Suns drop another close one, lose third straight in last game without Ayton
PHOENIX — Come on a quick journey and zoom all the way out to evaluate the Phoenix Suns for what they are at this point in the season.
They are 11-15 through 26 games, 25 of which were without Deandre Ayton, nine of which were without Aron Baynes, five of which were without Ricky Rubio and two of which were without Devin Booker.
Considering where the standards were at before the season, that’s pretty good, right?!
But that’s not where we’re at anymore.
The expectations have been tinkered and readjusted after a 7-4 start, where a shaky Western Conference playoff picture has a Phoenix team playing the right way in the mix, so a third straight loss on Monday, 111-110 to the Portland Trail Blazers, in a similar letdown variety to the previous two won’t suffice.
“Another lesson,” head coach Monty Williams said.
The Suns scored only 43 points in the second half, turned the ball over a season-high 21 times and shot 35% from three-point range. For a team that has proven they are capable of executing no matter who is in the lineup, they should beat bad teams when they play the way Portland (11-16) did, even without Booker. That is what playoff teams do.
And, like the defeat at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs in Mexico City on Saturday, they should have wrapped this one up late.
After an absolute cluster of a closing three minutes, the Suns went up two with 32 seconds left when Kelly Oubre Jr. converted on a four-point play.
On the ensuing possession, Williams wanted the Suns to take the foul to give on Damian Lillard, but they couldn’t get to him quickly enough.
Lillard proceeded to drive and draw an and-one on an attempted drawn charge by Aron Baynes, a play that was challenged and upheld.
Lillard made the free throw for the lead, Rubio missed an open three-pointer with 0.6 seconds left and that was the ballgame.
Some debatable calls, like the Baynes one, and some missed calls were there, but the Suns shot 2-of-9 in the last three minutes.
Again, it sure would have helped to have Booker running the crunch-time offense, but there’s a sustained quality of basketball the Suns have proven capable of and they’re going to be extremely disappointed they got these three losses in a row given the context of how they occurred.
Oubre gave the Suns the aggressor they needed offensively, scoring a team-high 24 points. Five other Suns got to double figures, including Frank Kaminsky (17), Dario Saric (17) and Cam Johnson (13).
Rubio tried his best to shoulder the offensive load, but that’s a lot to ask when he’s guarding Lillard or CJ McCollum on the other end too. He was 4-for-14 shooting with a season-high eight turnovers, recording 10 points, 11 rebounds and 14 assists for a triple-double.
For Suns fans who hadn’t seen the Blazers this year, they made it a fair show as to why they have struggled so much despite a well-earned pedigree as a strong team in the West.
Their defense and overall team play was a mess, but they had just enough scoring pop to win. Lillard had 27 points, McCollum added 30 and Carmelo Anthony produced 23, seeing those three combine for 80 of the Blazers’ 111 points.
To go back to missed opportunities, though, Lillard was 2-for-6 in the fourth quarter and left an opening.
That’s not something one of the league’s most clutch players is going to do often and the Suns couldn’t take advantage of that rare instance.
Depending on the perspective you are viewing this season through, two hard-fought losses filled with the youngest team in the NBA making plenty of mistakes without their star player and franchise center might be enough.
This is also a three-game stretch the Suns could look at in April as to what ultimately has them on the outs instead of their first playoff berth in nearly a decade.
What it essentially does is cut down the margin for error in Ayton’s return if that’s where you choose to land.
It’s a wise assumption to foresee that there will be growing pains incorporating Ayton back in mid-season, even with how much this team clearly needs him.
But after a light first half of December on the schedule that Phoenix went 3-5 on, they need to capitalize on the rest of it and some parts of January before February, where a myriad of playoff teams and hopefuls await to close out the last half of the year.
There’s still plenty of time left to get rolling by then with a fully-functioning roster in time for the true meat of the season, but as this three-game losing streak (that included two other West competitors) and what Booker had on his right wrist showed, it keeps transforming into a tighter and tighter window.