EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Phoenix Suns check many more boxes, still come up short vs. Cavaliers

Jan 4, 2023, 8:14 PM | Updated: Jan 5, 2023, 5:35 am
Phoenix Suns forward Torrey Craig (0) shoots against Cleveland Cavaliers forward Evan Mobley (4) du...

Phoenix Suns forward Torrey Craig (0) shoots against Cleveland Cavaliers forward Evan Mobley (4) during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2023, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Ron Schwane)

(AP Photo/Ron Schwane)

There is a term most commonly used in esports these days called a “win condition.” What it essentially boils down to is labeling the best path to achieving your objective and winning. Get the simple A-B-C’s of your gameplan down and it should be smooth sailing from there.

For the Phoenix Suns the last two years, they had so much talent and cohesion that all they needed to do was outwork their opposition and move the ball. A.K.A., just play Suns basketball.

This season they haven’t done that nearly enough. And even when they have, it’s not enough because of injuries and other shortcomings.

Phoenix on Wednesday had all five starters in double figures, got a vintage Chris Paul performance of 25 points and held the Cleveland Cavaliers to 90 points thanks to one of its best defensive performances of the year. For a team that has been awful on that end the last two months, that sure sounds like checking boxes on a win condition that would bring one on.

But despite that, the Suns still lost 90-88. They have now dropped 12 of their last 16 games and are 20-19, one more loss away from .500.

Phoenix absorbed whatever it needed to from the horrible nature of the majority of its losses the last month and played direct basketball with purpose all night. It will be a requirement during a January that has a brutal schedule of opponents, which has to make this loss especially deflating. You could sense just watching on television how much this group wanted this win.

Cleveland, who the Suns will see in Phoenix again on Sunday, is a contender and is coming off an overtime win that guard Donovan Mitchell scored 71 points in.

The Suns were not only able to come out of the gates with real energy but more importantly sustained it over the course of the game. This level of zip, particularly on defense, threw off a Cavaliers team that expected like many of us for Phoenix to be lacking there and willingly roll over.

Deandre Ayton was the one guy to watch above all others. He was pursuing nearly every rebounding chance he had, requiring consistent box-outs from a big Cavaliers team if they wanted to secure the ball. You could tell through his 18 rebounds and Paul’s purpose that the Suns really, really desired starting the process of righting the wrongs on Wednesday.

While Phoenix’s offensive performance was mostly rough and included a 6:16 stretch in the first quarter that produced only two points, the Cavaliers’ was even worse.

The Suns led 43-33 at halftime, a score you would have quickly read past and not thought twice about for a quarter beyond attributing it to some hot shooting. Cleveland’s driving lanes were clogged up by great help, specifically on Mitchell, and it missed its first 14 attempts from 3.

As expected for a squad as good as the Cavs, they started to patch together small bits of momentum in the third quarter, but the Suns held strong and managed to still lead by two through three quarters because of some big-time shot-making by Paul.

That persisted in the fourth quarter but the Suns’ offensive flow evaporated once Paul, who didn’t get a rest in the fourth quarter, was pressured off the ball by Cleveland when he had it.

Phoenix was still up seven with under five minutes remaining and generated good looks, ones Landry Shamet and Mikal Bridges couldn’t knock down.

Mitchell, who ended the night 6-of-21, really got aggressive and eventually hit a 3 with 40 seconds left to put the Cavaliers up three.

Shamet responded to a couple of key misses by hitting a quick-trigger catch-and-shoot 3 to tie the game back up at 26 seconds remaining.

Mitchell kept attacking, this time drawing in the entire Suns defense on the ensuing possession. His teammate Evan Mobley wisely relocated and made himself available in the passing lane for a jumper in rhythm to put the Cavaliers back in front by two.

Phoenix had four seconds left and designed the sideline out of bounds play for Bridges, who missed his 12th shot of the evening from a midrange area he is normally comfortable in to end the game.

Bridges ended up 3-of-15. He really puts the Suns in a near-impossible situation offensively if he is that inefficient while Devin Booker (left groin strain) and Cam Johnson (meniscus tear) are out. That is part of the current win condition. Bridges finished with 10 points, seven rebounds, four assists, a steal and two blocks.

Paul added eight assists and two steals to those 25 points on 9-of-17 from the field in 40 minutes. It is the second time in the last two weeks he’s reached that mark, the other being the overtime loss in Denver on Christmas. His energy was particularly inspired on defense, where he has not been great this year, but looked like himself again there on Wednesday.

Mitchell wound up with 20 points and nine assists. Cleveland’s leading scorer was Caris LeVert with 21 points.

Suns guard Cam Payne left the game with a right foot injury and did not return in the second half. He had previously missed nine games due to a right foot strain before coming back in Monday’s loss to the New York Knicks.

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