EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Suns again missing carryover from great practices in loss to Jazz

Dec 14, 2020, 11:17 PM | Updated: 11:44 pm
(AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)...
(AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

(AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

For the second straight preseason game, it’s clear the Phoenix Suns don’t have much time to put everything together — conditioning, continuity, defense and so on. Everything teams build over a few weeks of training camp and preseason play is jammed into the 17 days the Suns have been allotted from their first practice to opening night.

It was also the second straight loss for the Suns in Utah against the Jazz, this time 111-92 on Monday. The Suns were without Cam Payne, Cam Johnson, Jae Crowder and Dario Saric, so they were shorthanded, to be fair.

Head coach Monty Williams highlighted a few key areas the team struggled in, particularly at the start of the third quarter.

“I thought our transition defense was really poor but it started with an inconsistent offense,” Williams said. “We were playing decent defense in the first half.”

That was a 32-6 run in the two middle quarters from Utah that blew the game open, the type of stretch that you’ll rarely see against a team like the Suns that prides itself on playing a certain way every possession. Williams said that third quarter “stunk.”

It’s good that Phoenix has that identity, one that has been echoed by everyone over the course of training camp. But with several new pieces in for such a compact preparation phase, the transition had the potential to be bumpy. Thus far it has been despite Williams reiterating they had an “awesome” practice on Sunday and shootaround on Monday.

“The carryover from practice to the game hasn’t happened,” Williams said, noting it will.

As a reminder of how quick this ramp-up is for the Suns — beyond the time from last season to this –, Phoenix had a full week last year in-between the preseason finale and first game of the season. They held a training camp 2.0 of sorts during that time and boy did it pay off for that 7-4 start. They’d love for that opportunity again, but it’s not there this time.

The offense stagnated as Williams alluded to, and when asked about the ball-handlers outside Chris Paul and Devin Booker, he mentioned some issues.

“It’s different. These guys are not used to playing in our 0.5, they’re not used to playing in our auto offense. I don’t want to use the excuse that it’s going to take time. We just have to have to commit to it,” he said. “The ball did stick way too much. I didn’t think the floor balance was there.

“When we’re running it and everybody knows where they’re supposed to be, we have great floor balance, we have wings and extreme corners. And tonight I saw way too many possessions where our point guard didn’t get us where we needed to be or the guys were just in a logjam on one side.”

Crowder has been vocal from the bench for both games he’s been out and Williams credited him for summarizing the situation best.

“Jae was huge in the locker room just now. He said it best: ‘Coach, we just don’t trust each other yet on defense,’ and he’s right,” Williams said. “We need more reps, we need to practice with the same level of intensity we need to play with.”

The head coach went on to say that Paul and Crowder will be huge for the team after games like this when the ironing out needs to take place. The two, particularly Paul, were shown on the broadcast doing it throughout the game. They did more in the locker room as Williams said, and that’s going to be required for Phoenix to be in the right place to maximize two final tuneups against the Los Angeles Lakers on Wednesday and Friday.

“These aren’t circumstances any of us have ever been in, so we’re all adjusting on the fly,” Paul said. “There’s no excuses, and what I’ll tell you about us: we’re gonna figure it out.”

AYTON’S NIGHT TO FORGET

While Paul made a terrific one-two combo with Deandre Ayton in the first half, the big fella had a poor performance in the game overall.

Ayton had four points and nine rebounds in 25 minutes, but the most notable stat line was his opposition Rudy Gobert grabbing 20 rebounds in 28 minutes.

The 22-year-old Ayton had one of those nights we’ve unfortunately grown accustomed to seeing from him, where his aggression and mentality aren’t nearly reaching the levels they should.

In the fourth quarter, Ayton had a defensive breakdown not covering Jevon Carter’s backline and that led to a conversation between the two, one of a handful of occasions where Ayton’s effort around the rim was not there.

Paul and Ayton had a lengthy talk on the bench that the broadcast caught parts of that looked to last a few minutes.

Here’s what Williams had to say when asked about his thoughts on the way Ayton played:

“I thought the physicality — Gobert was really good tonight and DA’s gotta enforce and impose his will,” Williams said. “He’s gotta get in great shape so that he can be as dominant as he was in Orlando and in moments last season. But tonight I thought their bigs dominated the game … Deandre is a physical force and when he gets in great, great shape he’s gonna show that, but tonight he didn’t.”

While Paul’s arrival asks for less out of Ayton, nights like Monday’s are also going to squeeze out every bit of patience the Suns have remaining in him. Consistency continues to be the key for Ayton and Williams believes that conditioning is first up in helping that.

LOOSE BALLS

— By the way, Booker had 27 points in 28 minutes on 11-of-17 shooting. If you’ve sat through most of the games Booker has played as a Sun to this point, you couldn’t help feeling happy for him watching what Paul was capable as an offensive player.

— First-round pick Jalen Smith got the start at power forward in the place of Johnson, who started Saturday but was out Monday. Smith has had a few impressive dribble drives in the two games but also looked like he’s going to need some time. That’s not all that uncommon for a rookie, and Williams again mentioned the speed of NBA play when asked about Smith.

“Everything’s moving so fast for him. There are moments where he doesn’t have the force he needs to play with because he’s thinking,” Williams said. “It’s not because he doesn’t want to do it — he’s thinking about what he should do instead of it naturally happening. And that’s OK. That’s what all young players go through.”

Smith had eight points and seven rebounds in 24 minutes.

— In the fourth quarter, wing Abdel Nader got clobbered on the head by Utah’s Udoka Azubuike as he went up for a shot, and after already taking a pretty rough hit on the head, the fall to the ground was tough too. Nader appeared to hit his head on the floor. He was helped by trainers and did not return to the game. Azubuike was given a Flagrant 2.

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