EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Suns continue building up regular-season legs, fall to Jazz in preseason

Dec 12, 2020, 11:04 PM | Updated: 11:17 pm
Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker, rear, passes the ball as Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert (27) defends...

Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker, rear, passes the ball as Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert (27) defends during the first half of an NBA preseason basketball game Saturday, Dec. 12, 2020, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

(AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

The Phoenix Suns will be looking at the preseason as an opportunity to get fresh while also, well, staying fresh.

Chris Paul (right ankle soreness), Dario Saric (right quad soreness) and Jae Crowder didn’t play, leaving the Suns without two starters and their first big off the bench.

The starting lineup went full speed in the minutes they played but the Suns’ defense was overeager and a bit sloppy in a 119-105 loss to the Utah Jazz in Saturday’s preseason opener.

Because of how quickly the season gets started and a short training camp, there’s a balancing act for teams across the league of getting guys ready for the season and not putting too much stress on their bodies while doing so.

Players did not participate in any pickup basketball in the offseason due to the COVID-19 pandemic, so there’s an extra amount of development they require for their legs.

Head coach Monty Williams said after the game he felt like the Suns were almost playing against themselves because they like to go full bore, even on limited minutes in the first game of the preseason.

“I expected some of the mistakes we had tonight,” he said. “We were running in mud a little bit as far as conditioning was concerned.”

Williams saw the teaching moments he likes where they’ll be able to progress from learning.

Utah was able to consistently create good looks on offense, most of it because of what the Suns did wrong defensively. Williams expounded on what exactly that was, where he highlights a few things to watch for the Suns to grow on in the remaining three preseason games.

“Guarding the ball,” he said. “That was the main thing for me tonight — just the ability to stay in front of the ball. We had way too many breakdowns. There were times we were in decent position but we were 30, 40 feet away from the basket trying to guard guys at half-court and that’s way too much space. We gotta work on our pickup points. I love the aggression but we have to be smart, and we fouled way too much. I thought we were reaching a lot tonight, probably because we were a bit tired.”

The three assumed starters for the regular season alongside Paul and Crowder were productive.

Devin Booker had 16 points and six assists in 24 minutes, coming out as aggressive as he was in must-win games from the bubble.

Deandre Ayton finished with 11 points and 14 rebounds for his 22 minutes. While it was a few too many jumpers, Ayton was very good defensively, and as the box score indicates, he was active on the glass. We also saw a little bit of his off the dribble flashes that have come in the first two years.

Booker alluded to some of that after the game, with the second clip below probably drawing his attention the most.

 

“I like when he’s aggressive,” Booker said. “He can shoot it, but when he puts it on the ground and puts his body on somebody, he’s tough to guard. They’re gonna have to foul him. You’ve seen spurts of that tonight and you’re going to continue to see so because we’re gonna stay on him to make sure he’s being ‘dominAyton.'”

Another continuation from Orlando was Mikal Bridges getting involved offensively, taking it into his own hands a few times. He scored 14 points in 23 minutes.

Without Paul, there was a noticeable stagnant energy the offense had when Booker sat. On-ball creation outside of Booker was a huge problem last season, and without those two on the floor, it was a good amount of dribbling with not much happening.

Williams noted some of that after the game but said there was a good process of the coaches giving players feedback and then the players making the required tweaks.

Cam Payne started in Paul’s place and was not shy in trying to provide that source of offense, mostly for himself. He was 4-of-10 from the field with eight points.

E’Twaun Moore (9 points) and Langston Galloway (17 points) got hot in the second half, particularly Galloway, but most of that was shooting.

That’s where Galloway, who didn’t play in the first half, can be a weapon moving off the ball and even on dribble pull-ups when he gets going.

Without Saric, Damian Jones played the backup five and was a pleasant surprise. Jones knew where to be defensively, and because of his agility at that size, was able to get there quicker than most centers. He had two blocks to go with a well-earned seven rebounds in 18 minutes.

That meant the rookie Jalen Smith was at the 4 in the two-big look. Smith showed that his three-point shot is as smooth as advertised for a man of his size.

Smith had five points and three rebounds over 18 minutes. Williams mentioned a few times both before the game and after that the pace of the NBA is something Smith will need to get used to. He also said Smith will need to improve on his movement off-ball on both ends of the court, which ties back to getting in the flow.

The rook’s night was a good representation for this preseason as a whole, a time for improving the Suns are happy to have underway.

“Just getting our feet underneath us,” Booker said. “We were excited for this time. To get to match up against somebody other than our own team. Obviously, some things to work on. We have some good film that we can watch and learn from. Overall, it was good times in there and bad times but that’s what you should expect for now. I think we’re going to get better.”

LOOSE BALLS

— Cam Johnson played 15 minutes before landing awkwardly after a layup attempt in the third quarter. Johnson grabbed at the back of his left foot and came out of the game limping. He had trainers working with him to stretch out that foot and he did not return. Williams said after the game it was a calf cramp and he thinks Johnson is going to be OK.

— Bridges also had a bit of an unconventional fall in the first half, slightly jamming his ankle. Williams also said he expects Bridges to be fine.

— No shoutout for Jevon Carter above, but that’s because he was his usual self. Carter was a pest defensively, picking up two steals and shooting 2-of-6 from the field, all from deep. He’s gotten much better as a 0.5 ball mover and showed that Saturday night by tying for the team lead in assists with six.

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