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Suns’ defense lets them down in winnable game, good effort vs. Pels

Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker, left, is pressured by New Orleans Pelicans guard Lonzo Ball (2) and forward Nicolo Melli during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Thursday, Nov. 21, 2019, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Matt York)

PHOENIX — The Phoenix Suns are going to win a whole lot when they move the ball, defend and play smart.

Those have been the basic principles under Monty Williams that have led to some early success.

But when one of those three doesn’t come to fruition in a game, a shorthanded Suns team is going to have a very hard time picking up victories.

That was the case in a 124-121 loss to the New Orleans Pelicans on Thursday night, as their defense continued to give up easy looks. And the Pelicans continued to burn them again, and again and again.

New Orleans shot 53.4% from the field and made 16 threes, having a knack for punishing the Suns on plenty of open looks and making some tough ones too.

Ultimately, though, as the Pelicans (6-9) hit lots of shots, the Suns’ (7-7) defense had too many gaps in it throughout the night.

New Orleans had 12 points in the paint in the first 4:30 of the game, made their first 10 shots in the third quarter and went on a 10-2 run to start the fourth.

The third quarter in particular is what stood out to Williams after the game.

“Doesn’t tell the whole tale of the game but we did not have the discipline and urgency to start both halves, especially the third,” he said.

Those 10 buckets in a row were for 24 points in under six minutes.

“It’s a tough thing but we have to understand — and I know our guys do but — all of these possessions mean so much and the slippage on switches really hurt us,” Williams said.

The disorganized play defensively is part of what’s to be expected when Ricky Rubio and Aron Baynes are out injured.

That’s both because they are the two best veteran defenders on the team and that when they are out, younger guys get an opportunity, who are more prone to those types of mistakes that plagued the Suns in this game.

It’s a frustrating loss for the Suns because it’s a game they easily could have won had they been just a bit tighter defensively. The energy was there and they did enough offensively.

They shot 13-of-31 from three (41.9%), had 28 assists on 40 field goals and only turned the ball over 14 times.

The extra boost they required without the two vets offensively came from the bench, which produced 52 points and shot 58% from the field.

Elie Okobo had his second straight impressive performance, finishing with 11 points and seven assists in 20 minutes. Like in Sacramento, his plus-minus was the best of everyone at plus-16.

“When he was in the game, especially in the first half, we had burst,” Williams said of Okobo.

Cam Johnson had 14 points, Mikal Bridges added 12 and Cheick Diallo’s best minutes in a Suns jersey yet resulted in eight points.

Factor in Kelly Oubre Jr.’s 25, Devin Booker’s 19 and Frank Kaminsky’s 14, and that’s enough scoring to win, unlike the entire Boston loss and most of the Kings defeat.

But when you play poor defense, the margin for error is much tighter. So when Johnson misses an open three-pointer down four with 3:26 left and Oubre does as well down four again with 1:44 left, that was the swing when they couldn’t consistently get stops.

A fair shout to New Orleans’ Brandon Ingram, who scored 15 in the fourth and had individual moments that decided the outcome late.

Most of this, though, was about a game the Suns should have won. In the short and long term, it’s not good.

The short-term blow: They needed a win to snap a two-game losing streak, which now turns to three, and that’s bad news because they have a road back-to-back over the weekend in Minnesota (8-7) and Denver (10-3).

That can quickly turn into five losses in a row where concerns start to seriously mount after such a promising beginning of the year, potentially erased by five games in seven days.

In the long-term picture, these are games the Suns need to come out of on top. When they’re missing two of their three most important players, they are rarely going to have a chance given the way their roster is constructed.

This was one of ’em and they couldn’t capitalize against a team that was just about as sloppy defensively as they were.

It sounds like Williams had everyone reset a bit with where they were on their journey as a team this season.

“I told our guys, ‘Look, we had a nice run. We’ve gotten hit in the mouth with injuries. Let’s see what we’re made of,'” he said. “The buzz will die down a bit and now we can just focus on getting better.'”


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