WASHINGTON — Fifteen minutes into their game against one of the teams on the short list of those realistically competing for an NBA title this season, the Phoenix Suns found themselves down by 22 points, and each active member of the team knew all too well what could have transpired next.
Another 40-point loss. Another long flight having to seriously question the immediate direction of the franchise. Possibly, another night of social media ridicule, initially driven by a tweet sent two weeks ago by a now erstwhile team member who grew sick of the on-court embarrassment so much that he wanted to leave town, err, the hair salon that he was in as he tweeted it.
Against most people’s expectations of how the next two quarters and change would unfold, the Suns rewrote that script, and, in the process, quickly are rewriting the narrative of what this team might be remembered for this season. Instead of suffering its third 40-point defeat in just over two weeks to start the season, Phoenix, led by TJ Warren’s career-high 40 points, came back from a 22-point deficit in the second quarter to defeat the Washington Wizards 122-116 at Capital One Arena in D.C., winning its fourth game in five and reaching the .500 mark for the first time this season (4-4).
The Suns, coming off a road win last night in Brooklyn, expected the Wizards to do what they do best: push the tempo, consistently play transition basketball and open up a sizable lead early. That is exactly what happened, with Washington leading 8-2 less than two minutes in on their way to a 32-point quarter – and a 15-point lead.
The lead was 22, at 43-21, almost immediately after the second quarter began, more than halfway to the 40-point margin of arrears that resulted in both the season opener against Portland and two games later in Los Angeles against the Clippers. Those hidings prompted guard Eric Bledsoe to take to Twitter to send out a personal SOS, which then led to him being removed from the active roster by general manager Ryan McDonough as the team looks for a trade partner to deal Bledsoe. But any thought of blowout déjà vu on the Suns’ bench tonight was non-existent, as Phoenix slowly contained the Wizards’ transition game while chipping away at their deficit.
“I think [Washington] looked at it as we were on a back-to-back and they were going to run right at us, and they did,” said interim head coach Jay Triano, who took over the team after head coach Earl Watson was fired on Oct. 22. “I told our guys that it was eight-nothing before we even had a chance to play half-court defense. That’s what we’ve been trying to get better at. So us getting back in transition is a big thing, and we knew we were going to take a hit early. But our guys, I was pleased we responded after getting down, taking a hit, we played well.”
The middle quarters of the game especially were banner for the Suns, putting up 37 points in the second quarter to be down just 12 at halftime, then another 35 points in the third quarter to go into the final stanza only down 90-87. Of the Suns who played well tonight, Warren stole the show, as he scored 19 of his 40 points in the third quarter alone, hitting eight on his nine field goal attempts in the quarter and making all three of his free throws. His activity in cutting and driving to the basket with the ball, along with his activity on the offensive boards, proved to be too much for the shorthanded frontcourt of the Wizards to handle. (Regular starting power forward Markieff Morris was serving a one-game suspension for leaving the bench during a confrontation that took place in a game against the Warriors while starting small forward Otto Porter was out due to illness.)
“It’s just me being aggressive, just me taking the shots I know I can take,” said Warren, who also record 10 rebounds tonight for his second consecutive double-double. “Tonight happened to be one of those nights where everything was just falling. My teammates did a good job of getting me to the right spot and me cutting for multiple layups, and me just being myself, being TJ.”
Phoenix definitely will take the TJ that showed up in the final three minutes of the game. After a Bradley Beal three gave Washington a 108-106 lead with 4:11 remaining, Warren took a pass from Marquese Chriss and cut to the basket for a layup while being fouled on the shot. His free throw to complete the three-point play gave Phoenix a 109-108 lead. Two possessions later, and after the teams exchanged two free throws, Warren nailed his only three-pointer of the game, off a pass from Devin Booker, to give the Suns a 114-110 advantage with 2:39 to play. Phoenix’s lead did not drop below four for the rest of the game.
“He seems to be just thriving with the attention everybody pays on everybody else,” Triano said of Warren. “He’s got the ability to score and break guys down one-on-one, so we try to get him as much space as we can.”
This was proverbial “trap game” for the Wizards, returning home after winning the last game of a four-game West Coast trip in Sacramento on Monday and playing a game against a team with an inferior record right before a national television showdown against the Cleveland Cavaliers on Friday. Tonight’s loss against Phoenix was similar to the loss it incurred last Friday against the Los Angeles Lakers, a team it was expected to defeat while out on that West Coast swing.
“I don’t think we took [Phoenix] lightly,” said Wizards point guard John Wall, who scored 21 points to go along with six assists and three steals. “We got off to a great start, played defense the way we wanted to. We made shots and were making these guys miss shots and contesting. And then, they had 15 in the first and then 37 in the second, so we didn’t guard. The rest of the game, for three quarters, I think it was 106 points [we allowed], so we played no defense. When you don’t continue to do the things that you do that get you a lead, and you start to get comfortable, then you start to lose games like this.”
Wall’s backcourt mate, Beal, was probably the only Wizards player who was consistent from beginning to end, at least on the offensive end, matching Warren’s output with 40 points. His 11 first-quarter points helped the Wizards get out to their 17-point first-quarter lead, and he scored 21 points in the second half in doing his best to hold off the Suns’ rally.
Phoenix did rally to win, and it’s comeback is just a microcosm of the comeback it has made from a poor start to get into its first real positive groove of the young season.
“That’s what it’s all about: it’s winning,” said Booker, who scored 22 points. “Any time you can get a win, it changes a lot of people’s moods.”
Winning is also possibly changing the minds of those who thought this season might be a lost one for the Suns just a week into the season. The Suns continue their East Coast swing on Friday night, back in New York to take on the Knicks.