Suns take too long to respond to sluggish stretch, fall to Blazers at buzzer

Nov 4, 2022, 11:00 PM

PHOENIX — The Phoenix Suns had a 17-9 lead over the shorthanded Portland Trail Blazers a little over five minutes into Friday’s contest.

It appeared that it would be smooth sailing against a team without Damian Lillard (right calf strain) and Anfernee Simons (left foot inflammation), the Blazers’ two best scorers, ball-handlers and players.

But after Cam Johnson went out of the game with a right knee injury 11 seconds later, the Suns just took too long to snap out of a sluggish state and the Blazers made it too challenging to fight all the way back in a 108-106 loss to Portland.

Chasing a game in the NBA is asking a lot no matter who is in or out for the opposition. There’s too much that has to go right and too much that can go wrong. A 34-21 Blazers second quarter for a very good defensive team sealed that chase for the Suns.

“I thought they were playing downhill getting to the basket a lot and we couldn’t score,” Williams said of it. “We scored 21 points in the second quarter. I thought that was a big momentum shift. But we had a chance.”

In a fourth quarter after the Suns had previously trailed by as many as 15, Phoenix got within one possession on a Landry Shamet 3 with 7:46 remaining. It would take five more scoring possessions until it got the lead on a Devin Booker midrange conversion at 2:52 to go.

From there, with how the Suns (6-2) weren’t producing offense and how the Blazers (6-2) were defending, anything could happen.

Booker went for his patented 2-for-1 attempt from 3-point range with the Suns down one and 31 seconds remaining, a consistent effort by the two-guard to get an extra possession whenever possible. It’s a shot he normally doesn’t knock down but Friday was a special occasion and the triple put the Suns up two.

Portland’s play drawn up for Jerami Grant, who scored a game-high 30 points, was one the Suns were all over. They had great contests on his shot but Blazers center Jusuf Nurkic was inside for the offensive rebound and putback to tie it at 23 seconds remaining.

Phoenix elected to not call a timeout down one, and Booker about 35 feet out in the middle of the floor was predictably doubled. Mikal Bridges flashed the middle and received the ball at the elbow, where he traveled with one second left.

“They doubled-teamed me and I’m going to give it to him every time. … That’s what it comes down to, trusting your teammates,” Booker said. “And every possession I’m going to do that.”

There was no one within 15 feet of Chris Paul on the left wing. Paul had another timid shooting performance of 1-for-4 in 34 minutes with 11 assists. Williams said the game can sometimes dictate a low shot attempt number like that but also admitted four isn’t enough for Paul.

The Blazers had a timeout left, used it and went to Grant again, this time on what looked like a designed lob. Suns center Deandre Ayton covered a pass that was actually overthrown perfectly but it was overthrown enough to give Grant enough open room for a quick jumper at the buzzer to end the game.

He took an extra three steps to get there, lifting his left pivot foot immediately to tiptoe into the game-winner. The clock also didn’t start as soon as Grant touched the ball, and I’ll hear arguments that he wouldn’t have gotten it off in time if it had the clock been, erm, on time.

It’s a bad break and a brutal missed call, but again, the Suns put themselves in the chasing position.

With the lack of aggression from Paul at the moment, Johnson’s absence means it either has to be everyone stepping as a collective or big individual contributions. Ayton (24 points) did his part but just about everyone else underperformed.

Mikal Bridges was 0-for-2 from the field with two points at halftime, something that simply can’t happen this season when Phoenix is missing any of its other primary sources of offense. He’s got to seek the ball out more in these types of moments and the coaching staff also needs to draw up more for him. There are going to be multiple games this postseason when the Suns will be in a similar spot and they’ve got to be able to flip that switch.

Bridges was on his front foot more in the second half and wound up with 12 points.

Booker finished 8-of-21 with 25 points, five rebounds and five assists. Portland threw him a lot of defensive attention and Booker couldn’t find his rhythm for his scoring spots through that.

Damion Lee scored 11 of his 13 points in the fourth quarter, a similar impact to his heroics in the season opener. He was awesome on both ends in those 12 minutes.

“He was big,” Williams said of Lee. “I thought his spacing was huge. He just knew where to be off the double teams.”

The bench was without Cam Payne (left foot soreness) and boy did they miss him. Landry Shamet shot 2-for-8 with five points.

The Blazers, a team that lacks depth already, had seven players in double figures. They started Justise Winslow at point guard, a guy who has run NBA offenses in the past but is by no means a floor general.

Johnson was ruled out the rest of the game shortly after his exit and left the locker room on crutches. The injury appeared to occur when Johnson was running back on defense, and after Paul got his leg on a pass, Johnson tried to turn around, stop and plant and came up hobbling. Williams didn’t have an update on him.


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