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Suns’ balancing act on offense continues in preseason finale loss

Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker (1) moves the ball upcourt as Denver Nuggets forward Torrey Craig (3) defends during the first half of an NBA preseason basketball game, Monday, Oct. 14, 2019, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Matt York)

PHOENIX — Just because new Phoenix Suns point guard Ricky Rubio makes everything easier doesn’t mean the Suns will magically avoid a period where they will have to figure out how to play together.

The meshing the team still requires was evident in a 107-102 loss to the Denver Nuggets on Monday that wrapped up preseason play for Phoenix.

The Suns’ ball movement was still relatively crisp, keeping things moving in the “0.5” mentality.

But Rubio and Devin Booker have to master the balancing act of touches, particularly when game flow and the defense’s gameplan force Booker out of shots.

This is something that Williams said in Flagstaff he wants the backcourt duo to figure out amongst themselves and there’s some work to be done based on what we saw against the Nuggets, albeit while executing a plan in place.

Midway through the second quarter, Booker had only taken two shots. Rubio was bringing the ball up all game, and it wasn’t a mix of Booker doing so as well like some might have predicted.

And when Rubio had the ball, his first and second option in a pass was always Deandre Ayton. Even on a play when Booker was wide-open in the weak-side corner, Ayton had a size mismatch, so Rubio took an extra two seconds to wait for the post entry pass.

There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. Ayton is a critical part of the offense and the easiest path to points for him is Rubio. He needs Rubio to get him in his spots too. Five of Ayton’s seven field goals were assisted by Rubio.

Head coach Monty Williams said after the game that not running much through Booker this preseason was by design.

“We needed to play a certain way before we started relying on Devin to bail us out,” he said. “I don’t think that’s a healthy way to start a game, in the meat of the game sometimes. But we needed to play off of him, away from him.”

That will change in game one of 82 and beyond.

“But when we start to play for real, guys are going to have to start to learn how to play with him,” he said.

Still, the game illustrated what can happen when situational aspects of a game keep Booker partially out of it on one end. And not running the real gameplan until the bright lights of the regular season come on is at least mildly puzzling for a group of mostly new faces.

To be fair, all of this can come together beautifully between the three of them even when it’s Booker giving out hockey assists.

Games like Monday’s are going to be interesting to monitor in the beginning of the season when Booker hasn’t been able to get his scoring rhythm down in spots where he’d normally dominate the ball until his flow is back.

That won’t be happening nearly as much as it did last year, especially with Kelly Oubre Jr. likely in the starting lineup taking up some of the touches as well.

Booker took seven shots and finished with eight points and four assists. Rubio had seven as well, with seven points, three rebounds and nine assists. Oubre led the way among all starters in field goal attempts at 11.

That’s what “0.5” will call for some nights and this is far more of an initial observation than declaring this as even a warning sign. Plus, Booker played mostly great defense and that’s because he had the energy to do so.

But keeping Booker as the focal point on offense throughout the new-look offense will be of the utmost importance. The Suns still need him to be a 25-plus points per game offensive monster.

Even if Williams’ offense is going to be outlined around getting Booker the ball, they aren’t going to be a successful team when he takes under 10 shots. And teams will try and make that happen, being more than happy to let a two-man Rubio and Ayton game beat them rather than one of the best shooting guards in the world.

Williams is not worried about it.

“It’s gonna take some time,” he said of Booker and Rubio balancing the ball-handling duties. “Ricky’s played with a number of backcourt mates and he’s always figured it out. ”

Elsewhere, shooting and defense continue to be the two swing areas for the Suns.

After a barrage of 24 three-pointers in Portland on Saturday, the Suns’ regression to the mean was a cliff dive to a 9-for-32 number.

Defensively, they battled and showed energy but the gaps were present enough for a great Nuggets team to take advantage. Ayton, in particular, struggled to recover back to his spots under the rim and wasn’t challenging enough shots at the rim.

“He’s gotta get better,” Williams said of Ayton’s performance in the preseason. “He knows that. We need him to play with a high level of force and dominate the paint. He’s had his moments but most second-year guys struggle with that.

“For us to be a really good team, he’s gotta dominate consistently. He’s gotta own the paint, and that’s on both ends of the floor.”

The bright spot of the preseason has been Frank Kaminsky.

Looking like far more than a “stand there and shoot if you get the ball when you’re open” type of big man, Kaminsky’s quite a nice fit for the quick-hitting mechanics of the offense.

He showed he’s capable of making one or two dribbles to pass in Portland, posting eight assists, and he did some scoring in the post against Denver.

“He’s just playing a complete game for his position,” Williams said of Kaminsky. “He’s just playing with confidence and I want to keep that going.”

Kaminsky finished with a team-high 22 points, six rebounds and three assists in 18 minutes.

In case you aren’t aware on a league-wide scale, the Nuggets are title contenders and they played like it for the most part in Phoenix.

New acquisition and one of the NBA’s most underrated players Jerami Grant led the way with 22 points, Gary Harris had 18 and Jamal Murray added 16. MVP candidate Nikola Jokic had only four points and they cruised, if you are willing to ignore a late surge by the Suns’ third-stringers in the last few minutes. Rubio and Booker were minus-20.

Going to Portland and then getting Denver for the second half of the preseason was important for the Suns given their schedule. After Sacramento for the home opener, they go to Denver, get the Clippers and Jazz back in Phoenix before traveling to Golden State.

That’s quite the five-game run for a team still gelling and we’re nearly done speculating about how it’s going to go.

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