EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Suns shockingly upset by NBL’s Adelaide 36ers in preseason opener

Oct 2, 2022, 11:00 PM | Updated: Oct 3, 2022, 10:17 am
Adelaide 36ers' Craig Randall II (12) celebrates back to back three pointers against the Phoenix Su...

Adelaide 36ers' Craig Randall II (12) celebrates back to back three pointers against the Phoenix Suns during the second half of an NBA preseason basketball game Sunday, Oct. 2, 2022, in Phoenix. Adelaide won 134-124 over Phoenix. (AP Photo/Darryl Webb)

(AP Photo/Darryl Webb)

PHOENIX — Well, take what you want from it, but the Phoenix Suns’ 134-124 loss to the National Basketball League’s (NBL) Adelaide 36ers on Sunday in the preseason opener was undeniably shocking.

Phoenix was favored by roughly 30 points at most sportsbooks and trailed for the majority of the game. Its biggest lead was six points and it was the first time a NBA team has lost to a NBL team. Even though the Suns’ starters only clocked in at 22 minutes, that doesn’t do much to shake off the surprise of the result.

“Just didn’t give them the respect they deserved as a pro team,” Suns head coach Monty Williams said. “It’s a great opportunity for us to learn.”

Adelaide spent the first half looking like a No. 14 seed from the NCAA Tournament that began indicating it was going to pose a serious threat to its opposition with the amount of “we’ll take that” shotmaking it executed. The 36ers knocked down a handful of off-the-dribble 3s but also got a few free ones around the rim and free throw line thanks to some suboptimal defensive rotations from Phoenix.

That plus a lackluster opening 18 minutes offensively for the Suns actually had the deficit at 16 points midway through the second quarter.

Phoenix got it down to six at one point before Adelaide extended its lead to a dozen at halftime.

“I just thought they played hard,” Williams said. “You can look at the shotmaking and be like ‘that was the game’ but I thought they played extremely hard. I thought they played like this was the game of their lives and they did play the game of their lives. … Australian players are tough. And they played physical basketball. They played in 0.5 and were the aggressors. A lot of times, they just beat us off the dribble.

“They made some tough shots off the dribble from 3 and at the basket. They were aggressive all night. They took the win. It wasn’t anything that we gave them. They took it, and so that’s a credit to them.”

As you’d expect, the Suns’ starters came out in the second half looking to come off the floor with a lead to give the reserves. Phoenix’s opening lineup couldn’t quite get it there but came out for the night down three with 4:29 to go in the third quarter.

Adelaide was not fazed by that shove back, immediately relocating its mojo against the Suns’ second unit. After getting behind by 10, Phoenix had to awkwardly battle back in a fourth quarter that felt twice as long as it was.

At 5:51 left, it was at long last back to a one-possession game for the first time in the fourth quarter, only for Adelaide to score five straight to go back up seven and never turn back.

The 36ers’ magic with the 3-ball continued and ended the night at a staggering 24-for-43 (55.8%). Guard Craig Randall II was treating the Sunday night like he had the green light of Stephen Curry. At one point he pulled up for a 3 during a 2-on-1 fastbreak opportunity, and with good reason, as he scored a game-high 35 points.

Randall’s nine 3-pointers matched the Suns’ total as a team. 36ers guard Robert Franks got in on the fun as well with six of his own and scored 32 points on 18 shot attempts.

Suns center Deandre Ayton was asked if this is a loss the Suns take a lot of stock in or just quickly flush and move on. He said it is more of the latter.

“It’s just preseason,” Ayton said. “We still learning at the end of the day. It’s unacceptable but at the same time we’re just getting back and we’re trying to polish up some things to get ourselves better.”

Wing Mikal Bridges noted how it’s better for this to happen now than seven months later.

“That wasn’t our standard and we’re gonna watch film and get better,” he said. “But happy, just things like this — that’s why it’s October. Rather than later, rather than freaking May and June. We just gonna learn from it and we gotta build our habits. ”

Williams employed hockey-style line shifts to allow the full units to mesh better. I highly doubt we will see much if any of a full bench unit this season, given the shortcomings of the depth at the moment.

The reserves without either Paul or Booker in the lineup are going to live and die by Cam Payne and Landry Shamet on offense because of the lack of ball-handling, scoring and shooting at the three other positions. Sunday provided a preview of the lack of offensive creation those units present.

When it became clear the offense was going to continuously stagnate, Payne took it upon himself to try and lead the comeback, contributing 23 points while shooting 8-of-19 overall.

Payne, Damion Lee and Torrey Craig finished a -21.

Williams notably inserted new arrival Jock Landale as the backup 5 over Dario Saric and Bismack Biyombo.

Landale, an Aussie, has what most of those guys have when it comes to physicality around the basket that borders on annoying for the opponents. He’s a smart passer, and while Landale shot just 32.9% from deep as a rookie last year in San Antonio, he has a good-looking stroke. The Suns have been excited about how the 26-year-old has looked in workouts and camp but Williams himself has said they want to temper expectations at the start of October.

Saric did not play. Williams said he expects Saric to play in the preseason but they wanted to get a look at Landale with the second unit.

As far as takeaways elsewhere, the mission statement of Chris Paul being less on the ball was on full display. Bridges and Devin Booker spent much more time bringing it up, and Bridges was taking his own defensive rebounds up the court to start possessions.

Bridges and Cam Johnson were both properly aggressive off the dribble. Bridges, in particular, was getting anywhere he wanted and had 19 of his 22 points in the first half.

Ditto for Ayton, who slipped more frequently on his screens, meaning he was diving to the rim earlier to get a headstart on the rotation defense instead of holding firm to wait on the contact for his screen.

Here are both of those things together, with Bridges running a ball screen and Ayton quickly rolling.

That looked great, as did Ayton’s assertion about using his dribble in the post. Phoenix got him a lot of isolation touches against a small 36ers squad.

This one, that got called off because of a foul, is the type of dribbling through contact that has always led to success for Ayton.

Ayton registered 22 points on 11-of-14 shooting in 22 minutes.

All the starters were +11.

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