The Phoenix Suns’ 115-111 win over the San Antonio Spurs on Monday made a solid case for why the team’s now 13-game winning streak is so impressive.
Through mostly continuity and a defense fully hitting its stride, the Suns have been cranking out victory after victory, despite a handful of the team’s elements not being fully realized yet that made them so special last year.
One of them was that “Dominayton” gear fourth-year center Deandre Ayton can reach, and another is a good bench that was struggling 15 games in.
Those were the two main factors in Monday’s win.
The Suns looked the part of a team that flew in from Phoenix the night prior after a win, as it was a groggy opening shift from the Suns without much dribble penetration, which didn’t help make shots fall any easier.
With Phoenix down five, reserve Cam Payne changed the game by playing downhill basketball all night long.
Payne was one of the best backup point guards in basketball last year, but entering Monday, he was shooting only 37.9% and averaging just 2.6 assists per game. He missed five games due to a hamstring strain, and against San Antonio, he looked like a guy who had his burst back.
Head coach Monty Williams shouted out Payne’s defensive effort as of late, plus his offense.
“He’s finding the balance of attacking and finding (teammates),” Williams said. “He’s got wiggle in his game. I think he’s in much better condition to play the way that he played last year in the playoffs and we just hope it continues.”
The charge Payne led with the second unit in the first quarter had the Suns (14-3) up four over the Spurs (4-12) through a pretty blah 12 minutes all things considered.
Once the starters came back in, that’s when the second quarter was all Ayton.
It was one of those games where Ayton was fully plugged in to the flow of the game and understood how to maximize his imprint on it.
Hard screens, rim runs, seals, engaged dives, tip-ins, defensive positioning and so on are the ways in which Ayton can fully impact the game just based on his energy and floor sense alone.
That included a take to the basket on a dribble handoff that Ayton has done sparingly throughout his time with the Suns, and Ayton said Booker told him he’s been waiting three years for him to fake the DHO and go with it.
Like Devin Booker, we all wholeheartedly approve of Assertive Ayton pic.twitter.com/aQqrb5wp9k
— Matt Petersen (@TheMattPetersen) November 23, 2021
“To have that element of faking that DHO, and not just going to the basket but going under control is a weapon for us,” Williams said.
This was the Ayton we saw for the majority of the Suns’ playoff run, the one a fair bit of the fanbase feels did enough to earn a five-year max contract extension that he ultimately did not get at the start of the season.
Just watch Ayton only.
The recent big numbers are nothing to do with a change in scheme or increased touches. It is understanding & effort.
Dive hard, recognise mismatch, duck & seal, hold ground, tip in. pic.twitter.com/LOV1oQXJAy
— David Kevin (@theIVpointplay) November 23, 2021
To that same point, though, this was our first full glimpse of that Ayton this year. He was mostly fine before missing six games due to a right leg contusion but has been better since returning, and Monday is what the Suns will hope is the springboard to him being this guy more consistently in the regular season.
Ayton had 14 of his 21 points and nine of his 14 rebounds in the first half, a flurry that helped Phoenix lead by 13 at halftime even with Chris Paul and Devin Booker not playing up to their usual standards.
“I’m trying to be more of a threat,” Ayton said. “I’ve seen the flaws and the mistakes and stuff that I should have done in the playoffs and the Finals, especially the Finals. I didn’t like the way I performed in the Finals and I’m trying to make a mark.”
San Antonio, who played with great energy all night, kept clawing back but a 14-5 run to close the third quarter that had 12 of the 14 points scored or assisted by Payne allowed the Suns to be back in control with a 15-point edge.
To go back to the defense that has the Suns in a position to win almost any game right now, some letup through certain patches of the second half was an opportunity the Spurs kept seizing to at least keep the game alive. The Spurs put together 67 points in the second half, and that’s not surprising given the aforementioned traveling on a back-to-back.
The Suns’ lead was down to five with 6:08 left before that fourth quarter switch we’ve seen the last few weeks hit and Phoenix went berserk, going on a 10-0 run in 108 seconds that made it feel like there were three of Mikal Bridges on the floor at the same time.
Even after that, the Spurs still had enough time to make things interesting and did once a Paul turnover put them within three at 15 seconds remaining but Booker made one of his two free throws and that was enough.
“Just proud of the way our guys responded,” Williams said. “Last night traveling here, playing a team that’s sitting there waiting on ya, that’s not an easy task. We don’t have to necessarily explain how we win, we just want to keep winning. But we also want to learn as we go.”
All four of Phoenix’s reserves had a +/- of at least +10 and Payne finished with 20 points. JaVale McGee added 14 points and eight rebounds while Landry Shamet produced 11 points and five assists. Tack on Cam Johnson’s three points and that’s 48 points for those four, the same total they reached in Sunday’s victory against the Denver Nuggets.
Booker racked up 16 of his 23 points in the second half, playing with that professional bucket-getter acumen of getting buckets in certain spots of the game even though he wasn’t playing all that well.