Three-game win streak pushing Phoenix Suns back up Western Conference standings
Things can quickly change in a week.
Phoenix was just 12th in the Western Conference.
Three wins later, the Suns have risen to seventh as they escaped with a 112-110 victory Sunday over Memphis at Footprint Center in the second of a back-to-back after leading by as many as 29 points.
“The trust and confidence and getting guys back is great,” Suns wing Mikal Bridges said. “Once you get that winning feel, it’s contagious and we all feel it and we all know what that feeling is.”
With the West being so congested from third to 13th, Phoenix (24-24) has a chance to move up even more during this five-game homestand that continues Tuesday against Charlotte (13-34).
Only 5-½ games separate those 11 teams going into Monday’s NBA slate of games.
“We just want to keep it going, keep going,” Bridges continued. “Got a lot of catching up to do.”
The Suns once led the conference in early December, but they went 5-17 during a 22-game stretch that dropped them below .500 and near the bottom of the West.
Between the injuries, poor play, facing some quality opponents and playing 15 of those 22 games on the road, Phoenix struggled and lacked a consistent competitive edge.
The Suns were just walloped by 30 points at Memphis last week to end a four-game road trip with three straight losses.
They returned home and haven’t lost since with their latest win coming against those same Grizzlies who embarrassed them on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
“I’m proud of the guys,” Suns coach Monty Williams said.
They Suns are still down All-Star Devin Booker (groin), Landry Shamet (foot) and Cameron Payne (foot). Deandre Ayton has missed the last two games with a non-COVID illness, but Cam Johnson (knee) returned Thursday while Chris Paul (hip) made his way back Sunday.
Paul had missed seven games with a sore right hip. He posted a double-double of 22 points and 11 assists to go along with five turnovers Sunday.
“Nice to get out there and play,” Paul said. “You come back from any injury, you don't know how it feels until you actually play 5-on-5. It was nice to play."
Paul played 38 minutes in his first game back, a stat that left Williams shaking his head when looking at the box score after the game.
“I was good,” Paul said. “Get a little cold in our arena at times. For me, I just try to keep moving, stay warm. It was nice to play all the minutes actually 'cause that meant I was in the game.”
Johnson played in his second game after missing 37 with a torn right meniscus suffered Nov. 4 against Portland. He scored 19 off the bench in his return game against the Nets, sat Saturday versus the Pacers under knee injury management and started Sunday’s game.
The Suns forward managed just eight points in 29 minutes against Memphis, going 0-for-4 from 3.
“You’ve got to respect the NBA game and the pace of it,” Johnson said. “(Sunday) was high paced, especially the first five minutes. So that kind of got into my lungs a little bit and then I’m trying to play catch up the rest of the game, but I think that’s the biggest adjustment right now. Otherwise, I’m fine.”
Paul and Johnson probably would’ve played less minutes had Phoenix maintained its large lead.
Up by as many as 29 after Torrey Craig put them up, 72-43, with 8:09 remaining in the third, the Suns were outscored 29-15 the rest of the quarter.
Ziaire Williams heaved a 79-foot shot off the glass at the buzzer after rebounding Josh Okogie’s missed layup to make the difference 15 going into the fourth.
“We started making shots, guys kept talking about,” Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins said. “‘That’s the pace, that’s what we got to get playing at,’ but we know we hang our hat on playing great defense and we didn’t do that in the first half. Did a much better job in that last quarter and a half.”
The Suns opened the fourth quarter on a 7-3 spurt to go up 19 as Jenkins called a timeout with 10:11 left in the game. The Grizzlies trailed by the same margin before going on a 12-0 run to pull within seven, 98-91, with 5:18 remaining.
“Credit to Memphis,” Bridges said. “They’re going to keep fighting. They’re going to keep going. That’s what they did. They’ve got the players and the coaches and just kept going and kept going. They made their run, they kept going, but we just stayed the way and kept playing. All you got to do is win the game by one.”
Phoenix responded with 9-2 spurt to go back up 14, but Memphis answered with a quick 5-0 burst, forcing Monty Williams to call a timeout with Phoenix's lead back down to single digits with 3:08 left.
The Grizzlies pushed within six, but Johnson answered with a huge 3-point play with 1:58 remaining.
“Just trying to do whatever I can to help, just sucking it up,” Johnson said.
Memphis continued to battle back in cutting Phoenix’s lead down to two with 28.6 seconds left, but Dario Saric made two free throws after getting fouled by Morant at the rim with 12.8 seconds showing on the clock.
“I kind of feel he was going to jump, and I was hoping I was going to get the foul,” Saric said. “Maybe I should’ve done a shot fake and go slow a little bit and try to finish.”
The sequence started with Memphis doubling Paul after Saric set a screen. Paul found Bridges, who quickly hit an open Saric at the free throw line with Grizzlies big Steven Adams scrambling to get back.
Saric drove to the basket, Morant elevated with both hands straight up in the air to contest, but he was whistled for the foul as Saric went to the floor.
“Tough call,” said Morant, who felt he went vertical on play. “Obviously, I can stand here and say that possibly could have helped us win the game but it’s a lot of stuff, the reason we lost. It’s just tough, when you get that close after being down and that call pretty much decided the game. I talked to (the referee), he said I went A to B and we just left it at that. Just got to take it as is.”
With Phoenix not looking to yield a 3, Desmond Bane scored on a driving layup to pull Memphis back within two with 7.6 seconds left.
After a Phoenix timeout and an advancement of the ball in front of the Suns bench, Saric inbounded the ball to Johnson on the sideline closer to the baseline.
The play was for Saric to find Paul heading into the backcourt and have Paul run out the clock. Paul broke free from Ziaire Williams going towards halfcourt, but Saric chose to throw the shorter, closer pass to Johnson.
“Coach wrote the play, but I felt maybe the first option, Cam was going to be open kind of because I know Steven Adams was like too far (to the right),” Saric said. “I felt that was the best pass. Good free throw shooter.”
A career 84.2% free throw shooter, Johnson caught the pass clean with Dillon Brooks trailing, but Adams, who was defending Saric, ran over to create a trap on Johnson.
Under heavy pressure, Johnson spun out of the trap and started dribbling towards halfcourt. He suddenly stopped, was trapped again by Brooks and Adams, fell down and turned the ball over on the sideline.
“I’m not speaking on it,” said Johnson when asked if he was fouled on the play.
Monty Williams felt Johnson was.
“You saw enough contact there to call the cops,” Williams said. “It was a lot going on, it happens. You don’t want to be stagnant. You got to move because if they get the ball, more than likely, they will call jump ball.”
Adams was credited for a steal with 1.6 seconds left just over on Memphis’ side of halfcourt. Falling out of bounds, Adams threw the ball into play, but Saric retrieved it between three Memphis players as time expired.
“I don’t know how we finished with the ball in my hands,” Saric said.
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