EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Phoenix Suns’ long stretch on road ends with loss to Grizzlies

Jan 16, 2023, 6:29 PM | Updated: 6:50 pm
Phoenix Suns guard Landry Shamet, center, handles the ball between Memphis Grizzlies forwards Brand...

Phoenix Suns guard Landry Shamet, center, handles the ball between Memphis Grizzlies forwards Brandon Clarke, left, and Dillon Brooks (24) in the first half of an NBA basketball game Monday, Jan. 16, 2023, in Memphis, Tenn. (AP Photo/Brandon Dill)

(AP Photo/Brandon Dill)

It’s over and now it’s time to rebuild. No, not in the way you think.

The Phoenix Suns spent 20 of their last 24 days on the road playing 10 of their last 12 games. They did so extremely shorthanded, at times without seven of their eight most important players on the roster. When you map out a potential playoff rotation for the Suns, Mikal Bridges was the only guy from that hypothetical group to play all of those games (because of course he was).

And it came against elite competition, the toughest stretch of the schedule from just an opponent perspective as well.

It has predictably brought on a lot of losing, the latest of which was a 136-106 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies on Monday that puts them 2-10 over that spurt and 5-17 over the previous 22 games.

But as I said, it’s over. While a six-game home stretch starts with some strong opposition like the Brooklyn Nets, Indiana Pacers and the Grizzlies again, it softens up a whole lot from there. And the hope for the Suns is they’ll start to get some of those bodies back like they have during this last road trip.

The Suns are now 21-24. That puts them 12th in the Western Conference. Yes, not even in the play-in. But for a stretch that obviously inspires some level of panic, don’t start flipping tables just yet when it comes to the Suns’ chances of completely missing out on the postseason.

The re-evaluation dates for Devin Booker (left groin strain) and Cam Payne (right foot sprain) are coming in the back-half of January while Cam Johnson’s return from a right meniscus tear should be any game now.

One more key note is the status of Chris Paul, who was out for his fifth straight game on Monday for right hip soreness. There’s not much information on that injury (as usual) for one that is being tabbed as day-to-day. And February of course brings the trade deadline on Feb. 9, a date before which we should finally see a trade executed involving Jae Crowder.

Phoenix could be just about 100% by the start of February and get some reinforcements a little later.

A Feb. 1 matchup with the Atlanta Hawks starts the point in which the Suns will have exactly 30 games left in the regular season. Let’s go glass half-empty for the seven more games to get there and throw out a 2-5 mark placing Phoenix at 23-29.

Can a Booker-led Suns squad catch fire over that stretch and go 10-15 games above .500, finding last season’s form? It looked like we were headed to some version of that before the injuries began piling up.

Eight games in, the four-man unit of Booker, Bridges, Johnson and Paul had played 148 minutes together and was outscoring teams by 29.5 points per 100 possessions, the best mark in the league at the time over 100 minutes, according to NBA.com.

If they can hit their stride, now the Suns finish somewhere between 43-48 wins and that’s probably enough to still finish with a top-six seed. More reasonably, somewhere in the range of 5-10 games above .500 across the final 30 games puts them around 40-43 wins and almost certainly with a play-in spot. (The Suns are 18-11 with Booker this season.)

In other terms, whenever Booker gets back, that’s really when the Suns have to embrace a postseason mentality (one they previously had two straight regular seasons) or else they won’t even see the real one this time around.

The last two weeks have been encouraging in determining the likelihood of that. Outside of the schedule loss in Denver and first-quarter dud versus the Minnesota Timberwolves, the depleted Phoenix roster has shown a far more consistent fight.

The Suns scored 65 points in the first half via nine different scorers and had 20 assists on 24 buckets, plus a perfect 10-of-10 mark at the foul line. It is the latest example over this downtick of how Phoenix can find its brand of basketball — high-threatening offense through fierce on-and-off-ball movement — no matter who is on the floor. Again, it is doing this without a healthy point guard at the moment.

Unfortunately for Phoenix, the Grizzlies had a reason to get up for this one.

Phoenix had a terrific win in its last trip to Memphis on Dec. 27, a 125-108 clinical victory despite the Suns being without Booker, Johnson, Payne and Landry Shamet and the Grizzlies playing at just about full strength.

Memphis matched that level of offense over the first half, leading 68-65 against some of the best offensive basketball the Suns have played this season. The Suns wisely went under on ball-screen actions for star point guard Ja Morant and he made ’em pay by hitting all five of his 3s over that stretch.

The Grizzlies just kept trading baskets and the Suns simply don’t have nearly enough firepower right now to do that at a pace of 130-plus points.

The expected separation came in a 39-23 third quarter to put the Suns down 19, a cushion that let Memphis not face much of a threat in the fourth. Adding on the Grizzlies’ 39-29 second quarter, it was 78-52 Memphis in the middle quarters.

Phoenix got back Shamet after right hip soreness kept him out for three games, but on the same night, lost Josh Okogie to a nose injury after he accidentally moved into Ayton’s right elbow.

While Bridges’ form has been inconsistent as more of a primary offensive option, there are clear signs of growth he has shown over the last few games when it comes to his confidence and rhythm in getting to his spots as a ball-handler. He had a terrific two-way performance of 21 points, four rebounds, seven assists, two blocks and an assist on 8-of-16 shooting.

Bridges, Damion Lee and Okogie have been the three main beneficiaries of this injury-riddled stretch that should be even better over the last two-and-a-half months of the regular season in their normal roles because of it.

Deandre Ayton bounced back from a rough shooting night in Minnesota and was 8-of-11 for 18 points.

Shamet’s inclusion put him in the starting lineup for Duane Washington Jr., and Suns head coach Monty Williams elected to go with 10-day signing Saben Lee over Washington in the rotation. Washington’s turnovers and inconsistent defensive play were likely the reasons why Williams turned to Lee despite the shooting and scoring Washington brings.

Memphis shot 53% and made 16 3s. Morant ended up with 29 points and Desmond Bane added 28.

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