EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Phoenix Suns bombarded from deep by Heat in home loss

Jan 8, 2022, 10:34 PM
Phoenix Suns' Devin Booker (1) battles for the ball with Miami Heat's Tyler Herro (14) during the f...

Phoenix Suns' Devin Booker (1) battles for the ball with Miami Heat's Tyler Herro (14) during the first half of an NBA basketball game Saturday, Jan. 8, 2022, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Darryl Webb)

(AP Photo/Darryl Webb)

PHOENIX — The NBA regular season is unforgiving and will teach any team a couple of lessons along the way.

The Phoenix Suns didn’t show up with their “A” game on Saturday night against a Miami Heat squad with an inactives list 11 players long that included names like Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo.

That’s fine for the Suns sometimes, as it has got them a handful of wins this year already.

It was not fine on Saturday, though. With Phoenix’s defensive rotations and ball movement a step slower, it was brutally punished by Miami in a 123-100 loss.

The majority of the Heat’s looks were with a few more feet of open space than you would come to expect against the Suns’ defense. The credit for that should start with Miami’s offensive execution, where it moved the ball, cut and kept the offense running after initial actions were denied.

Usually, Phoenix’s defense is up to the task of multiple efforts and keeping everyone on a string. But defensive performances like Saturday’s are exactly why it is described as staying on a string because it was consistently just a bit too much room for the Heat to work with.

“For us, it’s about the urgency and physicality from the jump … It typically starts with that,” Suns head coach Monty Williams said of what normally goes into the Suns’ usual standard of defense. “And just that urgency to go make a play or stay ahead of the offense. I thought were a bit behind with their cuts. When teams are slipping to the basket for layups, it’s usually a sign that we’re a step behind.”

That allowed the Heat to comfortably get going from three-point range, where Miami (25-15) has two of the best shooters on the planet in Duncan Robinson and Max Strus. If you haven’t heard of Strus yet, by the way, he’s going to become familiar soon enough.

The Heat got up 15 three-point attempts in each of the opening two quarters, closing the first half 15-of-30 (50.0%). Williams spotlighted the number of attempts just as much as the number of conversions.

That’s obviously a high percentage you can claim was just off the Heat feeling it but the Suns’ defense did not help itself to make it any more difficult on Miami. And once the Heat got cozy, it was a downpour.

“I think they came out way too comfortable and that’s not a team that you want to give some confidence and let them see a couple easy ones go in,” Suns guard Devin Booker said. “It was too loose, they got to do whatever they want. It’s like they were running script out there.”

While Phoenix (30-9) was down only four through the first quarter, its offense stalled out to just 21 points in the following quarter. To go back to the theme of being “good enough” some nights, that was Miami’s defense. Not unstoppable, but solid.

That brought on a 21-point halftime deficit the Suns couldn’t climb back out of the hole from despite doing a better job defending the three-point line in the second half.

Phoenix at one point went on a 16-2 run to nine minutes remaining. After a Miami timeout, however, Robinson hit back-to-back 3s with too much open real estate, a fitting final nail.

Williams gave Miami’s Strus the label of one of the league’s best marksmen pregame and Strus has earned it with his play this season. The undrafted third-year player out of DePaul entered the night averaging 23.0 points and 5.2 three-pointers an outing in his last six games. He contributed 14 points and four triples in 21 minutes against Phoenix.

Robinson, a similar type of find by Miami a few years back, attempted 15 of his 16 shots behind the three-point line and knocked down eight of ’em toward a season-high 27 points.

The Heat finished 22-for-44 (50.0%) from deep and also won the battle on the glass by 14. They might be the No. 1 organization in the NBA when it comes to a definable culture and style of play, and as Suns fans have learned with Phoenix finding that under Williams, that can go a long way.

“They went and got the ball tonight,” Williams said of Miami’s effort. “It felt like they were flying around with the sense of urgency.”

“Just felt like they wanted it more than us,” Suns wing Mikal Bridges said. “They just played harder.”

That environment allows guys to thrive easier and it felt like that’s what happened with Heat guard Tyler Herro, who cruised through with his bucket-getting prowess amongst all the movement and shooting to a season-high 33 points.

Deandre Ayton, Jae Crowder and JaVale McGee all played their first game since spending time under the health and safety protocols and then missing Thursday’s win to get their conditioning back. It might have been a game too soon on that front. All three were ineffective and not themselves.

Booker and Bridges were the only two Suns players who looked all the way locked in, and uncoincidentally, scored nearly half of Phoenix’s points. Booker had 26 points and Bridges added 20.

It would have been a lot more ugly if it wasn’t a good shooting night for the Suns as well, a 14-for-34 (41.2%) mark at range.

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