Thanks to Monday night’s 113-112 defeat, the Phoenix Suns have now lost three of their last four games and four of their last six. Technically speaking, they’re currently in a skid.
Injuries (and one non-injury absence) have undoubtedly played a role in the Suns struggling to establish their identity, but their most recent loss painted a pretty clear picture — for better and for worse — of where they are right now.
Following a game that came down to the final possession, and really shouldn’t have, let’s take a look at a few tough love lessons for the Suns, as well as a few undeniable positives.
Tough Love Lesson No. 1: The free-throw disparity continues
In a one-point game that was so evenly matched, the only real gap between the Suns and the Miami Heat on the stat sheet came in the free-throw column. Unfortunately, that gap was the size of the Grand Canyon, as Phoenix was whistled for 22 fouls to Miami’s 10.
So despite making 10 more field goals than their opponent, the Suns lost because they were a -20 in free-throw makes and a -21 in attempts. They took just four free throws all night and made two, tying the second-lowest output in both categories in the franchise’s 54 years of existence.
“In a physical game like that where everybody’s bumping, we only get four free throws,” coach Monty Williams told AZ Central’s Duane Rankin afterward. “This is becoming really hard to swallow. And you feel like you can’t even talk about it, ’cause you’re gonna get fined. But that’s an unreal amount of free throws in any NBA game.”
On the season, the Suns are ranked 29th in free-throw attempts, taking only 20.4 per game. Even before the four-attempt atrocity that was Monday’s outing, they ranked 22nd. Through 13 games, they’ve been outshot by 56 attempts from the foul line.
Aside from Devin Booker, the Suns don’t really have anyone who gets to the charity stripe consistently. It’s been a problem throughout Deandre Ayton’s career, and for all his offensive growth, Mikal Bridges has never really sought out much contact either.
Whether it’s a lack of respect from the officials, a need for more aggression, a failure to draw contact or simply a refusal to exaggerate to earn calls, the Suns need to find a way to close that gap.
Positive No. 1: Duane Washington Jr. sighting!
With Chris Paul out and Cam Payne starting, Williams originally opted for Landry Shamet, Damion Lee and Josh Okogie to shoulder the ball-handling load for the second unit. When Shamet joined CP3 on the sidelines for the Orlando Magic game, Washington still only got 7 minutes of playing time.
On Monday, Williams rethought his strategy, giving Washington a chance with some first-quarter minutes. D-Wash made the most of it, igniting a second-quarter heater where he scored 13 straight points for Phoenix. By halftime, he had 16 points, 2 assists and one terrific celebration:
On a night where Payne struggled (more on that later), it was somewhat disappointing Washington didn’t get more of a look in the second half. Even without more opportunity, D-Wash notched 21 points and 4 assists on 8-of-14 shooting, including 5-of-8 from beyond the arc.
His shooting and individual shot-making ability is badly needed for a second unit that relies mostly on ball movement to generate points, and though he needs to prove himself defensively, Monday’s game confirmed he can, in fact, hoop.
If Paul misses more games, Washington did more than enough in Miami to prove he deserves a spot in the rotation for the time being…and possibly beyond that.
Tough Love Lesson No. 2: Bridges and DA need to step up
Not to beat a dead horse, since we’ve already harped on this recently, but the Suns need more from two guys who are supposedly franchise pillars. The frustrating thing is, through three quarters, both Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges were playing great.
Bridges had 15 points, 13 shot attempts and 4 rebounds heading into the fourth. He ended the game with…15 points, 14 shot attempts and 5 rebounds. His only shot in the final period was a 49-foot desperation bomb on a broken play resulting in a shot-clock violation. He also turned down a blatantly wide-open look on the final possession.
Getting the ball to Devin Booker in need of a go-ahead bucket is excusable. Turning down a look like this, even with time left on the clock, is not.
As for Ayton, the big fella was having a far more active game than he’d enjoyed in weeks. He was overwhelming on the offensive glass, engaged on both ends and fighting for seals against mismatches when the Heat switched in the pick-and-roll. His dominant third-quarter stretch that helped the Suns create separation was yet another example of how formidable he can be when he’s locked in.
Through three quarters, DA had put up 16 points and 10 rebounds on 8-of-9 shooting. Much like Bridges, he only had one shot attempt in the fourth quarter, and though he chipped in two offensive rebounds in the final period, he was basically a non-factor when he returned after taking a shot in the eye.
One fourth-quarter shot attempt apiece for Ayton and Bridges after they were both having good games is frustrating, as is the fact that we can’t acknowledge how great they were up to that point without it being sullied by their fourth-quarter performances.
On a night where the Suns’ 13-point lead with eight minutes to go evaporated into thin air over a three-minute span, it’s especially exasperating that Cam Payne finished 4-for-17 and missed six of the seven shots he took in the fourth. Instead of such a Payne-heavy offense, Phoenix needed at least one of their young pillars to help Booker out. Neither one did.
Positive No. 2: Yes, Devin Booker is still that dude
All anyone is going to remember from Monday night’s game is Jimmy Butler putting the clamps on Devin Booker on the game’s final possession.
To be honest, it’s fair: This is damn good defense! And his team got the win because of it!
However, before anyone goes assigning blame to Book for that last possession, it’s worth remembering just how vital he was on both ends of the floor.
Not only did Book finish with 25 points, 8 rebounds and 5 assists, but he also chipped in 3 steals and a thoroughly vicious block that saw him talking shit before the ball even hit the ground:
Even after missing two shots on the final possession, Booker still shot 11-for-22 overall. More importantly, he was the key in the Suns creating separation in that third quarter, manipulating Miami’s incessant double-teams with masterful precision.
Something Booker said on opening night still rings true one month into the season.
“You throw out the double, I trust my teammates, I trust everybody out there,” he said. “It’s something that we’ve scouted, we’ve schemed. You know teams are gonna throw different defenses at me, and the quicker I can get off the ball and the quicker they can attack it, it’s the advantage for our team.”
Williams has frequently cited that ability to bend the defense — even when it doesn’t lead to a direct assist for Book — as something that sets him apart.
“I think when you get in that realm of player, or players, it’s probably an appreciation for how they make everybody else better,” Williams said. “Usually those guys are seeing a double-team every night, so they free up other guys to get open shots. When they have the ball, they draw double-teams, so they’re kicking it to guys and that assists doesn’t typically count. You know, it’s usually a hockey assist. I think that’s how you have to start measuring those guys, because they draw so much attention.”
Even better, when coach Erik Spoelstra adjusted and called off the doubles, Booker made them pay by getting to his spots and rising up for the type of midrange looks that few people on this earth can stop:
Butler obviously proved he’s one of those people on the game’s final possession, but the beauty of such an incredible defensive play shouldn’t overshadow the way Booker bounced back from an ugly performance, or how heavy a burden he’s carrying with Paul and Cam Johnson sidelined.
In fact, one could argue the Suns are currently relying on him to do too much. Booker played 42 minutes on Monday, including the entire second half. Phoenix has to do a better job of giving him longer breathers, lest he run out of fuel like he has late against Philadelphia and now Miami.
Tough Love Lesson No. 3: Uncharacteristically un-clutch
The biggest reason that Heat loss stung is the Suns were otherworldly in crunch-time last year. As it turns out, not having Chris Paul, Cam Johnson or Jae Crowder around in the clutch might make a difference!
Last year, the Suns rode a league-best 33-9 record in the clutch to 64 wins. Their +33.4 Net Rating in those situations was not only the best mark in the NBA that season, but it was the third-best mark of any season since 1996-97, which is as far back as crunch-time statistics are tracked in NBA.com’s database. Phoenix didn’t lose a single game all season long when leading after three quarters. In late-game scenarios, the Suns were infallible.
So far this season, the toll of not having/deploying a fully operational Chris Paul, Cam Johnson tearing his meniscus, Jae Crowder sitting at home, and putting different guys in new situations has added up quickly. Through 13 games, the Suns are 1-3 in contests involving crunch-time minutes, which is the fifth-worst win percentage in the league.
It’s a small sample size, to be sure, and one of those losses — against the Portland Trail Blazers — came on a buzzer-beater that the NBA’s Last 2 Minutes report later revealed to be a missed traveling violation.
But as the Heat mounted a 12-0 run to erase their 13-point deficit, the lack of CP3 was glaring. Booker did the best he could, tallying 10 of his 25 points in the fourth, but it was clear by the end he had simply run out of gas. The lack of help around him, with Bridges and Ayton shrinking from the spotlight and Payne and Torrey Craig probably doing too much, was hard to miss.
Positive No. 3: Perspective still matters for this Suns team
There’s no sugarcoating the Suns’ lack of an identity 13 games into the season. Playing CP3 off the ball hasn’t been pretty, and the results of that ripple effect have been mixed for DA, Bridges and even Johnson before he went down.
However, perspective is important. Despite being down two starting-caliber players (and arguably three if you include Crowder), despite Johnson’s injury, despite Paul missing time and also taking a step backward in his new, uncomfortable role, the Suns are 8-5. It may not sound like much, but a quick peek at the standings shows they’re a mere 1.5 games out of first place in the West and only 2.5 games out of the league’s top record.
Their +6.4 point differential — typically a useful indicator for how good teams really are — is second in the NBA, and Phoenix also ranks fourth in defensive rating and third in offensive rating. And that’s while they’ve been getting very little out of the Point God, putting guys in different roles and incorporating a bunch of new guys on the bench.
Over the offseason, everyone was clamoring for Williams and the Suns to use this year to experiment, even at the cost of a few wins here or there. Phoenix’s baffling blowout loss to the Magic didn’t fit that bill, but Monday’s defeat — while playing shorthanded — certainly did.
Yes, it would’ve been nice to see Williams go back to Washington or stick with Damion Lee over the struggling Payne or even Craig. But these scenarios help evaluate who is reliable in a pinch and what guys can bring to the table. Monday’s loss may not result in any imminent rotation tweaks, especially since the Suns are still banged up, but a competitive loss against a likely playoff opponent on the final game of a four-game road trip is hardly worth burning the whole thing down to the ground.
The Suns still own the NBA’s best record since the bubble under Monty Williams, they’re still a very good team with a shot at a title, and they’re learning some tough-love lessons along the way. Losses like that sting, but they still serve a purpose in the long run.