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Three big packs from Suns-Mavs Game 8

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In many ways, Opening Night for the Phoenix Suns against the Dallas Mavericks was a microcosm of the entire May playoff series.

This series of seven games was close, but not that close. Sure, it took seven games but each match felt like a blast for one team or the other, as Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed (or maybe Ivan Drago vs. Apollo?) who took turns doing hay.

The teams faced each other again on Opening Night of the 2022-23 season and guess what – this time, as it was a one-game only series, they decided to cut the straw makers in half. The Mavericks won the first half by 17 points, while the Suns won the second half by 19 points (there’s a better Rocky/Apollo composition!).

On the surface, the Suns looked STILL stunned and dizzy from May’s haymaker in the hands of the Mavs throughout the first half. Experts around the world filled social media timelines where the Suns died as they are now being built. Buried. Completed. At best, you’re lucky to find a play-in place. That Luke broke them. Ayton didn’t even care.

But then, probably after all these commoners turned off their televisions, the Suns spirit came back to life.

Early in the third quarter, it was enough. After falling into this Mavs to 27 on May 13, then 33 on May 15 and now the next game, after five months of working on it 22 more points one minute into the third quarter… in the second half they finally shook off the cobwebs and said ‘oh hey, we remember playing basketball!’

On the surface, the Suns looked like they were on the brink of death, but then they magically found their mojo again. Plump.

But it is not that simple. Here are my takeaways from the game.

Switched to Manto Book

Chris Paul’s team for nearly two years and having both All-Star and All-NBA appearances in both seasons is now Devin Booker’s team for good reason.

Once again, Paul was swallowed by the Mavericks defense. They put tall defenders on it, stayed ahead the entire time, never let a heavyweight tall man attack it, never let it reach their spot… and once again, it was out of a show. Paul’s only goal of the game came late in the second quarter after the Suns trailed 20 points. Sound familiar?

Last time, head coach Monty Williams still stubbornly stayed with Paul. This time around, Williams made the biggest decision, if not his entire coaching career, at least during the Suns tenure, even as the Suns battled for a close match in the late fourth quarter. In the fourth round, he refused to bring Paul back for his usual last three minutes, instead driving the Point Book to the end.

You see, the Suns mantle changed last night.

Now, in a life-or-death moment (believe me, if the Suns lost that game, their future was dead), Monty Williams rightly saw the light: put the ball straight into the All-Star, All-NBA, MVP nominee Devin Booker’s hands and lead the show in the clutch. allowed.

Booker’s fourth 8-minute period: 7 points, 6 assists, 0 turnovers, +17. He had a 17-point comeback in the last eight minutes, with most leading guards preparing the offense, smashing the paint and finding the right man. When the Mavericks trapped him in midfield, he quickly and decisively knocked out Ayton or another midfielder, who made the game to score.

This was Booker’s game that needed to be closed.

“The book was really good at gatherings, even when we were 15 behind,” Monty Williams said of the final eight-minute flashback.

The closing cast of the book: himself, Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges, Cameron Payne and Damion Lee. (Cam Johnson had a cramp that gave Lee a chance to shut up)

Williams said he knocked Paul out at 6:41 in his designated rotation, hoping to get Paul back in the game as usual with the three-minute mark. But the Booker-led group was rolling, so Monty let them stick with it.

“I just felt that staying with Cam was a move,” Williams said casually. “Chris was engaged and telling guys, it’s almost like he’s really there… Cam did a great job with this group, this group as a whole is pretty good on both sides, and I made fun of him.”

Cam Payne was somehow +15 in just 19 minutes of play, but that was really -2 for the first three quarters and +17 with Book in the first six minutes of 6:41. Payne didn’t do much in the process (5 points, 1 assist) but his mix with Booker paid off.

Did it feel weird that Paul wasn’t on the court at the last minute? Not at all, said Book. They were rolling and he trusted the men around him.

Lee was a value signature

If nothing else this year, signing Damion Lee to a senior minimum contract in the off-season was already an excellent move. The Suns’ 11 fourth-quarter points in this epic comeback were incredibly timely, and their terrific play at both ends of the court really helped the Suns overcome the loss (cramps) from Cameron Johnson.

Coming into fourth place, Cam Johnson was basically the only Phoenix Sun to shoot a three-pointer. He was deeply 3 to 6 and had a total of 13 points. But then he got cramped and left the game at 9:35 in the fourth quarter.

Instead, Damion Lee simply made his own three-pointer and then smashed the winner.

“Coach told me to be aggressive and do what I did,” Lee later said. “I went a few shots early but it started to progress towards the end.”

Lee took the final hit, as Booker was once again double-teamed, and Booker once again quickly knocked out the next open man. Book had the right moves all night, and in the fourth quarter it was all about passing rather than scoring (7 points, 6 assists in the last eight minutes).

“I knew he was coming,” Booker said of Lee’s influence on a game. Lee is a four-year NBA veteran who played with the Warriors before coming to Phoenix and averaged 7 points per game at Golden State. But he knows good basketball and how to play his part around big balls.

Lee was unassuming about the game, even noting how just before that he allowed the Mavericks to foul Luka on a drive, bringing the score 105-105. When they got together during the next break, he said Williams was looking at him and said, “Now go play a game.”

“This is huge,” Lee said of the experience. “It really shows the confidence that Coach Monty, the front office, and the other coaching team have placed in me.”

Ayton may be better than ever

You know Deandre Ayton is not a man with foul problems. One of his best features is his ability to race shots without fouling. Here, however, he took three fouls in the first seven minutes of the first half.

He took just seven halftime minutes, which meant disaster for the rest of the team. Luka Doncic simply drew screen-on-screen to achieve the isolations and made the Jock Landale and Bismack Biombo backups look bad. And that messed up the entire Suns system, foul after foul, allowing the Mavs to stay on the line and once again dropped 20+ in the second quarter.

Ayton showed in the second half that he could be better than ever.

Ayton, who played with only 4 points and 2 rebounds in the first half, played in 23 of the 24 minutes of the second half, and scored 14 points and 8 rebounds in the second half. During this decisive 17-point comeback, Book/Ayton took over the pick and roll game. Ayton scored three times from Book passes and had a pair of critical defensive rebounds.

“DA was great in the second half,” Williams said.

Throughout the second half, Ayton was really good at getting into the short-range (the three-point line and in the middle of the basket) and being consistent about it—either smashing the paint for a shot or attacking-kicking a cutter. This is a new Ayton wrinkle for the Suns that could unlock a lot of good stuff.

“Just to be in that short pocket and for him to be a dominant mid-range big, I think the next step he can take to his game is playmaking,” Booker said. Said. “Especially when most of the attention is on me and Chris (Paul), it’s usually around that free-throw line and he’s the first to shoot from the duo. It’s usually two-three or three-on-four in the back.”

Even though it’s just a game, these are my conclusions. And I feel like they will continue to show themselves for the rest of the year.

Next up: Friday in Portland, facing Dame and the Blazers.