EMPIRE OF THE SUNS
Suns hang around again, fail to execute in crunch time of loss to Jazz
PHOENIX — The Utah Jazz felt like the perfect team for the Phoenix Suns to match up with three games into the season when Phoenix has resembled a gritty, intelligent basketball team.
Utah is the same, known as one of the best defensive teams in the league that relies on high-level talent and coaching on offense to be one of the top dogs in the Western Conference.
They are smart, experienced and well-coached, which is most of what has made the Suns so appealing at this beginning point of the season.
With that being said, it appears we should have another team trait ready to use as a label for the Suns if this is in fact legit.
They have a knack early on for sticking in games, hanging around at single-digit deficits when it feels like they should be down by much, much more.
They did it in Denver and again at home Monday night in another loss, this time 96-95.
It would be friendly to call the first half a mess. Both teams were incredibly sloppy on offense, couldn’t hit shots and played good defense.
That resulted in a 46-39 Jazz lead that required a 7-0 run to end the first half. Phoenix somehow had it tied before that spurt despite an ugly half of basketball.
It was back-and-forth from there, including the Suns going on a 28-17 run when Devin Booker exited with four fouls midway through the third, another team aspect that was so foreign to Phoenix in the past.
The end of the game showed which team was new at this and which one was not, filled with controversy along the way.
With 2:10 left and a two-point lead, Ricky Rubio and Booker turned the ball over on back-to-back possessions, respectively, that resulted in four easy transition points and one free throw for the Jazz to all of a sudden have the Suns trailing by three.
After an ill-advised three by Jevon Carter, who was stupendous in this game, he made up for it on the next possession to make one and tie the game at 95.
With 30 seconds left, the Suns forced a turnover, and Booker made the right play on the other end, getting past his man and countering a suffocating defense by kicking it to a wide-open Kelly Oubre Jr. in the corner.
Oubre missed and Booker would foul Donovan Mitchell with 0.4 seconds left on Utah’s possession after a timeout, a foul Booker admitted was bad. He did everything right with verticality at the rim until the last millisecond, lowering one of his arms to go at the ball.
“Stepped over to help, and Donovan was shooting the ball — it was a bad foul,” Booker said, while also admitting that that’s not a call a player will usually get in that context of the game.
Booker should know as much. He drove to the basket late against the Nuggets trying to win the game and didn’t get a foul call on a very similar play.
When asked if he saw the similarities, Booker said, “I guess.”
“I’m not saying anything. You’re not gonna get me,” he said, co-signing with a media member who mentioned Booker keeping his money and avoiding a fine. Book responded by saying, “I gotta keep it.”
Meanwhile, on the foul call, that’s where things went haywire.
The replays clearly showed the Suns had 1.8 seconds left, and Monty Williams pled with the referees to review how much time was left.
After a poor night for the officials filled with plenty of video reviews already, they seemingly declined and Mitchell’s one make and second miss sealed a Suns loss.
“I tried to get them to look at it,” Williams said, going over the number of reviews the game had. “A pivotal point in the game … we don’t even review it. I just have a tough time — I gotta talk to the league about that.
“That’s a tough one to swallow.”
Williams went on to say that brainfart by the officials was not the reason they lost.
Phoenix shot 41.3%, and while the Jazz came in even lower at 38.0%, they attempted 39 free throws and converted on 32.
Saturday’s win over the Los Angeles Clippers was also filled with questionable foul calls on the Suns, who will have to win over the referees and earn their respect after the way they defended the past couple of seasons.
“Not surprised,” Booker said when asked if he was when the Suns didn’t get a review. “I’ve been here a while now.”
It’s the push and shove for Phoenix as a team. It’s forming an identity as a hard-nosed, defensive team but they can’t play that way and win a lot if they get whistled for any sort of contact.
The Suns have now been called for 35, 34 and 31 fouls in the past three games. As an eye witness to all the calls, those numbers are about 8-10 fouls too high. They are fouling, but not nearly that much.
Once again, after another game of dealing with this, Booker did not have the answers.
“Asking the wrong person, gotta ask the people calling ’em,” he said.
Regardless, Booker likes where they are at.
“We think we’ve guarded pretty much every game very [well],” he said. “We have to earn that respect man. Coming out here, we’re fighting every day. They’ll eventually learn that this is us and it’s not a fluke.”
That’s the cruel reality of Phoenix building up the right way to play, because they certainly didn’t in the past, and everyone has to adjust, including the referees.
For now, they’re focused on tightening everything up while maintaining this strong start.
“I like the fight,” Rubio said. “I like how we, in the tough moments, get together and really play with passion. The only difference about not making the playoffs or making it is winning this type of game.
“I know we’re young, we’re learning, but we gotta close out.”
CARTER CONTINUES TO DAZZLE OFF BENCH
Carter, the team’s backup point guard, has already become a fan favorite less than a week into the season.
His defining weakness as a player is his ability to play floor general, running the offense in a way that keeps things churning and flowing.
The stagnant bits have shown in Phoenix, but despite all that, he’s shown an unteachable ability to make plays on both ends. Whether it’s a huge three-pointer, taking a charge or locking up on defense like he almost always does, he’s had over a dozen ginormous moments in the context of these four games that help the Suns in huge spots.
Monday, in particular, was his best game of the four. Those Carter swing moments almost all came in his second-half shift.
Carter hit two threes and had a steal on Mike Conley, playing excellent defense on Utah’s point guard and even their star perimeter scorer Mitchell at times as well. He finished with 15 points, four rebounds, three assists and two steals.
At one point in the fourth quarter, Carter was set to check out for Rubio and received a gigantic ovation from the Suns crowd, arguably the loudest the building has been so far this season.
Williams appeared to change his mind, though, as Rubio came back to the bench and Carter returned, encouraging the fans for even more noise.
“That’s just me bringing energy,” he said. “That’s just what I do. That’s my role on this team — come off the bench, make a spark, try to pick up the guys, try to get us going.
“We’re the home team. We need the crowd involved. Everywhere else you go, the fans are involved so I just try to get our fans involved.”
Leaving Carter in when Rubio was slated to return is where the divide comes, as the offense started to fall apart and it was clear Rubio’s quarterbacking of the team was needed. After three straight poor possessions and about two minutes too long of sticking with Carter, Rubio returned.
Regardless, rookie point guard Ty Jerome is set to return from an ankle sprain in a few weeks. He will really, really have to impress to take any playing time away from Carter.
No matter what shots don’t fall or errant decisions are made from time to time, his impact on the game is undeniable.
FUNNY-LOOKING BOX SCORE
This was a strange statistical game with some strange individual performances.
While Booker had his moments taking over in the fourth quarter with 21 points on 9-for-16 shooting and some good defense to boot, he had zero assists in a game for the first time since November of 2017.
Conley was a disaster for Utah, continuing a shaky start to the season, not making a shot and finishing with one point, two rebounds, one assist, a block, a steal, three turnovers and five fouls in 20 minutes.
Rudy Gobert had 15 points and 18 rebounds, and as you’d expect, he was even better than that suggests, consistently impacting the game defensively.
Frank Kaminsky’s off-night shooting came. He was 3-for-11 after a terrific first three games.
And finally, the Jazz won with a 19-to-23 assist-to-turnover ratio, a perfect encapsulation of this gross overall basketball game.