For the second year in a row, the Phoenix Suns opened their season with a dominant home win. Here’s why this time actually feels different.
Last year, the Phoenix Suns opened their 2018-19 season at home with an impressive 21-point win over the Dallas Mavericks. With a new head coach at the helm, veterans on the roster and Devin Booker pushing the game out of reach in the fourth quarter, it felt like a brand new team. Starting with a road massacre against the Denver Nuggets, the Suns went on to lose their next seven games and missed the playoffs for the ninth straight year with a 19-63 record.
Wednesday night, the Phoenix Suns opened their 2019-20 season at home with an impressive 29-point win over the Sacramento Kings. With a new head coach at the helm, veterans on the roster and Devin Booker pushing the game out of reach in the fourth quarter, it felt like a brand new team. Starting with a road game against the Denver Nuggets, no one knows what the Suns will go on to do next, but if parallel sentence structure didn’t already convey the point, the similarities between this year’s season opener and last year’s feel eerie.
From Booker to head coach Monty Williams to veteran Ricky Rubio to Deandre Ayton (who is young and prone to saying some pretty off-the-wall things), one message rang clear in the locker room after a surprising 124-95 victory: It’s just one game.
This famous sports cliche isn’t new by any stretch; it was the same deal last year after Phoenix throttled Dallas with a blistering 19-of-34 shooting display from 3-point range, 35 points from Booker and an 18-point, 10-rebound double-double from Ayton in his debut. New arrival Trevor Ariza looked like the missing piece with a 21-8-7 line, the Suns got big production from their bench and it felt like the page had finally been turned.
It was a perfect performance … but it was just one game, and there were plenty of signs it was just fool’s gold.
The 2019-20 Phoenix Suns won’t be falling into that same trap — hence the old cliche about taking things one game at a time. But unlike last season’s stellar debut, this one did feel different, and borderline sustainable.
The reason? The Suns were not perfect, and even in a near 30-point blowout, there were still plenty of areas for growth.
The stat sheet shows Booker led the way with 22 points and 10 assists on 10-of-17 shooting, but nine of those 22 points came after he checked back in near the seven-minute mark in the fourth quarter. At that point, his team led by 16. Booker helped push the lead into blowout territory in the final frame, but for the first time in ages, a complete team effort built Phoenix’s lead.
Rubio, the new arrival whose contract was criticized even though he’s only the league’s 17th-highest paid point guard, chipped in 11 points, 11 assists, six rebounds and four steals, hounding the ball on defense and easing the exorbitant load of having to create for everyone else off Booker’s shoulders.
Kelly Oubre Jr.’s trademark tunnel vision was on full display, but he injected energy into the crowd and wound up with 21 points and nine boards on 7-of-11 shooting from 2-point range (he went 1-for-6 from deep).
The list goes on and on. Jevon Carter chipped in 11 points off the bench on 3-of-5 shooting from downtown. Frank Kaminsky added nine points and four rebounds. Tyler Johnson finished with 10, knocking down a key pair of 3s in the fourth quarter stretch that granted Booker even more time to rest.
“It’s one game,” Monty Williams said. “We don’t wanna get happy on the farm, but I think if we can continue this, he’s not gonna be as tired. When Tyler [Johnson] was hitting shots, I looked at Devin, Devin looked at me and he’s like, ‘Let him go, coach.’ He’s about winning.”
This approach represents a monumental shift from how the Suns have had to grind out rare wins in recent years. It’s usually required Herculean scoring from Booker, playmaking from Booker, and more than a few competent performances from the other guys to get the job done. Only the first two items on that checklist made routine appearances.
On Wednesday, the Suns entered the final frame with a 10-point lead thanks to an almost universally upgraded supporting cast, allowing Booker to focus on making the right play, moving the ball when he was double-teamed and locking in on the defensive end of the floor.
Yes, you read that last part right.
After Buddy Hield opened the game with a scorching 22-point first half on 8-of-12 shooting that featured multiple “What Are You Gonna Do?” shots, as Williams called them, the Suns stifled him and the rest of the Kings in the second half. Hield scored only six points on 2-of-7 shooting after halftime, and it was Booker who was hounding him on the ball and relentlessly following him around screens.
“When your matchup scores like that, you have a tendency to lose your head, and he didn’t,” Williams said of Booker’s defense. “He stayed with the game plan, he didn’t try to get the ball and go nuts, he just stayed with it.”
Booker wasn’t the only one looking more engaged on defense. Ayton’s 18 points and 11 rebounds looked remarkably similar to his numbers from last season’s home opener, but his activity on the defensive end was noticeably heightened, resulting in a career-high four blocks.
Between Booker chasing Hield all over the court and taking his matchup personally, Ayton’s willingness to challenge shots in the paint, and the team’s 13 steals leading to transition opportunities, this felt like a different kind of blowout win.
“This team has a lot of length and a lot of depth on the bench too,” Rubio said. “We can be aggressive, there is a lot of hands out there, we can interrupt their plays. Coach has been great making changes on the fly. That’s one of the keys these days where you do a game plan.”
Williams said it was more about a change in effort than scheme, but whatever was said at the break worked: The Suns only gave up 36 second-half points in all, holding Sacramento to 28.2 percent shooting in the process.
“We were more active, more physical,” Kelly Oubre Jr. said. “We didn’t allow our offense to dictate our defense like we did in the first half, and it showed. They kind of folded a little bit.”
Phoenix will face better offenses and better all-around teams in the future, but even as that smothering level of defense comes back down to earth, this team — and Booker himself — can find solace in not having to lean so heavily on the star shooting guard to do everything.
Jevon Carter probably isn’t going to shoot 60 percent from 3 again, nor are the Suns going to enjoy 35 points off their opponent’s 26 turnovers every night. But unlike last year’s eye-opening opener, this stunner wasn’t built on absurd shooting night from long range. In fact, Phoenix only made 11 of its 33 triples on Wednesday.
The Suns did, however, move the ball extremely well, tallying 31 assists on 49 made baskets with only 14 turnovers — and that’s with Rubio, Kaminsky, Carter, Dario Saric and Aron Baynes all being new arrivals, not to mention Oubre and Tyler Johnson being midseason additions last year. Being able to trust those guys will be key in Booker’s growth as a player, particularly off the ball.
“He remarked to me, ‘Coach, I’ve always wanted to play this way,’” Williams said. “Devin’s smart, he’s got a high basketball IQ. He understands that he needs other guys to play well, to make it easier on him.”
After all the controversy over Booker complaining about double-teams in pickup over the summer, his experience with that pressure last year should serve him well now that he has teammates who can actually capitalize when the ball hums.
That was part of the reason Booker was quiet early on: He was making the right read when the defense paid him too much attention, and his teammates were making the most of those opportunities. The 22-year-old was then able to bide his time on offense, striking at the opportune moment in the fourth quarter to put the game away.
“He was patient,” Williams said. “He’s seen every defense. Like I said, he didn’t lose his mind and just go nuts when things weren’t going his way. Team are blitzing him all the time, and that’s something that we’re just gonna get better with.”
In other words, it’s remarkable the difference improved defensive effort and superior, NBA caliber-teammates can make. Devin Booker doesn’t have to try and dominate games anymore. Now he might have the supporting cast that will naturally allow him to.
“This is year 5 now,” Booker said, almost wearily. “I don’t get too high or too low at any part of the game, especially with long seasons like this. I’m trying to lock in and make the right play every time down the court.”
In such a long season, and after last year’s 19-win campaign got off to a similarly encouraging start, staying on an even keel feels like the right philosophy.
“I told our guys the professional effort that we have to bring tomorrow is at the top of my list,” Williams said. “How we approach tomorrow, whatever we do, it’s gotta be at a high level. We can’t have a show-up mentality. We have to bring that grit and toughness that we showed tonight.”
The message sunk in pretty quickly.
“Come in tomorrow with the mindset that we really haven’t done anything,” Oubre responded when asked how the Suns can build on their victory. “It’s just one game, and we have a long season to go. So we gotta come in tomorrow and get better.”
We’ve heard that kind of sentiment before and fallen into the same trap. But this time around, it feels like the Phoenix Suns are giving their answers from more stable ground.