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Suns’ potential bounce-back game coincides with lone national TV game

Phoenix Suns players, facing from left, Dario Saric, Tyler Johnson, Cheick Diallo and Mikal Bridges watch the closing moments of the Suns' 120-116 loss to the Sacramento Kings in an NBA basketball game in Sacramento, Calif., Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2019. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

PHOENIX — Well, it sure is an interesting time for all the bright national television lights to be on the Phoenix Suns.

For the one and only time this season, the Suns play on TNT, and they’re coming off their first losing streak.

All while they’re hurting.

Aron Baynes (right hip flexor strain) is out for the second straight game while Ricky Rubio (back spasms) is doubtful for the Thursday game against the New Orleans Pelicans.

That very likely means the Suns will be down two of their three best players.

On top of that, those two players embody the stylistic approach Phoenix has taken on this season under Monty Williams. Rubio facilitates the offense through his ball movement while Baynes sets the tone physically on both ends.

Unsurprisingly, their absences have led to the Suns’ worst stretch in quality of play in losses to the Celtics and Kings.

That, and probably asking too much out of players further down the depth chart as Kevin Zimmerman wrote here, begs the question of how well they can play Thursday.

Like I said, interesting times for the country to be watching.

Replacing Rubio is something the team can’t really do.

Before Monday’s loss to Boston, Williams spoke to how much having that coach on the floor helps him, as it does the Celtics with someone like Kemba Walker.

“They help you so much manage the game,” he said. “A lot of my communication with Ricky is who’s hot, who needs a touch, the rhythm of the game and he knows we want to play fast but they’ll be times where he’s like, ‘Coach, why don’t we manage this part of the game?’ That kind of thing, it’s invaluable.”

Rubio has started 488 NBA games at point guard. Even if a player had a different skillset that was maybe less pass-friendly than Rubio, that type of seasoned experience goes such a long way at that position.

So, potentially without Rubio on Thursday, it’s not about his replacements trying to be Rubio in the Suns’ system. That will not work.

“If you try to be Ricky you’re gonna get yourself in trouble,” Williams said at shootaround Thursday.

That’s such an obvious point you don’t think about it. It’s why the offense can look so funky without Rubio. Not only are they missing his play, but they’re missing his style of play.

There has been some tinkering done by Williams as to who plays in place of Rubio.

The head coach started Jevon Carter on Monday but then didn’t play him at all on Tuesday, and that was after Carter fell out of the rotation a few games ago.

Tyler Johnson has taken those minutes and started in place of Rubio for the second half at Sacramento, but second-year guard Elie Okobo played the last 18 minutes of the game on Tuesday with inspired play during a near-comeback.

It’s not especially clear who starts in his Rubio’s place, but there’s always been a huge drop-off when the Spaniard and the starters, in general, leave the floor.

As for Baynes, it’s a lot more obvious what they’re missing. But it goes beyond bruising screens.

With everything Baynes is known for, it’s easy to forget a few other areas of his offensive game where he’s improved.

Baynes has been a far better shooter than his replacement Frank Kaminsky. The former player is hitting 44.2% from deep to Kaminsky’s 28.6%.

His assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.85 is far superior to Kaminsky’s 1.59, as he’s quietly been one of the best passing big men in the NBA.

And then there’s Baynes’ communication defensively.

When Williams was asked about small-ball lineups featuring more wings, he said he feels much better about the defensive side if Baynes is out there because of the way he talks.

“Aron usually calls that stuff out. He’s like a middle linebacker in that regard,” Williams said on Nov. 13.

Kaminsky’s struggles keeping up in pick-and-roll coverage have been obvious, but some of those open shots allowed and missed switches go back to being without Baynes as well.

Unlike Rubio, though, Baynes is far more about playing within the principles of Williams’ system, something he has extensively talked about through his short time in Phoenix.

If the likes of Kaminsky and others can move the ball, hit open shots and be in the right spot defensively most of the time all while playing hard, that’s enough. At the end of the day, while Baynes is playing like one of the NBA’s best centers, he’s still essentially a role player.

The Pelicans offer a perfect test to see how the Suns can adjust. New Orleans is 5-9 and off to a rough start as a team, but the individual talent of Jrue Holiday and Brandon Ingram is more than enough to give the Suns headaches if they aren’t locked in.

Even with the injuries, it’s a team the Suns should beat given the way they played prior to this week. We’ll see how that goes.

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