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HomeSportBooker, Durant carry Suns through good and bad vs. Cavs

Booker, Durant carry Suns through good and bad vs. Cavs

PHOENIX — The Phoenix Suns have been fortunate enough to be given the opportunity to make up ground in the Western Conference standings and sneak back into a top six position with less than two weeks remaining.

Wednesday’s 122-101 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers and a New Orleans Pelicans loss moved them back into sixth. Now it’s on the Suns (45-31) in the last six games to not let it slip out of their grasp.

As they showed against Cleveland (46-31), it doesn’t really matter all that much who they play. When the Suns play to near or at their full capabilities, they’ll beat whoever it is nine nights out of 10.

The reason why it feels like they are making it so challenging to win this season is because of what we saw on Wednesday. When Bradley Beal, Devin Booker, and Kevin Durant are all playing well while they and the rest of the team avoid large amounts of self-inflicted errors, victories should swiftly rack up. Whether it’s one of those guys having an off night, being injured or more so Phoenix’s connectivity is a mess, it has been a rare sight this season.

All three were in a groove, gliding through their spots to either score or playmake. Booker and Durant brought the level of shot-making you’d expect every night while Beal is settling in nicely for his spurts of playing point guard and finding ways to impact the game elsewhere.

Booker scored 40 points to reach that mark for the second straight game, shooting 13-of-25 with eight assists and four turnovers. Durant shot 13-of-23 for 32 points to go with six rebounds, seven assists and four turnovers. It was only the second game this year each put up 30-plus points in, and predictably, Phoenix is 2-0 in those games now.

Together they were a constant wave of buckets Cleveland couldn’t contain enough, no matter if the Suns were firing on all cylinders or in need of someone to do heavy lifting. Booker posted 28 of his 40 points in the opening quarters of each half while Durant’s output of points by quarter was eight, nine, eight and seven, respectively.

“It’s fun. Teammates feed off of it, everybody in the arena feeds off of it — shot-making is fun,” Durant said. “So we was able to get to our spots tonight (and) knock ’em down.”

Beal was just 3-of-9 from the field but again has been a positive for the Suns despite his shooting profile thanks to his point guard duties and hustle in other areas. He dished out seven assists with only one turnover and added six rebounds.

The floor general stuff has been more supplementary in the last few games, a wise tweak to just let Booker and Durant handle the majority of the offense while giving Beal small spurts in other segments. It has to be encouraging for Phoenix to still see him channel some glue guy skills when he’s Bradley freaking Beal, a three-time All-Star that two seasons ago was coming off back-to-back 30-point-per-game averages.

Wednesday was not quite the 40-minute threshold of consistency reached by the Suns that has been discussed often in this space over the season. It was close, though.

The Cavaliers since the All-Star break are now 10-14, stuck in a rut with an offensive rating ranked 20th and even worse defensive rating at 23rd after a scintillating January suggested they were a dark-horse in the title picture to take seriously.

Cleveland overwhelmingly goofed up more decisions on both ends compared to the Suns, not something we’ve been used to seeing for the opponent in Phoenix fixtures this season. The Suns won the points off turnovers battle 25-19, which is always a good sign for them.

Their largest wins this year in terms of margin of victory have largely come off offensive outbursts but the first quarter wasn’t really much of that. It was Phoenix being the more poised and under control team, enough to a point of leading by as many as 14.

The second quarter is when Phoenix really untapped the aforementioned scoring wave, extending the advantage to 26 midway through it.

Phoenix shot 12-for-18 (66.7%) from 3 in the first half compared to Cleveland’s 4-for-15 (26.7%) and the difference in shot quality on those wasn’t too big. In reality, if those numbers level out to a more expected return rate for both sides, it’s not nearly as much of a pending blowout as it looked to be.

There was also some minor slippage from Phoenix with turnovers and transition defense in the last couple minutes, making the opening of the second half important for the Suns to end that there and not let Cleveland feel like it had a real opportunity to come back down 25.

A predictable 17-5 Cavaliers run ensued, and after a Suns timeout, Cleveland looked completely different. The intention and movement on both ends from it suggested a change in confidence. Donovan Mitchell was starting to find the avenues to get up shots, and in the process, his touch. No matter the quality of competition, we’ve seen Phoenix time after time let the opposition find some belief when it wasn’t there to start.

“I didn’t like the way we played in the third,” Suns head coach Frank Vogel said. “We wanted to go for the knockout punch, something we’ve talked about. We didn’t make shots and we didn’t get back on defense and we fouled. That stretch was the only negative part of the game. We never lost control of the game.”

Booker and Durant kept knocking down shots to get Phoenix’s lead back to 22 but the clunkiness was now more prominent. The duo lifted it through that, though, with 23 of the Suns’ 26 points in that period to lead by 21 going into the fourth quarter.

Suns brain farts persisted, and although the Cavaliers had a few mini-surges to fight back in the game, they ultimately could never get it down to a few possessions to really tighten the game up.

Vogel went to an eight-man rotation without Grayson Allen (left hip soreness) and Bol Bol was a big part of its success. He provided 15 points, six rebounds, an assist, two steals and a block in 22 minutes. Bol also knocked down a trio of 3-pointers and has been shooting a high mark since the All-Star break, 48.6%. Teams are going to leave him open, so he’s got to keep it up. But if he does, the way he injects himself into a game unlike any other Suns reserve is worth finding minutes for, regardless of some of the defensive hiccups that come along the way.

Royce O’Neale started in place of Allen and was nails with 17 points, six rebounds, two assists and two steals. If Allen wasn’t having a phenomenal year, there would be conversations about changing the starting lineup in favor of O’Neale’s defense but Allen’s form shouldn’t really spark that much debate.

The optimistic onlookers will view the last two results as Phoenix locking in when it really needed to and prophesying a page being turned. But the reality is the well-established roots the Suns let fester over the entire season will continue to show themselves the rest of the way, as Wednesday showed. It’s more about how they can improve outside of that. Only a true amount of consistency across this two-week stretch will tell us if they’ve truly achieved that and it’s time to start taking them seriously again as a real threat in the West, or if the team we saw for five-plus months indeed proves to be the real Suns.

“I think it’s just an energy throughout our whole team. Understanding what’s at stake, what time of year it is,” Booker said of the two recent wins. “The ball is hopping around, we’re defending at a high level — everything’s hitting.”

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