EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Phoenix Suns lose focus, let game slip away to late Wizards rally

Dec 20, 2022, 11:49 PM | Updated: Dec 21, 2022, 8:58 am

Chris Paul #3 of the Phoenix Suns looks to pass under pressure from Kyle Kuzma #33 and Corey Kisper...

Chris Paul #3 of the Phoenix Suns looks to pass under pressure from Kyle Kuzma #33 and Corey Kispert #24 of the Washington Wizards during the second half of the NBA game at Footprint Center on December 20, 2022 in Phoenix, Arizona. The Wizards defeated the Suns 113-110. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

PHOENIX — Tuesday night’s 113-110 Phoenix Suns loss to the Washington Wizards was less of a trap game and more of a trap four minutes.

A flat first half offensively and an even more blah shift defensively had the Suns down just five at halftime but the score eventually sorted itself out to have them trail by 17 midway through the third quarter. But then a tidal wave 33-9 run sprouted out of nowhere to put Phoenix up seven with 9:39 to go.

It was the type of surge when the home crowd turns into a party after every play and it continued for a few more minutes on Landry Shamet’s sixth 3-pointer, a lob finish for Bismack Biyombo and two buckets for Deandre Ayton at the rim.

The Suns still led by 10 with 5:20 remaining, and with the crowd still erupting against a Wizards team that had lost their last 10 games, it felt like the outcome was a mere formality.

But Phoenix fell asleep at the wheel, and when it woke up 3:48 later, it was down five after a 17-2 spurt from the Wizards.

While Washington was on a terrible losing streak, it still has very talented pieces in Bradley Beal and Kyle Kuzma that can burn you. Beal scored or assisted the defining last nine points of the 17 and it wasn’t difficult for him.

Allowing that to happen is something bad teams do. The Suns are not that, nor have they had a loss like this in quite a while. Perhaps Chris Paul’s injury during that Washington run, a bump on a screen that appeared similar to the shoulder injury he sustained in the 2021 playoffs, played a factor in the mojo falling off.

But as shot after shot didn’t go down while the Wizards stormed back, it became more and more inexcusable. Shamet hit three more 3s in the last 18 seconds as a last hurrah to see if there was one more crazy run coming but the damage had been done.

Without Devin Booker (right groin soreness) again, the Suns prioritized Ayton throughout most of the night and he responded well with 30 points on 12-of-20 shooting, plus 13 rebounds. Shamet’s breakout game of a career-high 31 points with nine 3s was a much-needed shooting explosion to snap him out of his rut.

Outside of those two, no one else made meaningful contributions offensively, where the absence of Booker loomed large. Getting Booker help offensively has been one of the main discussion points surrounding the team since last postseason. That, however, didn’t matter as much in regard to Tuesday’s result.

That’s because a great defensive team has the backbone to work through that and still win at a high rate, something the Suns haven’t been in over six weeks. Since the 10-game mark passed on Nov. 8 and entering play on Tuesday, Phoenix is 21st in defensive rating (and its offensive rating is No. 1).

“We scored 32 points in the fourth,” Suns head coach Monty Williams said. “The offense wasn’t our demise tonight. It was our defense.”

“Man, people just been in our paint, man,” Ayton said of it. “I gotta protect the paint some more. Transition as well. I gotta start, ‘I can’t get this o-board I just gotta get back sometimes.’ Just build a wall and protect my guys. Those the two roles that I can say that, me, I need to get better at.”

The offense tends to stagnate when the defense is unable to patch together stops, a trend that dates back to the start of the Williams era and one Booker or Paul often single-handedly saves them from. It can really bog things down when either guy is unable to put the cape on.

At one point in the second quarter after the Wizards got a few free shots at the rim, Bridges was defending the ball-handler who still had the ball deep in the backcourt. Bridges turned around and appeared to yell and clap at his supporting defense behind him. At the next dead ball, he did more of the same while pointing to certain spots on the floor.

I can’t remember the last time, if ever, I saw him do anything resembling that on the Suns. Here’s what he said afterward when I asked him about it in the locker room:

“Myself included, I just feel like we weren’t connected at one point,” he told Arizona Sports. “Me personally having lapses, and everyone else, it was just us for a little bit — we weren’t connected.”

This carried over during the stretch that decided the game.

After a Kuzma 3 capped off that 17-2 run, the Suns called a timeout and set up a play. It looked like Ayton was supposed to set a screen for Bridges to open up space for him on the block after the play design got Bridges a mismatch on the smaller Monte Morris, but Ayton didn’t set the screen. Ayton postgame referred to messing up on a key play and this appears to be it.

On the ensuing possession after a Suns turnover, the Wizards drew free throws and that’s when Bridges and Ayton got in a heated discussion.

Bridges was seen pointing at the other end, presumably for the screen Ayton messed up on, before the below video.

Two possessions later, the Wizards called a timeout, and that’s when the above video broke down.

It appears Ayton is pointing at Bridges and it’s a continuation of that discussion. The scene, of course, catches attention because it involves Williams and Ayton, who Ayton said he didn’t talk to at all during the entire offseason. I’m sure Williams was just upset with both guys bickering like that on the court, and you can see him motioning as much.

Williams confirmed it was not just a thing between he and Ayton.

“No, it was the whole team,” he said. “In those moments — it wasn’t just Deandre — it was the whole group out there not executing properly. It was a bitter frustration but that happens. That was not an isolated one-person or one-player thing.”

Ayton downplayed the spat.

“Obviously the whole world sees it, but it’s really all love and just getting us back to regroup,” he said.

“It gets really emotional and all that, but as I said, this is a family,” he added. “We know each other, we know each other’s personalities. Everybody got to see us really, like, intensified in the moment where, OK, dang, we lost our upper hand. … But coach clarified it up in the huddle.”

The injury for Paul was one he said did not feel like the one against the Lakers. He noted it scared him more than anything.

Paul was 3-of-11 for 12 points with 11 assists.

Bridges added 10 points (4-for-11) with three assists and four turnovers. He had a fair bit of the offense run through him and struggled.

Kuzma showed why he is a favorite trade target for some Suns fans to help fix that problem on offense. He scored 29 points on 10-of-19 shooting with six rebounds, six assists and two steals. Beal scored 16 of his 27 points in the fourth quarter.

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