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For the first 24 excruciating minutes, the Phoenix Suns’ 2022-23 season opener felt like a continuation of their Game 7 annihilation back in May. Shots weren’t falling, Luka Doncic was smirking, the Dallas Mavericks were up by more than 20 and hope felt like it had been drained from The Footprint Center itself.
At one point, the Suns had battled back, only for Christian Wood to score 16 straight points, including a prayer of a 3 off the backboard.
It was deja vu. After months of wading through unpleasant rumors, unsavory headlines and unending negativity, it felt like the Suns were facing the Mavs and their own inner demons, trailing by double-digits at halftime.
“I mean, we were down 17, so I’m sure my cheeks were puckered a little bit,” coach Monty Williams joked.
Unlike Game 7, however, the Suns didn’t roll over.
Led by Devin Booker’s 28 points and 9 assists on 10-of-20 shooting, plus 18 points and 10 boards on 8-of-11 shooting from Deandre Ayton and 13 points and 11 rebounds from Mikal Bridges, Phoenix pulled off a 22-point comeback, capped off by Damion Lee’s go-ahead bucket with less than 10 seconds to go.
In this roller coaster of a game, there were almost too many storylines to keep track of. Here are five observations from an absolutely wild start to the season.
1. Monty Williams’ faith pays off for Cam Payne and Damion Lee
Like it or not, the Suns’ bench is what it is. Some nights (like the first three quarters on Wednesday), it’ll be a glaring detriment. Others (like the fourth quarter), it’ll provide an unexpected boost.
Monty Williams has often been criticized for giving some of his guys too much leeway. But on nights like Wednesday, the benefit of having faith in his players becomes clear.
When Cam Johnson exited the game with leg cramps in the second half, Damion Lee filled in the rest of the way. He didn’t disappoint, scoring all 11 of his points in a fourth-quarter stretch where the Mavericks only scored 12 points as a team.
Lee’s late shot clock 3 to put the Suns up by four with 1:38 to go was big enough. A few plays later, after the Mavs had tied the game at 105, his brutally difficult baseline fadeaway with 9.7 seconds remaining proved to be the game-winner.
“I just think guys who’ve been in those situations, who’ve been in those environments like he was in in Golden State, not much fazes a guy like that,” Williams said. “If it does faze him, he knows how to deal with it, and he’s been around guys who’ve walked through those situations before. I think that rubs off on you.”
Lee’s big-time response was particularly impressive because the play before, he had made a costly defensive error, fouling Luka Doncic after getting beat off the dribble to gift him with a game-tying and-1.
Not many coaches would stick with a reserve after something like that, but Lee appreciated Williams’ trust in him.
“We called a timeout, and coach just looks at me, he says, ‘Hey, go make a play. Go make a play,'” Lee said. “And that’s what you want, a coach that’s always gonna instill that confidence in you no matter what happens. As long as there’s time left on the board, go on out there, try to make a positive impact and make a play.”
Lee wasn’t the only bench piece who helped turned things around in the second half. After Cam Payne’s disappearing act in the playoffs that eventually got him benched late in the Mavs series, there was concern about what his 2022-23 campaign would look like.
The first half wasn’t pretty, but Payne helped turn things around. During one sequence midway through the fourth quarter, Payne hit a 3 to cut the deficit to seven, then immediately forced a Mavs turnover that reignited the crowd.
“Honestly, it got me going,” he said. “But that was something at half, I’m like, ‘Man, Cam, enjoy the game. Have fun, get going.’ And that 3 and that stop kinda got me going.”
Once Payne got going, Williams decided to close with him instead of Chris Paul.
The Suns coach explained that he typically pulls CP3 at the six-minute mark of the fourth quarter and gives him a three-minute breather before putting him back in, so it’s not worth reading into yet, outside of Payne earning those minutes.
“That’s been the rotation for us, but Cam came in, we had a good rhythm, and I just felt like it was the move to just stay with Cam” Williams said. “And Chris was engaged and telling guys, it was almost like he was out there.”
In any case, Payne — who had just 7 points but was a +15 in 19 minutes — appreciated getting the chance to make an impact.
“It felt good,” he said. “It just feels good playing period. But nah, that was a big opportunity for me. I’m glad I just answered the call tonight.”
That mentality of having faith in the next guy trickles down throughout the roster, to where even the Suns’ stars are preaching about that trust. Payne confirmed that Paul was “absolutely” talking to him from the sidelines down the stretch.
“That’s big-time coming from him, talking me up during the ending part of the game,” he said. “That’s huge, I appreciate him.”
This bench unit still needs work, but for the time being, it’s going to have to come from within. Confidence can help with that.
“It’s the highest level of basketball in the world, Booker said. “So you just have to the resilience to just keep going, and that’s what our team has, and that’s what Cam Payne is.”
2. Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton and Monty Williams learned from Game 7
After being trapped to death by the Mavs in last year’s playoff series, the Suns took those lessons to heart. It was most evident in the way they repeatedly ran stagger screens late in the season opener.
“We just read the game,” Williams said. “That’s what the game was showing us. They were blitzing Book, and we were able to be productive on the backside.”
The Mavs mixed up their defensive coverages all night, but when Booker got rolling and they started hedging aggressively or trapping ball-screen situations, the Suns superstar showed he’d studied the film from that series.
He found Jock Landale once and Deandre Ayton numerous times on perfect pocket passes, maneuvering himself to the right angle where he could slip bounce passes in between two defenders and allow Phoenix to feast from there.
Lee’s game-winner didn’t come from a pick-and-roll situation, but Booker’s mentality on that double-team applied to what he showed throughout the game.
“I got double-teamed, so I made the right play,” Booker said. “You throw out the double, I trust my teammates, I trust everybody out there. It’s something that we’ve scouted, we’ve schemed. You know teams are gonna throw different defenses at me, and the quicker I can get off the ball and the quicker they can attack it, it’s the advantage for our team.”
Booker masterfully picked Dallas’ defense apart in the fourth, but his chemistry with Ayton was especially encouraging. Not only was Book finding him in the right spots, but DA displayed the growth in his game by either capitalizing on those feeds himself or finding the open man.
“It’s something that we’ve talked about in the past, just being in that short pocket, and for him to be a dominant post-up big, midrange big, I think that’s the next step that he can take to his game is playmaking, especially when a lot of attention’s on me and Chris,” Booker said. “He’s usually around that free-throw line, being the first person that you throw to out of the double, and it’s usually three-on-two or four-on-three on the back side.”
According to NBA.com, in 27 minutes with Book and DA sharing the floor, the Suns scored 69 points on 55.3 percent shooting, were a +25 and boasted an absurd 132.7 offensive rating. When Booker locates the right angle and gets the ball out of his hands this quickly, his bigs — and especially Ayton, with his improved vision and passing ability — will be able to punish opposing defenses.
“It’s something that we work on for sure, but they have to execute it,” Williams said. “We’ll give ’em structure, and then a lot of times, they’ll go out there and talk about the angle of the screen, where he needs to be in the pocket. It certainly doesn’t work if you don’t have guys who can’t make plays on the back side, but DA’s become really good in the pocket. He’s under control. Sometimes you’ll watch him jump stop and make a pass to the weak side, sometimes he’ll convert. And it’s hard to make those passes. Book sees double-teams almost every single night, so that doesn’t make it easy, but I think those two have a bit of a rhythm in that environment.”
3. Suns’ defense dictates everything
In the first half, the Suns allowed 62 points, 20 free-throw attempts and 8-of-17 shooting from downtown. Luka Doncic had 20 at the break, and Jae Crowder’s absence was certainly felt.
“We were making so many mistakes on defense,” Williams said. “We had the wrong guys rotating, Luka was stretching us out. We weren’t blitzing him tonight, but it looked like a blitz because we just allowed him to stretch us out, and that made our rotations really long.”
But then the starting unit made it their mission to tighten up defensively, putting pressure on the Mavs’ ball-handlers and forcing them into 6 turnovers in the third quarter.
“I just felt like we were aggressive defensively and we just had some pace, but it was off the first unit,” Payne said. “We on the bench, we watching the game, so we see how they playin’ and we try to come in and give the same energy. So they turned up the defensive pressure, and we tried to come mimic the same thing.”
The Suns also kept the Mavericks off the free-throw line, allowing them to push the tempo off stops and not let Dallas to set their defense. Lee acknowledged it’s natural for defensive schemes to need work in game one, but said it was “night and day” between their first- and second-half defense.
“It’s infectious,” he said. “Really, the main difference from us from the first half to the second half was we weren’t getting those deflections. We weren’t engaging the ball, we weren’t getting stops, so they were able to pick us apart and get whatever they wanted. In the second half, we picked that up.”
The Suns were a top-five team in offensive and defensive rating last year, but in the playoffs, their defense failed them. Wednesday was a nice reminder that even without Crowder, they have the personnel, schemes and basketball I.Q. to still be elite on that end.
4. There are still a few areas for concern
Aside from the fact that the Suns trailed by 22 against the team that beat them in the playoffs, Doncic remains an unsolvable problem. He finished with 35 points, 9 rebounds and 6 assists, and although he cooled off in the second half, he’s not going away anytime soon.
More importantly, the Suns continue to wage an uphill battle on math. Even in victory, they only had 22 free-throw attempts to Dallas’ 34. Had the Mavs not missed 13 freebies, this might have been a different outcome.
Even worse, the Suns’ 3-point discrepancy continued. Dallas shot 14-for-35 (40 percent), while Phoenix only attempted 22 3s, making eight of them (36.4 percent).
Their midrange prowess sets them apart, but the Suns need to find ways to manufacture more 3s, shots at the rim and free throws. Otherwise, they’re heading toward the same issues as last year come playoff time.
5. Suns can flush Game 7 for good
Nothing will ever take away the sting and humiliation of that Game 7. In a 64-win season, it’ll probably haunt the Suns and their fanbase forever, even if this group goes on to win a title. It’s another traumatic “what if” for a franchise whose history is filled with them.
However, as impossible as it is for any season opener to make up for a season-ending playoff loss, that’s about as close as the Suns could’ve possibly gotten to exorcising those Game 7 demons.
Trailing by 17 at halftime and feeling the home crowd’s unease, then fighting back only to watch Dallas extend the lead to 15 again in the fourth — it would’ve been easy for Phoenix’s PTSD to set in. It would’ve been natural to cave and let the bad vibes of the last five months seep in.
Instead, the Suns pulled off their first 22-point comeback since 2017, fueled by a 19-3 run in the third and a 26-7 run in the fourth.
“I was just proud of the fact that we didn’t give in,” Williams said. “Book was really good in the huddles, even when we were down 15. I heard, I didn’t see it, but I heard he got the guys together and told ’em, like, this is nothing. But we gotta stay here. And we’ve been talking about that all of training camp: How can we deal with the emotional ups and downs of the game?”
Booker was vocal in the huddle throughout the night, echoing his more mature mindset entering Year 8 in the league.
“You can’t lose a season in one game,” he said. “I was like, ‘Yo, we’ve been here before. I know we have a few new guys, but we’ve been in this situation before. Just play it out. Play it out, compete at a high level.’”
The Suns will never get their chance at the 2022 title back, nor does this win suddenly give them bragging rights after dropping last year’s playoff series. But another 30-point blowout at home to this Mavs team would’ve been catastrophic for a group that’s had to battle so much adversity and noise all offseason.
Instead, they learned from their Game 7 failure, choosing to climb out rather than keep digging when they found themselves in a familiar hole.
“To beat the team that knocked you out, it doesn’t erase that feeling and that hurt, but it does help you grow the next season,” Williams said.