Suns show fight again, learn through ‘winning time’ in loss to Lakers
PHOENIX — With all the positive changes and how different (in a good way) the Phoenix Suns are playing, there are still going to be reminders along the way of how young and new this group is.
“Growing pains” as they call them.
That’s what happens when you’re going through a rapid successful turnaround on the fly, and the Suns lost on Tuesday to the Los Angeles Lakers 123-115 in a game that showed a lot of that will still come this season.
In the fourth quarter, there was a missed open three-pointer here, a blown open layup there and a few defensive mishaps.
In a game that had 29 lead changes, that, and the Lakers (8-2) hitting a few shots on the other end, was all it took for the Suns (6-4) to lose.
A key offensive rebound by Avery Bradley and back-to-back threes by Kyle Kuzma with under two minutes to go in a one-point game was the swing.
On the other end, Dario Saric, Devin Booker and Cam Johnson missed threes on three straight offensive possessions.
That was it, serving as a lesson of how easy it is to fall in a game so highly competitive.
In the grand scheme of things, Phoenix is already in that next phase where they have more than proved themselves in terms of playing hard and the way head coach Monty Williams wants them to.
“I told our guys: when they fight like that, it’s hard for me to argue,” Williams said.
Now it’s about learning how to seal up closely contested contests against great teams.
“We gave up a couple things where we’ll look back and see where we can get better,” Aron Baynes said. “It’s not one guy, it’s all five guys. We need to be on a string, and come down at that time, that’s winning time. That’s what we’re trying to get better at every single day.”
When you’ve been in enough heated games like that, the feel develops for when you can snatch one away, and then there’s actually going out and doing it.
Leave it to LeBron James, a guy who has executed in hundreds of those situations in his NBA career, to say it himself.
“We felt in the fourth quarter that if we just buckled down, got two or three stops, we could kind of break open the game and we did it,” James said.
James and Anthony Davis weren’t statistically superior, but each had their moments of individual dominance in key stretches of the game.
James closed out the game at point guard in the fourth quarter, turning it up an extra gear after beautifully orchestrating the first three while Davis was unguardable in the last six minutes of the first half.
That and Los Angeles’ continued ability to score at the rim won them the game.
A major area of emphasis to watch coming in was how much the Lakers were able to score there. They entered first in the NBA when it comes to efficiency at the rim and they were just as good on Tuesday.
Los Angeles shot 70.5% at the rim for 70 points in the paint, far eclipsing its season average of 52.2 a game. If that doesn’t feel like that much of a killer for the Suns, 39 assists for the Lakers should.
“Probably not our best when it comes to forcing them to make tough shots,” Williams said. “A lot of their assists were in the paint. They only had eight offensive rebounds.”
This was critical because the Lakers are one of the worst jump-shooting teams in the league, rating bottom-three in both mid-range and three-point shooting percentages.
A version of that occurred in the Suns loss, where Los Angeles shot 20-for-50 (40%) outside of shots near the basket.
Key makes by Kuzma (23 points) and Danny Green (14 points) off extra passes set in motion by James seemed to go down every time the Lakers needed a huge shot in the second half.
James had 19 points, seven rebounds and 11 assists while Davis led the Lakers in scoring (24 points) and rebounding (12).
For the most part until the fourth quarter, this felt like a game the Lakers were controlling. Yet, as they continue to do this season, the Suns kept fighting back to have the score manageable.
A balanced scoring attack kept them in it.
They got 19 assists combined from Booker (nine) and Ricky Rubio (10), as well as 18 points from Saric, 20 via Baynes and 21 each for Booker and Rubio.
That, plus two key contributions from the bench was enough to keep scratching and clawing.
Frank Kaminsky is going to have a hard time this year topping the timing of his 16-point night.
The Suns were in a shootout, and with Kelly Oubre Jr. amounting to only one point, Phoenix needed more offense. And Kaminsky was coming off a run the past week where he was hesitating to shoot, lacking confidence in his game.
That’s a large, large part of his game because of not only his shooting ability as a stretch five but the way he’ll make plays off the dribble for him and his teammates.
He stepped up in a big way on Tuesday.
“It was awesome,” Williams said of Kaminsky breaking through. “It’s a credit to hard work.”
On the wing, Cam Johnson becoming a real part of the Suns’ rotation is happening. Fast.
Williams elected to cut his rotation down to nine on Sunday, and a lot of it had to do with finding minutes for Johnson. He loves how Johnson plays within the Suns’ exact principles and provides them the, oftentimes, best shooter in the building.
Even on a night where he missed a few, Johnson showed off his ridiculously quick trigger, pulling right over Davis and James with ease.
“He was huge tonight,” Rubio said of Johnson. “Made big shots (and defended) well. He’s gonna have a big role in this league going forward. He knows how to play, high IQ and he wants to learn.”
Johnson had 11 points in 27 minutes, playing in crunch time over Oubre (19 minutes) and Mikal Bridges (15).
Williams liked the way Johnson was competing.
“That’s why he was out there, he was fighting,” Williams said of Johnson.
The Suns shot 47% from the field and made 16 three-pointers. They managed 32 assists to only 11 turnovers while battling on defense through obvious star mismatches.
Now it’s about figuring out how to come out victorious when the opponent is matching them in those categories, unlike they did against Sacramento, Memphis, Golden State and Brooklyn but like they did versus the Clippers and Philadelphia.
There are plenty of different ways to win in the NBA and the Suns are going to spend this season learning how.
“It’s good for us to be able to learn from this. We need to learn from it. We need to get better,” Baynes said.
“I have all the faith in Monty that he’s going to do it with us.”