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On-edge Suns upset over calls, defense in loss to Hornets

LaMelo Ball #2 of the Charlotte Hornets reacts to a slam dunk ahead of Deandre Ayton #22 of the Phoenix Suns during the second half of the NBA game at Phoenix Suns Arena on February 24, 2021 in Phoenix, Arizona. The Hornets defeated the Suns 124-121. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

PHOENIX — The Phoenix Suns had been prone to spells — mostly hot but some cold — over the course of winning 12 of their last 14 before Wednesday’s game against the Charlotte Hornets.

When they built a 17-point lead halfway through the second quarter against Charlotte, they hit another frigid spell.

That confident, active defense that’d helped the Suns to two 30-point blowouts in the past few outings was gone.

Their 124-121 loss at Phoenix Suns Arena also came down to the team’s missed free throws and perhaps the officials, including a non-call on Devin Booker’s three-point attempt to tie it at the buzzer.

“Communication, ball-screen stuff, wasn’t switching, we got to close out better. I gave (LaMelo) Ball two threes there, I think it was in the third quarter,” Phoenix point guard Chris Paul said of the defensive effort before jumping to the final play.

“We looked at it right there at the end: Book got fouled on that three. Obviously there are a lot of plays that happen in the course of a game, but what is it called, the two-minute report? It’ll come out tomorrow, they’ll be like, ‘Oh, we missed it.’ A lot of plays happened for us to get there but that was damn sure a foul. Should have been shooting three free throws, try to send it to overtime.”

Booker appeared on edge en route to 33 points — and you could guess why.

After being looked over to make the NBA All-Star Game initially and then being named a reserve before tip-off, he picked up a technical after jawing with the Hornets bench, finished with five fouls and came up well short thinking he drew contact on the game-tying buzzer attempt.

Paul, who added that he’d put the defeat in the “bad-loss column,” added 20 points and 10 assists, while Suns center Deandre Ayton finished with 16 points and 10 boards.

Speaking of hot-and-cold on the defensive end, Ayton had another game in which he was at times solid and others where he appeared in a daze.

With 2:05 left in the game, Phoenix even pulled Ayton for Jae Crowder to have better success on those switches, according to Suns coach Monty Williams. Before that, the Suns had put more switching in the game-plan compared to the norm, and backend help coverages appeared out of whack because of it, Williams added.

Rookie LaMelo Ball’s size and speed showed well attacking those switches, as he finished with 20 points and eight assists.

But it started with the Suns’ on-ball problems.

“We need to present more, and kinda intimidate the drive more, move our feet and just be active,” said Suns forward Cam Johnson, who scored 14 off the bench.

“A lot of activity instead of just being stationary, getting after them a little bit, showing hands and just being there.”

In the second quarter after Phoenix went ahead 17 points, Charlotte reserve guard Malik Monk heated up against the Suns’ second unit, dropping a 20-piece in fewer than eight minutes.

Monk finished with 29 points, and his spurt helped pull Charlotte within 67-66 at the half.

“To give up (three) 30-point quarters is unacceptable,” Williams said. “The second quarter is when we lost it. I think we were up 17 points, and started goofing around with the game. We made some subs and the subs did not hold it down.”

Making matters worse for the Suns, some Booker foul trouble ended that second period, and it was an uphill climb for the team throughout the second half.

Charlotte went ahead 110-99 with 6:49 to play in the game, but Phoenix answered with an 11-0 run to tie it in the next 3:10. Two quick buckets later, the Hornets were up five and back in control with less than three minutes to play.

Then came a mangled finish that represented a game with three technical fouls shared between the teams and too many replay reviews.

The Suns pulled within 122-119 with 32 seconds left in the game when Booker completed a four-point play. It appeared to be a generous whistle as he leaned into Gordon Hayward, but the call held up after review.

Phoenix tried fouling to stop the clock and play catchup, and it also drew two fouls on the Hornets.

But Bridges and Paul each missed the backend of consecutive free throw trips in the final seven seconds. On Paul’s miss, with Phoenix trailing by the final score, the ball was tapped out of bounds by the Hornets with 0.8 left, giving the Suns time to draw up a final inbound play.

The ball found its way to Booker on the left wing. It appeared that Hayward tapped his wrist on the release, but the whistles didn’t blow.

“Physical game. Nothing more than that,” Williams said. “We can sit here and complain about the referees. We were up 17 in the second, I think.

“Blaming the officials in that situation to me is a cop-out. We don’t need to do that.”

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