Suns continue navigating uncertainty, eventually pull away from Thunder

Dec 29, 2021, 11:12 PM | Updated: Dec 30, 2021, 2:24 pm

PHOENIX — The Phoenix Suns have not quite been themselves lately, and it’s worth emphasizing because of the bad timing.

A fair bit of it probably has to do with COVID-19 beginning to impact their season in a way it has for most of the league. Elfrid Payton and Abdel Nader made it four players under health and safety protocols on Wednesday, joining Deandre Ayton and Jae Crowder, as well as head coach Monty Williams.

“We’re going through a funny stretch right now where (we’re) figuring things out,” guard Devin Booker said.

“We’ve been all out of sorts these past three games,” center JaVale McGee said. “And then somebody else went out today before the game, so this thing’s crazy, but we’re gonna fight through it.”

The energy and zip that have been the signature of Williams’ style haven’t been there in the last three games.

It’s been against a myriad of opposition for the Suns in the last week.

The Golden State Warriors played championship-level basketball in a Christmas win over Phoenix with Ayton and Crowder playing. The Memphis Grizzlies jumped on the Suns after a lackadaisical first quarter for both teams on Monday.

On Wednesday, it was a ravaged Oklahoma City Thunder team, one that already has a very lacking roster. The Suns failed to create separation for over three quarters before cruising in the last few minutes to a 115-97 victory.

Williams said it best after the Warriors defeat, that he will rarely even hint at saying his team got outworked but declared it as the case in that game, and it’s been that similar uncharacteristic play in the two contests following it.

Oklahoma City was without five players due to health and safety protocols: Josh Giddey, Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, Tre Mann, Aleksej Pokusevski and Darius Bazley. All five of them were in the rotation for the Thunder’s loss to Phoenix last Thursday, and so too was stud point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who was a late scratch Wednesday due to right ankle soreness.

The Suns weren’t in much better shape, left with only 10 available players.

With that in mind, most of the team’s core is still there, and the results have not yielded what we have normally come to expect out of this group.

If there is one noticeable dip those absences produce, it’s to the Suns’ defense.

When Chris Paul and Booker are both healthy, the offense doesn’t have any excuses. We would have to get really low on the depth chart and deep into 10-day bodies for that to not be the case.

Defensively, however, is where Ayton and Crowder are vital.

Ayton is obviously the rim protector and mobile 5 that covers a few more feet than most centers, but both he and Crowder talk the most out of anybody on that end. They keep everyone organized, particularly Crowder, a criminally underrated piece of the puzzle that acting head coach Kevin Young said is a coach on the floor defensively like Paul.

“That’s something that we’ve talked about,” Booker said. “To be completely honest, it’s been a little bit quieter. And I said when they went out, it’s gonna be impossible to fill their shoes and it’s gonna have to be from everybody … We gotta hear people’s voices, we have to talk to each other. That’s when we’re at our best. When we’re communicating and defending at a high level and making sure we’re on our Ps and Qs.”

The Suns (27-7) are a team that has everyone on the bench locked into the game. Players like the injured Frank Kaminsky will often pull a guy aside during a timeout to talk about what they are seeing, and that’s something Ayton and Crowder both can’t even do from home. McGee described those two as excellent and wonderful communicators.

“I think that’s one thing we’re definitely missing is those anchors behind everything,” Young said. “Jae is so smart. Understands gameplans and coverages probably better than anyone I’ve ever coached personally. We definitely miss that, and DA I think is underrated in terms of his defensive IQ.”

In the loss to the Grizzlies on Monday, the Suns gave up 62 points in the paint, 17 above their average allowed of 45.1. The Grizzlies, however, have star point guard Ja Morant, one of the best in the world at scoring inside.

The Thunder (12-22) certainly do not have Morant and no one close to his level without Gilgeous-Alexander. And yet, it was 50 points in the paint for an Oklahoma City squad led by Ty Jerome (24 points), rookie Aaron Wiggins (22) and Mike Muscala (13).

Thirty-two of those points came in the first half, a number McGee attributed to a lack of communication and also took ownership over from his own defensive play.

The Thunder shot 7-of-35 (20.0%) from three-point range and could have had themselves one heck of a win if they hit just a few more. A lot of those 28 misses were open looks.

Offensively, the Suns at one point in the late third quarter had 15 assists and 14 turnovers. If there is one tell-all statistic that informs you Phoenix doesn’t have its normal rhythm, it’s that one.

Booker tied his season high of 38 points, carrying the offense through three quarters in which Oklahoma City managed to keep hanging around. Eventually, the Suns started pulling away and it seemed to energize them that the game was now on the line.

The Thunder were 5-of-26 (19.2%) from the field in the fourth quarter and were outscored 30-16. That seamless transition of good defense into good offense snapped the Suns out of it enough.

“Just defended,” Booker said of what changed in the final frame. “Make them take tougher shots instead of warmup pregame shots. Try to make them a little bit uncomfortable, turn them over a little bit and just up the pressure a little bit.”

Phoenix did have a few bright spots off the bench.

Jalen Smith had his second straight good game with 11 points and 14 rebounds while Cam Payne contributed 16 points and seven assists, the type of effort fans will hope gets him back on track. Shoutout to Young for picking up his first win as an NBA head coach as well.

To expand on how this timing stinks for the Suns, they are entering a murky situation with an unknown timetable on how long it will be affected by COVID-19 and how many players will miss time.

They leave on Thursday for a three-game road trip across the country, beginning with a funky 11 a.m. tip-off in Boston. After games in Charlotte and New Orleans, the Suns play two games at home before quickly getting back on the road for five more games. That’s a stretch that starts far east again, this time in Toronto.

The opposition is not all that threatening, nor is the number of games over that time frame, but cross-country trips are often not given their proper due in terms of the challenge it presents teams in the middle of a season.

All of this is to say it’s great for the Suns to have that 27-7 record. Bumps in the road come for every team, even the ones at the top of the NBA standings. And who knows if this is even a bump. But if it is, it comes on what is going to be a rocky trek already.

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