EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Phoenix Suns’ great fight stalls out in crunch time of loss to Heat

Nov 14, 2022, 9:06 PM | Updated: 9:13 pm
Phoenix Suns forward Mikal Bridges (25) looks to pass the ball as Miami Heat center Bam Adebayo (13...

Phoenix Suns forward Mikal Bridges (25) looks to pass the ball as Miami Heat center Bam Adebayo (13) defends during the first half of an NBA basketball game Monday, Nov. 14, 2022, in Miami. (AP Photo/Marta Lavandier)

(AP Photo/Marta Lavandier)

The Phoenix Suns’ 113-112 loss to the Miami Heat on Monday told the whole story surrounding the central thesis of the team this season.

The first 16 minutes of the second half resembled the 64-win Suns of last regular season, the road trip dementors that would come out to suck the souls from the opposition and its crowd with a relentless effort full of contributions from every Sun getting minutes.

Phoenix led by 13 with a little over seven minutes to go, well on its way to the best effort and win of the season.

But the Heat were ready to make the Suns really earn it, posting a 12-0 run in three-and-a-half minutes to get the score within one shortly after clutch minutes were triggered.

It’s a facet of the game the Suns dominated last year, but without Chris Paul (right heel soreness), they were overwhelmed.

Devin Booker played the entire second half en route to 42 minutes and was running nearly every possession. Phoenix worked some of its offense through backup point guard Cam Payne in crunch time to ease Booker’s load slightly and give Payne some experience. That knocked the offense off its axis, one it could never regain.

Payne knocked down a floater with 47 seconds remaining to put the Suns up one only for Miami’s Bam Adebayo to match with two free throws.

The Suns’ next offensive possession that would ultimately be the game’s last would come off a sidelines out of bounds play after a Heat foul paused the clock at 22 seconds.

Booker got the inbound and dribbled into the help of the defense where Heat wing Jimmy Butler was forcing him, and he quickly passed to Payne on his left. Payne’s defender, though, had only half-committed and was able to force Payne into a difficult finish at the rim that didn’t go. Deandre Ayton grabbed his eighth offensive rebound of the game on the miss, kicking it out to an open Mikal Bridges on the wing, who elected to pass back to Booker with 12 seconds left.

Booker tried to create a look against one of the best defenders in the world, and Butler played some of the best 1-on-1 defense of the season to block Booker’s shot and end the game.

The last possession encapsulated what we started with in terms of the whole story. Booker’s teammates were put in two different positions to make a play to win the game, and they either missed or passed up the opportunity, so it was on him to bail them out. On a night where Booker had carried them, he didn’t have one more bit of heroics left in him.

The disappointing turn was one shot attempt each for Ayton and Bridges in the fourth quarter after the duo was prominently involved in the offense through the first 36 minutes. The first step is those opening three quarters, which is necessary progress regardless of the injury situation and becomes even more needed when Paul and Cam Johnson (knee) are out.

The next step once either Ayton or Bridges becomes a consistent secondary scorer is featuring that when the game is really on the line against good teams.

In the third quarter, Booker brilliantly dissected double teams and Ayton was decisive while mauling the offensive glass, the best version of him.

Bridges stayed on the front foot getting to his touch-shot spots, and the Suns ran sections of the offense through providing him those looks.

Part of the issue with this was Booker having to do so much. His stat line of 25 points, eight rebounds, five assists, three steals, one block and two turnovers on 11-of-22 should resemble something more like his best performance of the year. He was outstanding and looked like the type of superstar that can be a top 10 offense on their own.

Again, he played 42 minutes. I’m sure the Suns have the data that supports heavy minutes for him across certain regular season games but it’s still a lot to ask for on this type of workload and that also speaks to the Suns’ problems on offense.

Ayton finished with 16 points and 12 rebounds while Bridges added 15 points.

Damion Lee being the Suns’ best reserve this season has gone from a claim that is subjective to objective. He scored 14 points off the bench and made a dozen huge plays in the margins.

Payne’s shooting line ended at 4-of-17 and he was 1-for-7 in the fourth quarter. It was a rough one for him after he began the Paul-less stint with two great starts.

Whether it was Johnson last year or past names like Eddie Johnson, Rodney Rogers and Leandro Barbosa, Suns (and basketball) fans know there is innate value in having a source of offense off the bench that can explode at any time.

A one-man avalanche via Duane Washington Jr. reminded us of that on Monday.

Washington produced 16 of his 21 points in less than eight minutes of his first shift in the rotation. No Paul and Landry Shamet (concussion protocol) meant it was either going to be full quarters for Booker and Payne like Friday’s loss or Washington would get his long-awaited taste of the rotation.

It was the latter.

The second-year guard was a sharpshooter at Ohio State and has some bucket-getting ability to go along with it.

Washington said in the preseason he’s learning the point guard position right now, and on a team that doesn’t play below average defenders, it’s an uphill climb for a young player in his position to get some run. But this team needs offense, which is why there was logic behind him getting a chance earlier in the year. Given the injuries right now, it’s better late than never.

The Heat made seven of their first eight attempts from 3-point range, most of which were open, and they finished the night 15-for-33 (45.5%).

Phoenix attempted four total free throws and made two. The two makes were the second fewest in franchise history, and ditto for the four attempts, per Stathead.

It was not the friendliest whistle the Suns will see all season but it was not the sole reason that number was so low compared to the Heat’s 22-for-25. Booker is the only player on the roster who consistently gets to the line. Ayton and Bridges must get better there too. And right now.

Miami played eight guys and seven of them reached double figures. Adebayo had a game-high 30 points.

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