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Chris Paul’s brilliance not enough to prevent another poor Suns loss

Phoenix Suns guard Chris Paul drives past Oklahoma City Thunder forward Luguentz Dort (5) during the second half of an NBA basketball game, Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2021, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Matt York)

With the way the Phoenix Suns’ first 15 games of the season went, they were either going to hit a wall or break right through it.

They smacked right into that wall on Wednesday against the Oklahoma City Thunder in a 102-97 loss, and the level of heat radiating through the postgame Zoom call from head coach Monty Williams emphasized that.

“That’s an excuse for anyone who wants to feel sorry for us,” Williams said of three offensive fouls called on the Suns in the fourth quarter. “We had a 10-point second quarter because we missed shots and we let offense dictate how we’re gonna play. And down the stretch, we have (an) unbelievably poor finish. We got open shots, we’re missing shots under the basket.

“It’s just poor. It’s poor execution and it’s poor finishing. That’s it. We scored 97 points, we shot 37% from the field. At some point you just have to finish games and understand (that) what it takes to be a really good team is consistency. Period. And that’s the deal.”

The problems on offense hit a high point after a first quarter in which the Suns (8-8) scored 32 points, led by 15 and had 17 bench points.

“We had wide-open threes, we miss ’em. We had layups under the basket, we miss ’em. Consistency,” Williams said.

“Not consistent,” he added later on the offense. “The ball’s not moving around the gym enough. We’re in one-action shot. Easy to guard. Not consistent.”

The game exposed what is arguably the biggest flaw for this team in terms of the way it was constructed. Devin Booker and Cam Payne are the Suns’ two best dribble threats at getting the rim. Chris Paul is the best ball-handler on the roster but doesn’t shoot much around the basket. This is the fifth straight season Paul is shooting under 15% of his total shots around the rim, entering the night with 21 attempts there in 15 games, per Cleaning the Glass.

Booker still takes a majority of his shots in the mid-range, like Paul, where both are incredibly efficient. Payne only plays 15-20 minutes a night. On top of that, the Suns play slow with Paul. They rank near the bottom of the league in points off turnovers (26th) and fastbreak points (26th).

Deandre Ayton will have to dominate most nights for the Suns not to have problems with scoring in the key, so as it is, the Suns came into Wednesday’s game 29th in points in the paint.

With Booker (left hamstring strain) and Payne (right foot soreness) sidelined on Wednesday, there is a lack of natural creation off the bounce. That becomes even more glaring when Paul isn’t looking to score much, which has been the case more often than not at the start of his Suns tenure.

So, the Suns got in a rut when they couldn’t hit a three-pointer in the second quarter. And instead of some continuous dribble penetration as the solution, they tried to shoot themselves out of it or give Ayton the ball in the post. The latter just led to more perimeter shots.

That whole process did not go well. The Suns missed 17 straight three-pointers from the last first quarter to the opening half of the third.

In the second quarter, Phoenix was the most lethargic it’s been all season. It was the team’s worst quarter of the year, one in which the Suns scored 10 points and looked beyond lost offensively.

Despite halftime giving the Suns a chance to regroup, they came out with the same messy play. And then the Point God decided enough was enough.

Paul turned on the jets offensively to score in a way that will greatly benefit the team if it becomes more consistent. Paul will need to get a better feel for when to deploy this throughout games, as this was more of him smashing the emergency glass than anything.

He scored or assisted on 20 points for the Suns over four minutes and change.

Even though OKC (8-9) has no offensive firepower, the snowball had already been rolling down the hill for far too long and the Suns were headed towards a blowout loss. That self-created jolt by Paul kept the game squared up through to crunch time.

That’s where Paul tried to get it all done on his own and he nearly did. He scored 15 points in the fourth after 12 in the third. Meaning, yes, the Suns lost with Paul contributing 27 points in the second half.

In the most critical stretch of the game with Phoenix down one and under 90 seconds remaining, Paul masterfully orchestrated a switch for himself to get Oklahoma City’s Al Horford guarding him. Paul immediately got by him off the dribble and set up a wide-open corner three-pointer by Cam Johnson. He missed.

The next trip down, Paul got his signature mid-range jumper and missed. Ayton grabbed the rebound, but short-armed his putback and missed. The Suns fouled, OKC made both free throws and then Paul air-balled a potential game-tying 3 with his legs probably fried at that point.

Paul played 35 minutes and finished with 32 points, five rebounds and five assists. He had no help.

After those 17 first-quarter bench points, the Suns had 11 in the final three quarters. Mikal Bridges was 3-of-13 from the field, a rare inefficient night for him on decent shooting volume. Jae Crowder shot 5-for-16 and Cam Johnson was 3-of-8.

Ayton had one of his worst games of the season, failing to build off a four-game stretch that had some believing he had turned the corner. He hasn’t.

He’s going to need to prove he can put together long stretches of quality basketball, especially not just in a bounce-back manner. That’s been evident since his rookie season, and as evident as the opening of the game revealing the version of Ayton the Suns were going to get that night.

It must be a befuddling experience for some with the Suns after seeing the extremely high levels his play could reach on Saturday and the three games prior. it certainly is from this vantage point.

Ayton had 5 points, 14 rebounds, 4 turnovers and seven shot attempts in the loss.

A 34-year-old Horford outplayed Ayton, scoring a team-high 21 points for the Thunder on 12 shots with 11 rebounds.

Oklahoma City had six players in double figures, including rookie second-round pick Theo Maledon (11 points), Darius Bazley (10 points) and Hamidou Diallo (10 points).

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander was terrific as usual with 21 points, seven rebounds and eight assists.

Luguentz Dort is making the Arizona State faithful proud with his consistent improvement since getting to OKC. He had 14 points and made everything as tough as possible for Paul, as he continues to prove himself as one of the NBA’s best perimeter defenders.

Williams had a similar rant following a bad loss last season against the Memphis Grizzlies that put the team’s record at 14-22.

“Until we learn how to play the right way consistently, we’re just going to have a lot of nights like this. That’s the deal,” he said on Jan. 5 of last year. “Until we learn how to play the right way consistently and follow a gameplan, we’re going to play well one night, then we’re gonna have nights like this.”

Wednesday night’s offering had the same vibe.

“Until this team understands consistency for four quarters, we’re gonna feel like this a lot,” Williams said Wednesday. “We can try to get everybody to feel sorry for us (but) it ain’t gonna work. We gotta be consistent. This is on us. Period. Anybody else wanna ask me a question, it’s gonna be the same thing. Whatever you ask me, I’m gonna say consistency. That’s it.”

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