— NAZ Suns now own best record in the D-League, are 6-0 at Prescott Valley Event Center —
PRESCOTT VALLEY – The Northern Arizona Suns hadn’t been beaten at the Prescott Valley Event Center entering Wednesday night’s game against the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, where they were sure to get their toughest test yet. Although it wasn’t easy, the Suns never trailed in the game and improved to 8-1, 6-0 at home after a 110-101 win.
The Suns only led by five points after the first quarter, and four points at halftime, before the Vipers tied the game at 61 with 8:24 remaining in the third quarter. That was the closest the Vipers would ever get to taking the lead, as the Suns answered with a 20-7 run to end the frame.
Derrick Jones Jr. scored eight points during that stretch, while four other players made shots from the field as well, including a made three-point field goal by both Elijah Millsap and Xavier Silas.
That run sparked Northern Arizona’s win over the 8-2, now 8-3, Vipers, who were tied atop the NBA D-League standings along with the Suns and the Fort Wayne Mad Ants.
Now with the win, the Suns are on top of the league standings by themselves, just nine games into the season.
“We take one game at a time, that’s our goal. One game at a time, one quarter at a time,” Suns Head Coach Ty Ellis said. “Now, I think the wins and losses will take care of themselves. Like I said, we beat a really good team and I don’t take it for granted. So, I just hope we get some rest, come back with the same type of energy and do it again.”
The Vipers were missing their leading scorer and the league’s second-best scoring player per game in Isaiah Taylor and his 25.7 points per contest. Darius Morris did the best he could in filling the void, achieving a double-double with his 29 points on 9-of-18 shooting, 9-of-11 shooting from the free throw line, and 11 rebounds. But just three other players scored in double figures for a team that has 11 players average 10.0 points or more per game, and it wasn’t enough.
The Suns forced the Vipers to score more than 20 points less than they average, and Rio Grande Valley entered the game with the second-most points per game in the league. Northern Arizona also won the turnover battle 20-10, something the Suns have done in every game this season.
Some of the best defense on display was by Johnny O’Bryant, who matched up against Chinanu Onuaku, who averaged 11.9 points and 10.9 rebounds entering Wednesday, and 6-foot 10-inch, 300-pound Joshua Smith. Onuaku finished with just five points and two rebounds after only playing four minutes in the first half. Smith recorded 10 points and seven rebounds off the bench.
“Johnny’s effort defensively was really good,” Ellis said. “Josh Smith is a handful, Onuaku is a handful and JO came in and didn’t get in foul trouble. He played well and he made them defend him. He was ready for tonight, and it showed.”
Other notable defensive efforts were made on Gary Payton II, who scored just four points. He had dropped 51 points on Dec. 3 against Los Angeles. Kyle Wiltjer shot 4-of-15 from the field (26.7 percent), and scored 13 points.
The Suns showed a balanced attack on the offensive end, as they had six players score in double figures.
Elijah Millsap led the team with 21 points and nine rebounds. O’Bryant had 20 points and eight rebounds, to go along with two blocks. Jones (15), Askia Booker (14) and Shaquille Harrison (11) were the other three starters to reach double-digits, while Silas earned 16 points off the bench on 4-of-10 shooting from beyond the arc in what was his second game of the season.