NBA

The Phoenix Suns’ unheralded reserves are up big in the win over the Pacers

The Phoenix Suns’ unheralded reserves are up big in the win over the Pacers

PHOENIX – The Phoenix Suns have been criticized time and time again for their lack of roster moves the past two years and I’ve been on board with the explanation.

It’s affecting the team especially this season, but that said, the Suns still deserve credit for nailing some fringe additions back to the back of the bench.

President of basketball operations James Jones has not only been able to consistently find his type of players, he’s gotten guys that help the Suns win basketball games. Sure, they won’t be true difference-makers in the postseason, but can they potentially change a playoff game? Absolutely.

Some of them were big contributors in Saturday’s 112-107 win over the Indiana Pacers, making it two straight and Phoenix’s first hitting streak in more than a month.

This was a fun and tight game, a Phoenix unable to create much separation with perhaps their shortest roster to date.

Deandre Ayton (non-COVID illness), Devin Booker (left groin strain), Jae Crowder (not with team), Cam Johnson (right knee injury management), Chris Paul (right hip soreness), Cam Payne (sprained right foot) and Landry Shamet (sore right foot) were both out.

The Pacers, now losers of seven straight, were always going to be in their own challenging position without Tyrese Haliburton (sprained left knee and elbow).

Statistically, this game didn’t offer many takeaways in numerous categories. The Suns led almost all of it, but the point differentials per quarter were two, zero, two and one.

Phoenix went up eight with less than three minutes to go and that was it not more enough of a cushion against an Indiana team in the second game of the back.

And if one of the following performances we’re about to make wasn’t there, the Suns would have lost.

“We’ve been talking about that margin for error when you don’t have a full complement of players,” head coach Monty Williams said. “Everybody has to be able to step up and when you’re on the floor you have to be productive.”

At the start of the Suns’ extended skid, fifth-year wing Josh Okogie had 28 points in a blowout loss against the Boston Celtics. Up until this point, his role had been inconsistent, but the energy he brought in that game was clearly something the Suns needed on the floor to bring some juice.

Since then, he’s played like a true rotation-caliber guy on a playoff team, though his 3-point shooting remains a non-factor.

As we covered heading into the year, Okogie is simply an elite defender. What I at least didn’t know game-by-game was how much his motor can do in other areas of the floor. Whether it’s an offensive rebound, a loose ball, a transition grab or what have you, he really fills it up.

Williams was asked about the 50/50 balls the Suns came up with and started his answer with “Josh Okogie.”

Saturday was one of those games where Okogie seemed to be everywhere, playing his first game in a mask due to a broken nose.

“He just does it all on both ends of the floor,” Bridges said of Okogie. “We always know what he does defensively, but how he’s grown in confidence offensively, it helps us a lot.”

Okogie finished with a game-high 24 points off the bench, plus 10 rebounds, four assists, one steal and four blocks.

Okogie came across as someone who isn’t afraid of contact that will draw fouls, and that skill has come into play at a difficult time for Phoenix when it comes to generating rim pressure and free throws. He was 11-for-15 from the line, with all 15 attempts tied for a Sun this year (Booker did it twice).

Fittingly, that eight-point lead was the byproduct of an Okogie 3 with the Suns up by five.

Damion Lee was the only one of that group who had the best chance to crack the playoff rotation and that’s because he’s solid across the board. The unanticipated variable this season has been his shooting, where a good 36.6% shooter from deep for Golden State has turned into a leading 48.9% shooter for the Suns.

But other than that, again, it’s solid. In this current situation where the Suns don’t have a primary point guard or ball handler, he can be the guy to make sure Mikal Bridges doesn’t have to do everything. Lee is moving the ball up a bit and getting the offense going, a skill that’s more difficult than you’d think given the high basketball IQ it requires. (There’s a reason Crowder was the wing to do that last postseason.)

In another box checked of doing what the team needs, Lee understands how a little more scoring aggression will help him. He answered the call. Saturday was his 15th game with at least a dozen points, surpassing the Warriors’ 13 last year. He scored 16 points.

Without Ayton, Bismack Biyombo continued to prove his true vet card by being ready to step up to his starting role. Biyombo, a midseason signing of Jones last year, is one of the best shot-blockers to ever wear a Suns jersey. His three against the Pacers saw him eclipse the 1,000 career block mark, making him just the 103rd player in league history to reach that total. by Stathead.

Since his debut with the Suns, Biyombo has shown how valuable the veteran’s knack for being in the right place at the right time 99 times out of 100 can be. He served as a safety valve for the Suns’ slashers near the basket, knocking down his trademark hook shot a few times for a season-high 12 points to go with 16 rebounds and two assists.

Another signing from last season was Ish Wainright, who holds that tag for the second year in a row. Wainright has played sparingly during that time, but whenever he gets the chance, he makes a strong case for more minutes.

His six points, two rebounds, three assists and two steals aren’t as eye-catching as the other stat lines, but he made some gigantic plays that speak to his growth since arriving in Phoenix.

Williams emphasized how player development must include “the player committing to development,” and Wainright’s jumper is a shining example. Seeing first hand the progress with his form, release and more has been remarkable in such a short time.

It’s hard for him to believe that when he enters the game, he’s identified as a shooter, and his clutch 3-pointer with 1:10 left in a one-possession game backed up the work.

And since the opposing bench yells “shooter” when he’s on the play, Wainright knows that gives him a driving lane. He used it with a terrific pocket pass to Jock Landale with 29 seconds remaining, once again in a one-possession game, to put the Suns in a dominant position by five.

Ultimately, Saben Lee didn’t even need to enter his second 10-day contract before earning enough of Williams’ trust to close out games on Thursday and be there again on Saturday. Lee’s ability to cut and get to the rim has been a great addition and he has also been very impressive on the defensive end.

Even if it doesn’t have the prettiest jumper, it goes in. Lee hit a pair of 3s. He had 12 points, four rebounds and four assists in another good game.

For all that, Bridges had another great night in his elevated role. He had 22 points, four rebounds, four assists and four steals. It is the first time in his career that he has scored more than 20 goals in four consecutive games.

The Pacers had enough of their own solid contributions to win this game. The Suns just got more.

Arizona product TJ McConnell had his second career triple-double with 18 points, 10 rebounds, 12 assists and two steals, while rookie Bennedict Mathurin (23 points), Myles Turner (16) and Buddy Hield (22) did their part offensively.





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