Suns refuse to die, grind to OT loss in first game without suspended Ayton
Everyone following the Phoenix Suns was, rightfully so, excited about the possibilities but worried about falling for only one game after a 124-95 win Wednesday night in the season opener against Sacramento.
The defensive rotations, a grinding mentality full of energy and smart plays on both ends were almost too much of a full 180 from last season to believe.
And yet, that same Suns team showed up in Denver Friday night, hanging and hanging around in a 108-107 overtime loss they refused to die in. And all of that came without a suspended Deandre Ayton.
This was a game the Suns could have easily won had Devin Booker been playing his usual high quality of basketball, who rarely, rarely has terrible games. True, all-out, stinkers.
In the last two seasons, only four times has Booker attempted at least 15 shots and had his FG% land at 30% or under, per Basketball-Reference. He had only one such occurrence last year.
Alas, he was 6-for-21 from the field with 18 points in 41 minutes, but even with that in mind, Phoenix had an opportunity to steal this one multiple times.
And to set the scene here, the Suns continued to stick around in this game when Denver should have gotten rid of them long before overtime, particularly in the back-half of the fourth quarter when their offense came alive.
The Suns would not allow that to happen, though, and held it to a three-point game with under 10 seconds left.
Ricky Rubio sprinted the ball up, and as Denver’s Malik Beasley reached in at half-court, Rubio launched and earned a foul call.
Rubio hit all the free throws to bring on overtime but foul trouble saw him, Baynes and Oubre all foul out early in the overtime.
Somehow, the Suns were still in the game despite losing those bodies and had a chance to win it with a one-point lead and under a minute to go after back-to-back misses by MVP candidate Nikola Jokic.
Phoenix couldn’t close it out, however, as Frank Kaminsky turned it over, Jamal Murray hit two free throws for Denver and Booker’s potential game-winner was blocked to seal the loss.
The off-night for Booker came when the presence of that guaranteed 12-24 points from the suspended Ayton being missing was really felt.
That’s going to be the reality in this 25-game stretch, as Kelly Oubre Jr. dropping 23 with 15 from Ayton’s replacement Aron Baynes and another 19 via Kaminsky still wasn’t enough offense without Booker and Ayton’s scoring contributions.
Potentially catching a great team on an off-night for a win was possible because the Suns could really be onto something defensively, as they limited the Nuggets to only 39 points in the first half, continuing to show strong fundamentals and effort on that end.
Because of this and some good Kaminsky minutes in the first half with seven assists from Rubio, Phoenix led by six at the half.
That’s when the inevitable surge came from the Nuggets, but it wasn’t particularly loud, for only 25 points in the third quarter and 31 in the fourth. Once again, because of the defense, a run for the Suns in the third quarter scoring only five points in over seven minutes of game-time didn’t have the game get away from them.
That absolutely happens with the past two iterations of Suns basketball. And again in stretches of the fourth quarter and overtime. While only two games in is too soon to crown this a new era, we are well on our way to doing so.
THE CHANGES WITH NO AYTON
This, as it turns out, would have been one heck of a game for the Suns to have Ayton’s presence inside.
While Baynes started and put up numbers, Phoenix and Rubio, in particular, were missing that easy and reliable target within 14 feet of the bucket.
Rubio and Booker both set up Baynes and Dario Saric around the rim, seeing both of them fail to finish a few times throughout the game.
Behind Baynes, head coach Monty Williams elected to have Kaminsky as the first player off the bench in place of Baynes. He played Cheick Diallo as well in the first half, only to take him off after two minutes and not return him to the game.
There were some brief minutes with Mikal Bridges playing power forward, who only played 13 minutes in the game. That’s something to really keep an eye on, as Bridges was expected to pick up enough scrap minutes across three different spots on the floor to arrive at 25-30 minutes a night behind Kelly Oubre Jr. But with Jevon Carter and Tyler Johnson earning the full amount of reserve minutes behind the starting frontcourt, Williams has no other playing time to offer Bridges with how impactful Oubre has been through two games.