Shorthanded Suns put in resilient effort, eventually lose steam vs. Cavs

Jan 8, 2023, 9:59 PM

PHOENIX — While it hasn’t yet changed the trend in the win/loss column as concern continues mounting about the Phoenix Suns’ positioning in the standings, they have played the right way in three straight games, a claim you can’t make recently unless you go back six-plus weeks.

Sunday’s was the best of the bunch, a real fight by a very shorthanded group in a 112-98 loss to a great team at nearly full strength, the Cleveland Cavaliers.

“Through the mess and through all the hard times there are flashes of excellence and I think that that’s something to hang your hat on and really try and focus on,” center Jock Landale said.

To get it out of the way, Phoenix is now 20-21 after its six straight loss and 14th in its last 18 games. The Suns end Sunday night tied with the Portland Trail Blazers and Minnesota Timberwolves for the last three play-in spots of the Western Conference at eighth, ninth and 10th. The Los Angeles Lakers, winners of five straight, sit just a half-game back in 11th.

The Suns were unable to reach 100 points for the fourth straight game, the first time a Suns streak has reached that mark since March 2018, per Stathead.

Cleveland went on a 14-0 run in the late first quarter after the Suns had their best start to a game in weeks. Phoenix didn’t get flustered by this and stuck with it through everything that had been working, and even with a 60% shooting mark for the Cavaliers (26-15) in the first half, it was within three at halftime.

The Suns kept getting after it, and following a Duane Washington Jr. 3 with 1:48 to go in the third quarter, they took their first lead since that first quarter.

“First three quarters I felt like we were solid,” center Deandre Ayton said. “We were playing good basketball, moving the ball.”

But Phoenix’s bench eventually got blitzed.

A Landale bucket at 1:10 left in the third quarter was one of three Suns baskets until there was 3:05 remaining. It was a 26-6 Cavs surge that emphatically put the game away.

“They’re a really good team and when they needed to turn it up, they did,” Suns head coach Monty Williams said.

When someone mentions pace in basketball, the first thing most think of is running up and down the floor quickly like Steve Nash. But when the Suns mention pace, most of the time they’re talking about the movement within the actions, putting the defense on its heels.

That’s what the Suns have gotten back to the last three games and it helps them on both sides of the ball.

“We have to live off the community when you have so many guys out,” Williams said. “And for us, the community has to play in 0.5, paint-to-great, all the stuff we talk about. For me, you have to get into a good team’s legs and the way that you do that is run ’em around a little bit.”

Devin Booker (left groin strain), Jae Crowder (not with team), Cam Johnson (right meniscus tear), Chris Paul (right hip soreness) and Cam Payne (right foot sprain) were out again.

This put the Suns in a near-impossible position, without a natural point guard. That’s the position second-year two-way guard Duane Washington Jr. is playing but is one that he’s still learning at the NBA level for the first time this season. Landry Shamet has been more of a combo guard this year and that was the position he was in to start the game.

Williams elected to go with his biggest lineup of the year, putting Dario Saric alongside Ayton with the normal starting 4 Torrey Craig remaining in next to Mikal Bridges. This was the same frontcourt Phoenix used against Cleveland in Wednesday’s loss.

Washington was terrific. He scored a game-high 25 points off the bench on 9-of-18 shooting, consistently trying to score off the dribble, a must for him as the best healthy guy at that right now.

He was a part of a few back-breaking turnovers in the fourth quarter and his defense will result in some breakdowns. But for a two-way player to stay with it like he does while being as crucial as he is, is really impressive.

“I think with where we are, he’s doing a good job. … Had a couple of turnovers that he could have avoided but I don’t want him playing fearful or worrying about making mistakes even though you want him to have some balance,” Williams said of Washington. “We needed his scoring tonight.”

Young NBA point guards go through a roller coaster of locating a delicate sweet spot, being told to either speed up or slow down in order to dictate the team’s offensive pace in the right way.

You can see Washington going through that battle right now, and these legit minutes are showing his real-time improvement of finding more good floor general stretches in patches of a game.

“It’s not cookie cut,” Washington described it as. “You can’t say go super fast right here, super slow right here. It’s a feeling, it’s a read. (Assistant) coach (Steve) Scalzi talks to me about the heartbeat of the game and knowing when to go, knowing when not to go and that’s something that I’m just continuing to instill in my brain and continuing to get better.”

He’s holding himself to a higher standard and not looking past those mistakes, as the last two games he has emphasized his turnovers and how he needs to be better. They’ll need him to be with a four-game road trip coming up.

The last two games are a perfect example of why you can almost ignore the box score entirely for Ayton.

He produced 23 points and 14 rebounds in Friday’s defeat but had a chunk of poor plays and decisions within that production. While Sunday is going to go down as one of his worst shooting games of the year, 6-of-16, he did a great job of being direct with his choices at the right tempo. That’s something both he and Bridges are figuring out on the fly in hyper-increased roles, and the most recent loss to the Cavaliers was the best performances from the duo yet.

Something lost on the current injury-riddled structure of the Suns is the pair is so important that the team will go as they go. If Ayton and Bridges find their flow, it will rub off on the supporting cast in the same way it positively impacts them when Booker and Paul are in sync.

For Bridges, the part of the floor we see him trying to discover the right rhythm for is once he takes his second dribble inside the 3-point line for an on-ball action. At that point, he’s somewhere within 8-16 feet of the basket, and he has to make the right decision on whether to shoot it, move it or get to the rim.

That’s where he can get to his uber-efficient middy, a shot he has failed to find a feel for in the last month despite having a knack for it the last two seasons. For whatever reason, it clicked better on Sunday. He shot 7-of-10 for 15 points with two rebounds, three assists and two steals.

Here is one of those post-second dribble moments with a jumper right as there’s enough space between him and Cavaliers center Jarrett Allen, the guy in drop coverage:

And another one, this time with the correct decision to keep it going for one more bounce so Washington was found in the corner:

This is that real next step we see future young stars go through in their second or third season, like Booker did when defenses started to treat him as a primary or secondary option as ball-handlers and learning the level ups that forces their development. Bridges will likely never be in this type of position for a full-strength roster but these are the growing pains he and Ayton will be better off with in the future.

Ayton tweaked his left ankle late in the fourth quarter, one that forced him to miss a pair of games on two different occasions earlier this year. He said afterward it’s a day-by-day thing. His stat line ended up at 14 points, 11 rebounds and six assists.

Landale was great in a reserve role. He has switched off in his role with Bismack Biyombo depending on the matchup. It was Landale’s night Sunday and he had 14 points, five rebounds, two assists, a steal and a block.

The Cavaliers’ star backcourt of Darius Garland and Donovan Mitchell each scored 22 points. They can win it all if those two keep building chemistry the way they have halfway through the year.

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