EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Suns nearly pull off last-minute rally before falling to Kings at buzzer

Oct 27, 2021, 11:18 PM | Updated: Oct 28, 2021, 10:08 am

PHOENIX — Whatever is going on with the Phoenix Suns through four games, they got a lesson on Wednesday night as to why it can’t slide.

After a solid first half against the Sacramento Kings, the team short-circuited in the third quarter and was back to the lethargic, disconnected play that has been common early on this season. They got outscored 29-15 in it.

Even after a furious comeback when there was practically no time left to complete it, a Harrison Barnes buzzer-beater gave the Kings a 110-107 win they deserved.

“We played with our food a little bit. That third quarter was unprofessional,” Suns center Deandre Ayton said. “It wasn’t us.”

As Phoenix (1-3) trailed 101-92 with under four minutes to go, Devin Booker led a 15-6 run in which he assisted or scored all 15 points tie the game with 34 seconds left.

Some strong Suns defense on Sacramento’s (2-2) 2-for-1 attempt forced a miss, and head coach Monty Williams elected to not call a timeout.

The possession ended up with Booker off the ball when he had been thriving on it, and he did not get a good look after maneuvering around screens that the Kings switched and covered well.

Booker didn’t hit that shot, and following a timeout with 3.4 seconds left, the Kings’ excellently designed play was negated by the Suns’ foul to give.

That put just 1.4 seconds on the clock and Sacramento down its best sidelines out of bounds play, only for Barnes to drill a fallaway 3 with Booker draped all over him as time expired.

Both 3-point lines were an issue for the Suns again. They gave up a 15-for-38 (39.5%) mark to Sacramento and were only able to generate 22 of their own, making only six for an efficiency of 27.3%,

The Suns continue to give up the highest 3-point shooting percentage in the league at 42.2% and their 29.8 attempts per game for themselves rank 28th.

Once again, a handful of those shots for the Kings were wide open, which used to be a rare sight against a Suns defense.

“It’s poor. It’s above 40%, that’s horrible,” Williams said of the 3-point defense. “We haven’t been that. It’s something we have to rectify, the details of it … Right now we’re overhelping a lot, losing our man behind us watching the ball and that’s something we haven’t done.”

“We just gotta know personnel I think,” Crowder said. “I was preaching it earlier: You give a team confidence, it’s tough, the shots go in late … We gotta start to take advantage of what we’re capable of doing and that’s taking guys’ confidence early and sustaining it for 48 minutes.”

On the offensive end, Crowder thinks that low number of 3s partially comes down to the Suns falling into the trap of playing slower after that was the style of basketball they last saw in the playoffs.

“I just feel like we’re trying to make it a possession game in a sense, we’re just trying to play a little methodical, instead of letting the ball find the energy, finding the right shots,” he said. “Instead of trying to say, ‘This play is going to get this shot’ we gotta play more upbeat, more fast-paced.”

Chris Paul, and I must emphasize that this is not a typo and I am referring to Chris Paul, had a stretch in the third quarter where he looked like he was forcing his shot after only taking two in the first half.

The master of picking his spots and controlling a game couldn’t find his flow. He did not correct his course in the fourth quarter and that led to Williams taking Paul out for five minutes from 6:55 remaining to 1:58.

Landry Shamet replaced him, making it a Point Book look that worked wonders. When Paul returned, it was still all Booker.

That break that can range from 3-5 minutes is the rotation Williams uses more often than not for Paul in the first half but tends to play him more in the last 24 minutes.

Williams said he wants to try and give Paul breaks in that spot more this season but started his point by saying that lineup with Booker was executing better defensively and creating good shots offensively, which is spot on.

With that in mind, it’s hard to remember a section of a game last year where the Suns did that with Paul when he was off, even though he did finish the game.

Deandre Ayton finished with 21 points and 21 rebounds on 9-of-12 shooting, his second career 20-20 game. Ayton was tremendous and impactful in the first half but faded in the second half, a continuing theme for him in this offense. Phoenix only got him one shot in the second half, and when we’re talking about a big man, it’s usually on the team to get him the ball.

“It’s a conundrum for sure,”  Williams said of Ayton taking just one shot in the second half. “In the first quarter, we were setting screens and diving and he was generating a lot of offense. Like I said, we just haven’t been consistent, and that’s on me.”

As Suns fans know, that has been an issue for the Suns since Ayton’s arrival. Even though he’s not one of the top two or three options on offense every night, the team must be able to prioritize Ayton when he’s rolling like he was Wednesday.

Paul finished 1-of-10 with six points, six rebounds and eight assists. Booker began the game shooting 6-of-17 from the field but ended up 12-of-28 with 31 points, six rebounds and eight assists, nearly bringing the Suns all the way back single-handedly.

Here’s how Crowder summed up that last-gasp effort in the closing six minutes.

“You saw desperate basketball .. the switch went off, we felt like we were about to get beat, bam,” he said. “That’s all that was. We got to find a way to generate that for 48 minutes.”

Williams kept coming back to consistency too.

To go back to the 3s, if we were to sit here and talk about the two defining traits of the Suns’ play last season, it would be their ball movement and team defense.

Both of those are weaknesses of the group four games in.

Maybe that’ll just snap back into place right away in one of these next few games, or maybe it’s going to be much harder than that and a process that takes a couple more weeks.

Crowder, a player who has been on a winner almost every season of his career, said that he’s had the first months of the season be “brutal” sometimes, starts that required a lot of work and uncomfortable conversations to move forward. Maybe that’s what the Suns are in the middle of.

“It’s a different season. Different things are happening,” Crowder said. “Our approaches, our mindset has to change a little bit.”

Whatever it is, the bottom line is they set a very high bar last year and are nowhere close to that standard at the opening of this season.

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