EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Suns take big opening punch, can’t complete comeback in loss to 76ers

Jan 2, 2019, 10:46 PM

Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker (1) drives past Philadelphia 76ers guard T.J. McConnell in the firs...

Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker (1) drives past Philadelphia 76ers guard T.J. McConnell in the first half during an NBA basketball game, Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2019, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

(AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

PHOENIX — The Phoenix Suns have had some good teams at Talking Stick Resort Arena on this homestand, but three of the four teams they’ve faced thus far have been shorthanded.

The Thunder were without Paul George, Denver was missing two starters and the Philadelphia 76ers were missing Jimmy Butler and Wilson Chandler on the second game of a back-to-back.

They were three chances to take advantage of better teams after playing their best basketball of the season over a 5-2 stretch. The result was three losses, including Wednesday’s to the 76ers, even after another comeback attempt in the fourth quarter.

Philadelphia center and MVP candidate Joel Embiid dominated, racking up a 22-point, 10-rebound double-double in his first 12 minutes of the first half of a 132-127 Suns loss.

“Very poor performance,” head coach Igor Kokoskov said of his team.

The 76ers made 16 of the first 21 shots they took, a good chunk of them being wide-open or moderately defended attempts you assume are going to go in. After the strong progress the Suns made in December, most notably on defense, they’ve succumbed to their old ways on the homestand.

Aided by an active whistle from the referees, intentionally hacking Ben Simmons late and the Suns fouling a whole lot of shot attempts, the 76ers shot 41-for-54 from the foul line.

Even after a 17-point first quarter by Devin Booker, the Suns were down 12 through the opening period and gave up 44 points. The 76ers quickly extended that advantage to 20 early in the second quarter.

Philadelphia was up 30 at one point in the mid-third quarter, but a spirited run led by the Suns’ Elie Okobo, Troy Daniels and Josh Jackson — primarily off 7-of-9 shooting from deep — got the Suns within nine in the mid-fourth quarter.

Booker re-entered with under six minutes left and a 12-point deficit went down to six with a little over three minutes left, but a potential 30-point comeback can’t survive the following sequence:

The 76ers rotated the ball around the perimeter to solid Suns containment only for Furkan Korkmaz (6.0 points per game this season) to hit a step-back three as the shot clock wound down. On the next possession for the Suns, Mikal Bridges missed a wide-open corner three.

Even with plenty of time left, that felt like the dagger and it was.

Embiid finished with 42 points and 18 rebounds. The Suns, like most of the league, had no answer for him and were not capable of executing whatever gameplan was concocted to limit the All-Star big man.

All eyes were on Embiid’s matchup with Deandre Ayton and Phoenix’s center, well, did his best. There’s not much anyone can do guarding Embiid one-on-one and Ayton continued to run the floor, battle for post position and be physical with Embiid when he had to.

Ayton has been open about how he plays within the rhythm of the game while not forcing things and the rookie had interesting things to say after the game when it comes to how he flows in-game.

“Today was kind of shaky to me with the tempo of the game,” Ayton said. “Ball kept stopping so you lose rhythm and I’m not there yet to find rhythm when (the) momentum of the game has been stopped multiple times.

“I don’t think I’m there yet. I’m getting there, but I don’t think I’m there yet to really get back in rhythm right away.”

To Ayton’s standards, an average stat line of 18 points and 11 rebounds did not reflect a decent outing from the rookie.

Booker could sense the juice was flowing on the other end and did everything he could as an aggressive scorer to keep the Suns in it early. Without Butler, the 76ers could either have Simmons defend Booker or leave Booker in a mismatch-type of scenario.

The 76ers preferred the latter and Booker made them pay for it. He scored 17 of his 37 points in the first quarter, establishing early post position on weaker players to score through physical ball-handling. He also had eight assists.

T.J. Warren didn’t get his offense going in the first quarter and picked up three fouls. He returned in the late second quarter only to pick up his fourth and still not convert a field goal, going 0-for-5 from the field. Fifteen seconds into the second half, Warren committed his fifth foul. He finished with seven points in 20 minutes, having one of his worst performances of the season.

The Suns have now lost four straight at home against four good teams, but for the exception of the fourth-quarter comeback attempts against the Nuggets and 76ers, there has been plenty to be discouraged about.

If anything, these games have triggered Suns fans’ memories of the past three years, especially coming so quickly after a stretch of winning five out of seven games that had them excited for future games and the progress the team had made.

What was seen as potentially the turning point in the Suns’ season is now going to be looked at as just another high point on a roller coaster of ups and downs.

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