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NBA: Phoenix Suns beat the Nets, a crucial win

 Phoenix Suns find the right amount of energy and beat the Nets, which was a very important win.

NBA: Phoenix Suns beat the Nets, a crucial win

PHOENIX—For the rest of the season, the Phoenix Suns need to take advantage of opportunities. 

When the schedule puts them against a good opponent, they should take advantage of it. They've already lost too much ground for them not to try hard to win every game they can. 

This is even more true since Phoenix is still missing its top four ballhandlers—Devin Booker (left groyne strain), Chris Paul (right hip soreness), Cam Payne (right foot sprain), and Landry Shamet—who are all out with injuries (right foot soreness). 

So when a Brooklyn Nets team without Kevin Durant sleptwalked on defence for most of the first half and more on Thursday in Phoenix, the Suns had to pounce. 

They did, and the damage they did in the first three quarters was enough to keep the Nets from coming back and win 117-112. 

"Book said on the bench, 'Way to get back on track,'" Suns head coach Monty Williams said of the team's second win in January. "This is what we normally do. We're used to coming out on top." 

Even though the Suns (22-24) are still in a mess, as shown by the fact that Mikal Bridges was the de facto point guard in their starting lineup and Damion Lee was in the backcourt, they can still win games like they did the last two years. 

What I mean by that is that the Suns' success was largely due to their established style of play and their ability to carry out game plans designed for specific opponents. These things can change, but they don't just go away. 

The Suns were determined to get Deandre Ayton a switch and find a way to get the ball to him. This was too much for Brooklyn (27-17), which is known for its switching defence. 

That was the main way the Suns scored all night, and Ayton did a great job for most of the night. He got 17 of his 24 points and 9 of his 14 rebounds in the first half. His elite touch was moved, and he gave away when he needed to. 

Even worse, the Nets' defensive rotations were terrible all night. Their weak structure only needed a little bit of ball movement to fall apart, so the Suns gave it to them. 

This made Phoenix's offence work well even though they didn't have a lead guard. 

It helped that Cam Johnson came back and played in his first game after missing 37 because of a torn meniscus. 

As a substitute, Johnson was only allowed to play for a certain number of minutes. When he checked in for the first time, the crowd gave him a big round of applause. 

Williams said of Johnson, "I just thought he brought a level of energy to the arena that we hadn't felt in a while." "When he came off the bench, the crowd and the community were like, 'That's our guy.'" To have your fans emotionally wrap their arms around a guy who grew up in this city and watched him fight through a tough injury and have him check in the game and feel that love from the community, from our fans, I thought was awesome. 

Johnson responded by scoring eight points in the first three minutes. His first three-pointer came about because Kyrie Irving of the Nets played transition defence like a dad who lightly jogs around the track at a local YMCA. 

The addition of Johnson and the way he knew how to play offence and shoot seemed to free up a lot. His twin brother, Bridges, played well as the floor general. He made a few difficult reads and passes, which he has been getting better at over the last month. 

At halftime, the Suns had a 14-point lead, and 51 seconds into the third quarter, Brooklyn called a timeout after two bad defensive possessions gave the Suns a 19-point lead. 

The amount of work Bridges had to do was like someone trying to put every Thanksgiving dish on their first plate, even though they know it won't all fit. 

He was defending Irving, who has an all-time handle and is one of the best scorers of his generation. When he switched ends after guarding a three-time All-NBA player, Ben Simmons, a two-time First Team All-Defense honoree and top perimeter defender, was on Bridges. Bridges ran the offence while Simmons was on him. Nic Claxton, who has had a big year for Brooklyn and has a chance to make his first All-Defense team this year, was on the back line of defence when ball screens came up to help Bridges. 

Bridges was great even before you thought about all of that. 

Irving only made 3 of 16 shots in the first three quarters, but he got hot in the fourth. Simmons had five fouls by the middle of the third quarter and was thrown out after showing his displeasure. 

Bridges again showed that he has made a lot of progress in figuring out how to score in the right places and make plays when the defence forces him to. When Bridges takes his first or second dribble inside the 3-point line, he needs to make the right choice in the middle of the defence. That is a really hard skill to learn, and Bridges didn't even do things like that in high school, let alone college. 

We've seen Booker get good at this, but it took him a while to get there, as it would for any young player. Bridges has had more than a month, and even though the results were not good for most of that time, it shows that he has reached a point in his mind where he is always aggressive. The basketball gods will reward you for doing that, but they will punish you if you hesitate. 

Williams said, "Mikal is just finding new ways to improve his game." "A lot of it was pick-and-roll and going for the basket. We've talked about the fact that he was taking those shots when it mattered. We'll both have to live with the results, no matter what they are. 

Bridges' 29 points and nine assists give him an average of 20.2 points, 5.7 assists, and 2.3 turnovers per game over his last six games, when he shot 46-of-87 (52.9% of the time). 

In the first half, Ayton was great, but in the second half, he lost his touch. Brooklyn switched to a zone, and he couldn't execute in the pocket or find the right spots on the court. He missed eight of his first nine shots in the last two quarters. 

Even though it wasn't all his fault that the Nets made it close again in the middle of the fourth quarter, the empty offensive possessions with missed bunnies were tough. 

Brooklyn was 20 points behind going into the fourth quarter, but Irving scored 21 of his 30 points in the fourth quarter to help close the gap to five with less than five minutes to go. 

But after a lot of bad offence from both teams, Bridges made a jumper and Ayton made a hook shot and a middy to match Irving's next six points and keep the Suns ahead by five points with just over 90 seconds left. 

In that last stretch, it was hard for Phoenix to find Ayton, while the Nets turned the ball over too often. Even though it wasn't very early, a win is a win. 

"Usually, Chris and Book would make those reads in those situations," Williams said, adding that the Suns' play to break the zone in that situation was something they had to teach guard Saben Lee on the spot. 

The Suns won the free throw game late, as they always do. 

Williams said, "We did enough to win." "Recently, when we've been on the road, we've kind of hit an emotional and spiritual wall, and tonight I thought we just held the line as best we could." 

Johnson was great, even though this was his first game back after being out for two and a half months. 

He had 19 points, six rebounds, two assists, a steal, and two blocks in 22 minutes. He left at the six-minute mark of the fourth quarter after a short three-minute shift, which suggests that the 18 minutes he worked was the limit Williams talked about before the game. But Irving wouldn't give up, so Johnson came back for the last four minutes. When asked if Johnson went over the cap, Williams said, "Next question." Johnson joked that his number was right around there. 

Johnson was able to get off to a fast start because he had an elite mind-set. 

Johnson said, "During the first couple of possessions, I was kind of hanging back in the corner and just watching, trying to get a feel for the pace and everything." "Because NBA games are serious business. It's people who are big, fast, strong, and smart. And guys can really play, so it's important to respect the game and know that it's not easy to jump into if you haven't before. 

He had to fall down a few times, which was nothing new for him, so he could really feel how that knee felt. He didn't mind the contact, and he went 9 for 9 at the free throw line, a new career high for makes and tries. 

"I feel really good. I feel fine, as I've told everyone," Johnson said. "Most likely better than usual right now. I don't think about my knee. I don't think about landing on it or twisting on it. It feels good. 

In relation to this idea about the basketball gods, Saben Lee's game has been getting worse since the Suns gave him a 10-day contract, and I think he's about to get another one. 

Lee has done some cutting and was great at taking advantage of Brooklyn's mistakes on defence. He closed out the game well, getting 15 points and six assists in the end.

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