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Star 2nd half from Booker can’t save Suns from poor start vs. Spurs

(AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

PHOENIX — The Phoenix Suns know it’s going to take more than one superstar second half and one strong quarter of play as a whole unit in order to win.

So that makes it kind of difficult as to what to take away from a 120-118 loss to the San Antonio Spurs, but we’ll try our best here to tell you what happened.

The Suns were dreadful in the first half. They committed awful turnovers and were either disorganized and/or just plain bad defensively.

Devin Booker was at the center of this, which deserves to come with a clear emphasis that this has been an absolute rarity for him amongst the flood of losing in Phoenix his entire career. We should also mention that he was responsible for the superstar performance in the last 24 minutes and that he played every second of that. But his performance in the first half was a big reason why the Suns were in a bad spot.

Booker consistently couldn’t fight through screens on Spurs sharpshooter Bryn Forbes, who proceeded to shoot 7-of-8 from three-point range for 21 points. San Antonio head coach Gregg Popovich was clearly targeting Booker, making him get physical defensively all night.

On the other end of the ball, Booker’s turnovers and overall decision-making were problematic as well. He had five in the first half.

All of this was included within a mood we’ve seen from Booker before, where he’s noticeably more assertive when it comes to letting his teammates know when breakdowns and mistakes are happening.

So when he’s dealing out turnovers like this, essentially throwing the ball at where Deandre Ayton should be, it’s not helping matters.

After a first half where the Suns somehow hung around before being down 15, this is where things would typically spiral for the Suns in an uncompetitive fashion. They’d fold from there or make a spirited comeback in garbage time that wouldn’t wind up really mattering after the fact.

This Suns team, however, is different than those of the past few years, as at least Booker himself caught his balance back and exploded in the third quarter with 22 points.

Phoenix’s defense was “better” in those 12 minutes but it wasn’t strong and there wasn’t enough offense beyond Booker to push. The Suns had only three field goals scored by players not named Devin in that quarter.

But his team did come to support him in the fourth.

The high pick-and-roll was there all day long through Deandre Ayton, where head coach Monty Williams was desperate for something to work besides Booker on his own.

“Just trying to generate some offense, we just didn’t have any juice,” he said. “DA generates a lot of offense when he dives to the basket.”

Ayton found his mojo in that quarter that he’s been thriving through the past three games, going for 11 points and five rebounds that included eight free throw attempts. He also did well defensively while the Spurs tried to break him down as the backline of help.

Through mainly running that fundamental play, the Suns scored on an absurd 10 straight possessions and went from down 108-93 with 6:53 left to tied at 108 less than three minutes later at the 3:55 mark, a 15-0 run for those of you who don’t want to do the math. Those last two buckets of the scoring streak later and Phoenix was up 113-11 with 2:55 remaining.

Take a second here and catch a couple of breaths before we put a bow on these last three minutes, because every possession was key from there.

Forbes hit a very-well contested three-pointer by Ayton to put San Antonio back up one and then Kelly Oubre Jr. missed a three-pointer, one in which he clamored for off the ball for roughly 10 seconds.

Another Spurs three, this time by Derrick White, was followed by Ayton drawing a foul for two points.

The swing in the game came following a Forbes missed three and the Suns down two with 1:15 to go.

Booker got the rebound and dribbled the ball up the court, running that high ball screen with Ayton again.

When the inevitable trap came, the defense committed towards Ayton and left Oubre a bit of space at the top of the key. Oubre took his driving lane but didn’t know where he wanted to go and ended up passing to Ayton from 12 feet out and his man near. Ayton faced up and took his signature mid-range jumper, a miss, and after LaMarcus Aldridge made two free throws to make it a four-point deficit, that seemed to be it.

Oubre got called for an offensive foul on the next Phoenix possession, but after a miss by DeMar DeRozan, Booker scored a quick two and forced a timeout with under 15 seconds left and the Suns down two.

The Spurs went on to not be very Spurs-like and turned the ball over while fouling Rubio on the same play, but Rubio missed one of his free throws to leave San Antonio still leading by one. Aldridge only made one of two on the other side, granting Booker a chance to tie or win the game at 5.6 seconds left, and he went for the jugular on a deep three that didn’t go down.

Booker said after the game he liked the look at the top a few feet out from the line going to his right, noting that there’s a chance for an offensive rebound off his miss too.

Booker finished with 37 points, seven rebounds and five assists. He did not have a turnover in the second half and somehow squeaked a plus-six out of this, uh, whatever you call this game.

Ayton made it three games in a row with 25-plus points, landing right on that number of 25 to go with 12 rebounds.

The highest scorer after that had 15, with both Oubre and Ricky Rubio landing there, while Dario Saric added 10 and the bench of Mikal Bridges (four), Elie Okobo (three), Jevon Carter (three) and Cheick Diallo (six) amounted to only 16 combined. Phoenix missed Cam Johnson (right quad contusion) and Aron Baynes (left hip soreness) in that second unit, who both were out due to injury.

Wherever you want to go from this game, missed free throws and officiating aside, it ultimately goes back to the first half. The Spurs had 23 points off turnovers, 18 of which were in the first half. Twelve of their 17 three-pointers that they converted 54.8% of attempts on for the night as a whole also came in the opening two quarters.

“We know who shoots for them but Derrick White has 25 and Bryn has 24, those two had 49 points,” Williams said.

Speaking of the officiating, Williams wasn’t too pleased about it. The officials seemed to let some physical play go but also called some ticky-tacky fouls, leaving no clear line of consistency.

“I don’t want to lose my money but I’m getting a bit aggravated with the officiating,” Williams said. “It’s one of those things that I’m fighting right now but I just feel like where there are times that it doesn’t go our way.”

Booker, in particular, seemed to give up pleading with the officials. He said he didn’t want to comment on it after the game, leaving the extent of his speaking on it to, “You don’t want to touch anybody’s ego’s, man.”

The endless angles and paths created from this game all end at the same point of a loss for the Suns that brings their record to 2-7 in one-possession games, all against Western Conference opponents.

That’s what’s next for them to figure out before they start really looking at the eight seed as a real possibility, one that keeps fading with every loss to a team they are fighting for that spot with like the Spurs.

INJURY NOTES

Two in-game injuries that require an update.

– On Booker’s last bucket of the game, a drive where he collided with verticality, he grabbed at his left knee and hobbled once or twice while walking back to the bench. He returned to the game after and didn’t appear to be favoring either side.

“It’s fine,” he said. “Just a little knee-to-knee. Little bump.”

– Also in the fourth quarter, Bridges came out weird on some contact holding at his right arm. As he continued to run back down the court, he kept appearing to struggle with it. When asked after the game, Bridges said it was his shoulder and it got “stuck” at some point but he assured this reporter that he was good.

As for updates on both, the Suns don’t practice on Tuesday so the team’s injury report that comes out that day will provide the next bit of news.


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