Indiana Pacers make late rally but still fall to Chris Paul, Phoenix Suns

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PHOENIX – Chris Paul drove to the basket in the second quarter and threw a floater over former teammate Torrey Craig. When the ball dropped through the net, the Suns star pointed at Craig as if to say, ‘Yeah, whatever you all did against the Lakers and the Warriors, it’s not happening here.’ It didn’t matter that co-star Devin Booker had an ice-cold shooting night, Phoenix still downed Indiana for a 113-103 victory Saturday.

Jan 22, 2022; Phoenix, Arizona, USA; Indiana Pacers guard Chris Duarte (3) against Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker (1) in the first half at Footprint Center. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 22, 2022; Phoenix, Arizona, USA; Indiana Pacers guard Chris Duarte (3) against Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker (1) in the first half at Footprint Center. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Indiana held its own and trailed 59-54 at halftime thanks to rookie guard Chris Duarte and third-year center Goga Bitadze, who scored 11 and 10 points, respectively, before the break. Reserve guard Jeremy Lamb added 10 points, too, in the first half, but in the third quarter Phoenix showed why it’s a championship contender. The Suns ramped up their defense and held the Pacers to 7-for-22 shooting (31.8%) to build a 20-point lead on the way to their sixth straight win.

"They came out with a lot of force (in the third quarter)," Pacers coach Rick Carlisle said. "They're an experienced team. They saw how we were able to hang around in the previous two games, and I think they took it upon themselves to try to create some separation and they did, but we hung in (there) and did some good things. ... This group right now, the way we're constructed with the guys that we have out, we've gotta be gritty and tough and resourceful."

Indiana rallied to cut the lead to 105-99 on a midrange jumper by Duarte with 3:59 left in the fourth quarter, but the Suns closed the game on an 8-4 run to deny the Pacers their third straight win. Booker delivered the dagger with 40.1 seconds left, converting a floater while being fouled by Justin Holiday. After making the shot, Booker, who shot 5-for-23 and had 11 points, raised his hand to the sky in relief.

On a rare off night for Booker, Paul, Mikal Bridges and Bismack Biyombo picked up the slack. Paul registered his third consecutive double-double with 18 points and 16 assists, Bridges tied his season high with 23 points and Biyombo tied his career high with 21 points, 13 rebounds and five assists.

"It's an easy game. I tell Bis that all the time," Paul said. "I might not make shots all the time, but I know how to make two people guard me, so his energy and rolling (to the rim), either he's gonna be open or somebody else is gonna be open, and Bis knows what to do with it, put it in the basket."

Bitadze totaled 16 points and 11 rebounds for his second career double-double. Duarte continued his strong play as of late with 17 points, four rebounds and four assists. Lance Stephenson matched Duarte with 17 points off the bench, and Lamb added 14 points.

For the second straight game, the Pacers were without all five of their projected starters for the 2021-22 season due to injury. The absence of two-time All-Star Domantas Sabonis and league-leading shot blocker Myles Turner in the front court opened the door for Bitadze to register a career-high 35 minutes. The 6-11 big man said he's willing to play all 48 if Carlisle asks, especially considered that he hardly played prior to the ast few games.

"It's a lot, from not playing to going 35 minutes, but I'm just blessed to have the opportunity to go out there and play against top teams in the league and just being on the court with my teammates," Bitadze said. "It's really fun to be out there and play together and hustle together on the floor. I don't look at minutes as much as coach, who wants me out there. Even if I'm tired, I was like, 'I'm not gonna ask for a sub,' because I gotta play through it because my team needs me."

Shorthanded Indiana wraps up its five-game Western Conference road trip Monday at New Orleans.

"Being away (from home) for nine days is not easy," Duarte said. "I miss my kids, I miss my (girlfriend), I miss my family. But this is my job. This is what I gotta do to. So I'm just taking advantage of that time and building that relationship with my teammates and just keep going, keep playing."

This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Indiana Pacers make late rally but still fall to Chris Paul, Suns