during fast ball rotations.
If he does that while blasting his 38.5% out of three-point range and playing a few key defensive games of the game, that’s the secret sauce for him that stays in the league as a bank piece.
Carter had his season sequence in the middle of the fourth quarter, stealing an Adebayo drive and then taking it the other way to find Ayton, a four-point swing that got the Suns to five.
Carter said the game sums up who he is.
“If you know anything about me or should know about me, I never stop, I never give up,” he said.
“That’s who he is,” Williams said while unsolicited addressing the piece. “He’s a fighter, he’s a fighter.”
Carter hit his fifth three-pointer shortly after to create an eight-point lead at 5:50, and his sixth a minute later gave the Suns a glimpse into the game they missed all night.
“It was big for me,” said Carter. “Any game that I feel due for such a game. I’ve put so much work into it. It may come as a surprise to everyone else, but to me, that was what was supposed to happen. “
Ayton was still getting his 18 points and 12 rebounds, but it was undeniable how his performance nearly cost the Suns the game and their playoff chances.
Rubio worked his butt off during some of the above possessions during the second half to get a look at Ayton’s basket. He evened out on seven points, ten rebounds and eight assists.
Bridges shot 3 of 11 out of the field for 10 points and had enough defensive missteps to get you noticed, a seasonal occurrence for him only once every few times.
Without Jimmy Butler (foot), Goran Dragic (ankle) and Kendrick Nunn (personal reasons), the Heat still scored enough points from rookie Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson (25 points apiece) to stand a chance.
Adebayo was outstanding, proving his all-star status with 18 points, seven rebounds, nine assists, one steal and three blocks.
It’s now five bubble games and victories for the suns, most of which were dirty and hard-fought. These are the situations the Suns wanted to get into, but they certainly want one of them to be a bit easier as their playoff chances bounce back after another win. They have to do at least a little better if they really want to get to the play-in, which will likely require three wins in the last three games.