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PHOENIX — The first half of Wednesday night’s season opener conjured up the still-fresh painful feelings from last spring’s embarrassing playoff exit for the Phoenix Suns. Once again, the Suns were being dominated by Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks at home.
That made the rally from a 22-point deficit for a 107-105 win at the Footprint Center that much sweeter for the Suns.
“If you get your asses kicked, you want to get your get-back,” Devin Booker told ESPN’s Jorge Sedano during the postgame on-court interview, acknowledging the humiliation from a 33-point blowout loss in Game 7 of the Western Conference semifinals. “That’s just life.
“We still have 81 games to go. I said that before the game. It’s a good start. I think it’s a good start to show our team if we’re down early that we can come back in games.”
The Suns earned the top overall seed last season in large part because of their closing ability, as they were an NBA-best 33-9 in clutch games, as defined by the score being within five points in the final five minutes. In that sense, this was kind of a characteristic performance for Phoenix.
But this comeback had deeper meaning for the Suns, whose chaotic offseason that started with that awful loss to the Mavs included owner Robert Sarver putting the team up for sale under pressure in the wake of an investigation into the team’s workplace culture, tense contract negotiations with center Deandre Ayton that ultimately ended with the Suns matching a maximum offer sheet he signed with the Indiana Pacers and former starting forward Jae Crowder mutually agreeing with management not to report for the final season of his contract, among other things. And, of course, the NBA scheduled the Mavs to return to Phoenix for the opener, a made-for-TV rematch of that memorable playoff series.
“I think any time you win in the NBA, it’s cool,” Suns coach Monty Williams said. “But to beat the team that knocked you out, it doesn’t erase that feeling, that hurt, but it does help you grow.”
The Mavs led by 15 with 8:31 remaining after a scoring flurry by Dallas sixth man Christian Wood, who was acquired in a summer trade with the Houston Rockets. Wood scored 16 consecutive points for the Mavs in a 4-minute, 35-second span that bridged the third and fourth quarters, a run that began after Phoenix pulled within a point.
“We relaxed a little bit,” said Doncic, who finished with 35 points, nine rebounds and six assists but missed a 34-footer at the buzzer. “We think, not that the game was done, but we just relaxed. ‘It’s a lot of points, we’re going to get there, we’re going to win.’ Like I said, we just can’t relax. It’s happened a lot of times. We can’t be blowing leads. This is a thing we have to work on, and we will for sure.”
Booker checked back into the game with the Suns down 15 and then had seven of his 28 points and six of his nine assists in the fourth quarter. However, it was an unlikely hero who starred for the Suns down the stretch. Damion Lee scored all 11 of his points in the fourth quarter — when he played the entire frame in part because Cameron Johnson exited because of cramping — and hit the winning shot on a 10-foot fadeaway with 9.7 seconds remaining.
That game winner by Lee, who signed for the veterans minimum after serving as a reserve for the champion Golden State Warriors, came on the possession immediately after he gave up a tying and-1 drive by Doncic. He received a brief pep talk from Williams in the ensuing timeout.
“Coach just looks at me and he said: ‘Hey, go make a play. Go make a play,”‘ said Lee, who is now 2-of-9 on tying or go-ahead field goals in the final minute during his career, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. “That’s what you want — a coach that’s always going to instill that confidence in you, no matter what happens.”
Another surprising element of the Suns’ fourth-quarter rally: Chris Paul, who has earned a reputation as one of the NBA’s premier regular-season closers, watched the final 6:41 from the bench.
The Suns trailed by 12 when Paul checked out, and Williams’ plan was to rest the 37-year-old point guard for a few minutes before putting Paul back in to finish the game. However, Williams decided not to disrupt the rhythm the Suns established with Cameron Payne at point guard down the stretch.
“I’m always open-minded in those situations,” Williams said. “As much as you want to have Chris out there, I know Chris wants to win. When I took him out, my plan was to get him back in there at three [minutes]. Then the game was just going in a good way and Cam was playing well, so I didn’t want to take him out. I didn’t think it was that big of a decision, but I guess it is because it’s Chris.”