EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Phoenix Suns squander opportunity against Doncic-less Mavericks

Jan 27, 2023, 1:01 AM | Updated: 2:07 pm

PHOENIX — The Phoenix Suns had found a groove entering Thursday night, winners of four straight. The timing couldn’t have been better with injured players trickling back into the rotation.

They weren’t incredibly impressive wins but they were putting victories together. That was what mattered, and the rest of their regular season will be defined by if they can continue to do that while pouncing on opportunities the schedule presents.

The Dallas Mavericks offered the latest on Thursday when they lost star guard and MVP contender Luka Doncic less than four minutes into the game due to a sprained left ankle.

For whatever reason, that threw Phoenix off more than Dallas in a 99-95 loss. We’ve talked about “flushing” a loss and how that’s usually not applicable, as there is something to learn from each defeat. But if there was ever one I’d agree on the Suns just moving on from, it would be this one.

The Suns began the game trying something new on Doncic.

Instead of Mikal Bridges taking the assignment, the runner up for Defensive Player of the Year last season, Cam Johnson marked the Slovenian guard. That is a huge sign of trust in Johnson, and with Phoenix primarily trapping Doncic on ball screens, put Bridges in more of a free safety role as an off-ball rotator.

The strategy was only able to be utilized for four minutes after Doncic twisted his left ankle and would not return.

Doncic is responsible for more of his team’s offensive workload than any other player in the league. While that is going to be quite the adjustment for the Mavericks to figure out on the fly, it was also one for the Suns to scrap the gameplan and adapt themselves.

One team did that well and the other didn’t.

“We just didn’t play with the urgency we needed to,” Suns forward Cam Johnson said. “Little hard to put into words sometimes but we just didn’t execute at a high enough level. Didn’t do a lot of things at a high enough level and came back to haunt us a little bit.”

After the Suns still looked pretty darn good through a 32-32 first quarter, they collapsed. Head coach Monty Williams saw a huge drop-off in the Suns’ attention to detail and energy once he started making subs, a rare attribution from Williams in terms of who didn’t perform well specifically.

On top of Phoenix’s offense going back to the tremendous lack of flow from its 5-17 skid, the defense was disorganized. Suns players seemed to be working through exactly what it wanted to do on switches and there were far too many moments when a Mavs player was open because of it.

There was also some simply bad on-ball defense.

“At some point, you gotta sit down and put your chest on somebody and guard the ball,” Williams said. “We can’t scheme the whole game.”

Phoenix shot 14-of-45 (31.1%) in the middle quarters for 37 total points. On the other end of the court, Dallas’ Spencer Dinwiddie was spectacular in the Doncic role, doing just enough to keep the Mavericks in control all the way until the end of the game. He was unquestionably the best player on the floor with 36 points, six rebounds and nine assists.

The Suns were within a few possessions all night and even got it down to one on a few occasions in crunch time. They just couldn’t put together organized possessions on offense or defense.

The Mavericks were without Maxi Kleber (right hamstring tear) and Christian Wood (left thumb fracture) while it was no Devin Booker (left groin strain), Jae Crowder (not traded yet), Cam Payne (right foot sprain) and Landry Shamet (right foot soreness) for Phoenix.

The conversation swirling around this game will be about Deandre Ayton, who returned to the lineup after staying away from the team for three games with a non-COVID illness. He was still congested and said he was dizzy at times, as headaches and wheezing were his two main issues while sick at home.

The polarizing element of Ayton essentially represented itself over the course of Thursday. He had some really great aggressive and decisive moments offensively, including using his dribble with purpose.

He was very productive too, contributing 19 points and 20 rebounds, seven of which came on the offensive glass.

But Ayton also was disconnected on more plays than usual. A few Mavericks buckets around the rim featured Ayton allowing someone to get by him off the ball and then shoot without a contest. At one point, it was noticeable in the second quarter how his effort dropped off due to frustration with something else.

Booker during a timeout in the second quarter took a minute to speak with Ayton. After that, the big man’s effort got back to the level it should be at every night.

But while that was there, Ayton’s mistakes still were too.

On a perfect lob pass in the mid-fourth quarter, Ayton went for a two-handed layup over the defender that didn’t go down. He was pushed, a foul call he did not get. He also could have been more forceful to earn the call, the reason he doesn’t get them. The “lol just dunk it” flurry of criticism toward Ayton is often misplaced but that was the type of play where he just had to dunk it. On the other end, the Mavs got a 3 in semi-transition.

The fans in Footprint Center audibly reacted to the Ayton miss, some groans that had been building throughout the night over Ayton’s missed shot attempts in the paint, the type of touch shots he takes from 12 feet when he could be more physical to take them three times closer. He was 6-of-20 from the field. The offense was designed around him to punish the Mavericks’ switches and the Suns weren’t able to consistently.

That type of reaction has happened before but never to the extent and frequency it reached on Thursday.

One more would come during the defining moment of the game.

With the Suns down one and 12 seconds left, they fouled. In-between Reggie Bullock’s first and second free throw, Ayton was subbed in for rebounding purposes. After Bullock made the first, he missed the second.

Torrey Craig cleared the side out with his box out and Ayton tracked the ball over there, where he would try to tip it to himself. He was unable to corral the ball, long enough for Dallas’ Dwight Powell to force a loose ball foul.

Powell’s two free throws went down and sealed the ending.

In my opinion, it’s more of a bang-bang play than the shining example of Ayton’s flaws at a critical juncture. But Ayton’s just gotta come up with that ball, something he admitted afterward.

“It was such a bad … it was just bad,” Ayton said. “At the end of the day, it’s 2-on-1 on that box out. We gotta pinch him and do our job. … That’s how dudes win playoff games, that’s how people win Finals games.”

Situational awareness was a term Williams and Paul both brought up unprompted as an issue for the Suns.

“Just situational awareness. Like I told the guys, every possession has to be important to us,” Williams said. “I didn’t think it was important for us across the board. … In that situation, it was not as important to us as it was to them to get the ball. Period. ”

Paul was asked what had to get better about it.

“Just gotta want it more,” Paul said after taking a few seconds to think about his answer. “Gotta do the little things. All of us, we gotta do all the little details. That one possession that you take off in these games, if I don’t come in and box out the shooter or pinch or we step across and box out, those plays matter.”

Johnson was asked what he thinks of when the term is brought up.

“Ah, man, time and time again these situations pop up in the NBA and it’s pretty clear cut what you see in the results of them, such as something like a free throw box out or just understanding what they’re trying to do,” Johnson said. “You see it and we talk about it and those are things that we should be better on.

“Off the top of my head, I can’t recall exactly what happened, those two free throw box outs — one time, the ball was popping around and Powell got to it and the other one kind of came off and he got a hand on it and batted it back. Those are things that we talk about and we can’t have happen. It stings. ”

Ayton spoke on his night as a whole.

“I shot the ball like crap tonight,” he said. “But I was still aggressive with it, still was trying to get to my bucket and try and do what I do best. I was happy I was active on the glass to where I just want to keep that throughout the whole season and postseason.”

Phoenix’s bench had a rough night. It produced 11 points and shot 5-for-20 (25%). Williams played 13 guys, an effort to try to find someone that could stay in front of the ball defensively and help out the flow offensively.

Josh Okogie has been a terrific addition for the Suns this season and has swung a handful of games already. With that being said, performances like Thursday’s are why it’s tough to envision him as a consistent piece of a playoff rotation. He was 0-for-6, 0-of-4 from 3, all while the Mavs gave him an ocean of space off the ball.

Paul was great with 22 points, six rebounds and 10 assists in 38 minutes (too many). Bridges didn’t make a field goal until the second half but got better then with 16 points, four rebounds and four assists in 42 minutes (too many).

Johnson continues to look like the best version of himself right after a return from a torn meniscus. He scored 22 points on 12 shots.

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