Potential changes loom after another poor night for Suns’ starters in loss

Jan 11, 2021, 8:52 PM | Updated: 9:37 pm
Washington Wizards guard Raul Neto (19) goes to the basket past Phoenix Suns forward Mikal Bridges ...

Washington Wizards guard Raul Neto (19) goes to the basket past Phoenix Suns forward Mikal Bridges (25) and guard Devin Booker (1) during the second half of an NBA basketball game, Monday, Jan. 11, 2021, in Washington. Wizards center Robin Lopez (15) looks on. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

(AP Photo/Nick Wass)

The Phoenix Suns were eventually going to get burned by their offensive ineptitude, particularly early in games.

It burned them in Friday’s loss to the very bad Detroit Pistons, and it burned them again in Monday’s 128-107 defeat at the hands of the very bad Washington Wizards.

The Suns (7-4) entered Monday night’s action minus-21 in the first quarter through 10 games. Because of an outstanding plus-64 mark in the second quarter, they’ve been able to make up for it. They can’t rely on it, though, and Monday showed them why.

Phoenix scored 15 points in the first quarter and was down just 20-15 with 2:00 to go. The offense was unable to get dribble penetration, nor showed any real urgency to create it. That plus poor jump-shooting numbers got them there. So when the defense was lackadaisical, that was really playing with fire against an explosive offensive team like Washington.

The Wizards (3-8) absolutely steamrolled them from that point on.

To emphasize how quickly this happened, it was only a 15-point Wizards lead with 8:42 to go in the second quarter. That ballooned to 32 in under four minutes, making it a 37-10 Wizards run in 10 minutes of game time.

The Suns managed only 42 points in the first half against a porous Wizards defense that was giving up 65.7 points per first half prior to Monday’s game. They trailed 68-42 at the half and were unable to make up any ground, with the closest margin in the second half being the final score. The Suns shot 4-of-27 from three-point range.

“This is just one of those stinkers you wanna flush and hurry up and get back on the floor,” head coach Monty Williams said.

“Our level of defense just wasn’t where it needed to be,” he added.

This was a very disengaged effort as a whole by the Suns, but the lack of offensive rhythm was there again and is now a bit startling.

One of the trends inside that is Chris Paul’s insistence on getting Deandre Ayton going early. Paul almost seemingly refuses to come out seeking his own shot until he gets the big fella a good look or two.

The chemistry there is still a big-time work in progress.

Paul, in general, has never been the type of player to start chucking, and that’s been even more of the case in the twilight of his career. Even in the tremendous season he had for Oklahoma City last year that earned him Second Team All-NBA honors, he attempted only 12.7 shots per game.

In the first quarter of the first 10 games, Paul had 27 field goal attempts to Ayton’s 25. That number for Paul overall has been remarkably consistent, staying below three shots per quarter for all four periods.

Paul getting his teammates involved the way he does is part of what makes him an all-time great. A lot of this is getting familiar, and he’ll surely be a bit more aggressive once the group starts to click.

But while waiting for that, the team specifically needs him to be more of a scoring threat right now, especially at the start of games and especially when most of his energy offensively has been toward getting something going for Ayton.

That’s because Ayton’s decisiveness around the rim with the ball has regressed to his rookie season and is perhaps the worst it has ever been. He continues to catch the ball close to the basket and not look to finish, and on Monday he was tripping over himself while doing it, turning the ball over twice in the first half.

Wizards starting center Robin Lopez, in for the injured Thomas Bryant, was fine with giving Ayton plenty of room.

This screenshot, off a midrange conversion by Ayton, illustrates the amount of real estate Ayton could work with in getting to the basket if he showed more assertiveness.

Ayton’s always been more of a finesse player and his athletic limitations have never made him an incredibly explosive player around the rim. His first and second jumps have never been great, and ditto for his vertical when he’s jumping off one foot on the move.

He doesn’t dunk sometimes. It drives people crazy, and sometimes, it’s fine. It is what it is. He is who he is. As long as the layin isn’t a detriment to the final product, sure. Don’t dunk.

The numbers, however, have a startling difference and potential correlation to what was just discussed.

One alley-oop in 11 games, in particular, is just mind-boggling when you consider the passers on the floor (like Paul).

The starting five’s offensive woes are not on Ayton entirely, but the effort to get him involved and energized is certainly playing a role in it.

Ayton started the game 1-of-6 and finished with eight points and six rebounds in 25 minutes. His counterpart Lopez had 11 points and 11 rebounds in 25 minutes. Seven of those 11 rebounds were on the offensive glass.

Paul registered four points and eight assists in the first half, finishing with 14 points and 11 assists.

Devin Booker had 33 points in the loss.

Bradley Beal scored a game-high 34 points for Washington in the win.

It’s now 11 games into the season and the group of Paul, Booker, Mikal Bridges, Jae Crowder and Ayton has yet to gel.

When asked about the bad starts, Williams said he attributes some of it to familiarity, but flat-out said that the group is not playing well. Booker said it’s obvious and evident, going as far as to say they’ve been carried by their bench in most of their wins.

Williams said he owes it to his team to take a “deep look” into potential changes to the starting lineup.

The question, of course, is what that change could be.

Paul, Booker and Bridges obviously aren’t going anywhere.

Fans have already been pushing Cam Johnson, and while Johnson is a better shooter than Crowder, Crowder has also proven himself to be the better playmaker and he’s the far better defender. The know-how of Crowder and Paul to be there on team rotations 99 times out of 100 has made a huge difference in the team defense that’s been the number one strength of the team. That’s also the easiest move to make if Williams just wants to shake things up a little bit.

Ayton gives the Suns a presence defensively and on the glass that no one else in the team’s big rotation can come close to producing. Even when Ayton plays like he did Monday, that’s still true on the interior.

He’s also been the biggest underachiever of the group. Dario Saric helps the offense flow, and with what Ayton has shown this year, Saric is the better offensive player right now. When the starters returned in the fourth quarter, it was Saric in for Ayton for a few minutes before the No. 1 overall pick played his final shift of the night.

There are obvious concerns on what a move to the bench could do for the 22-year-old Ayton, but it has not been working for him with the starters, outside of a terrific two-game stretch. The other nine have not been up to par, and this team is not in a position to wait on him with the expectations being what they are.

Now, the interesting wrinkle is Williams has played Saric with Ayton the past three games after not doing it all season. Saric proved in the bubble that his best role is as a small-ball five, but he does provide a bit of what Crowder does as a smart team defender who can make plays offensively.

That, however, is playing Saric out of position, where his speed on both ends is exposed against 4s. It also puts either Damian Jones or Frank Kaminsky in at backup center, which is problematic.

It’s a tough decision and not an obvious one. Are the Suns ready for a shakeup? A 7-4 start doesn’t scream desperation, but the disparity between the bench and the starting five lets a little start to seep in.

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