Phoenix Suns start slow, fail to recover in blowout home loss to Hawks

Feb 1, 2023, 11:33 PM
Atlanta Hawks guard Dejounte Murray (5) dunks over Phoenix Suns guard Chris Paul during the first h...

Atlanta Hawks guard Dejounte Murray (5) dunks over Phoenix Suns guard Chris Paul during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2023, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

(AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

PHOENIX — Every now and then you’ll come across a basketball game that denies us its beautiful complexities. There is no big, blinking, light-up arrow pointing at a specific, layered aspect of the game.

Ultimately, the Hawks on Wednesday night played well and the Suns did not. Atlanta had better defensive energy and made far more shots. It quickly snowballed from there. That was about it, enough to make it a rather uneventful 132-100 Suns loss.

“You have games like that but I thought the start of the game, if you just go to the first possession, we couldn’t find Dejounte (Murray) for the first 3 of the game,” Suns head coach Monty Williams said. “We had five guys on one side of the court, one guy by their bench. That was pretty much the game dictator. They were a lot faster than us, especially in transition, and we just couldn’t make a shot tonight for whatever reason.”

Chris Paul was 0-for-5 in the first half and ended up 1-of-6 for three points, two rebounds and three assists. He didn’t do much in the first quarter, which normally isn’t to a huge detriment of the Suns, but Phoenix’s prioritization of Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges didn’t yield nearly as many positive results as Monday’s win. That is to be expected with how new that is for the team and players.

When Paul exits and the second unit doesn’t have much pop either, though, that leads us to end products like Wednesday when the Hawks were up 20 midway through the second quarter. By then, the way the game was trending wore on the Suns’ effort, which doomed them.

“Play better defense and not allow the runs to become emotionally staggering to you,” Williams said of how the Suns need to avoid that snowball effect. “I think that happens to us at times.”

Ayton and Bridges still had strong nights, and some of that was from the first quarter. The complete package offensively, however, just didn’t flow. And the Suns’ defense was ill prepared for this type of Hawks effort with both moving the ball and shooting it at a high clip.

The Hawks entered the night 29th in the amount of their field goals that are assisted and wound up with 18 of their 27 baskets assisted in the first half, an excellent mark. They finished with 32 assists and the Suns had 32 made baskets.

The 3-point shooting was a ridiculous 45-point swing, the one part of the stat sheet you can spotlight to my aforementioned point. The Hawks were 19-of-33 (57.6%) while the Suns were 4-of-28 (14.3%).

Atlanta had a crazy 31 points off the Suns’ 16 turnovers.

It was another defensive performance from the Suns that included plenty of miscommunication and a constant effort to have conversations afterward to try to clean it up.

Phoenix was second in the NBA in defensive rating for January, a huge step forward, but inside those performances were still a handful of detached sequences. The Suns are really close to channeling their elite team defense from the last two years but it sure is requiring some scratching and clawing to do so. You can see the frustration in trying to finish that process.

Phoenix was down 19 at halftime and that margin quickly grew into the low 30s less than halfway through the third quarter.

Bridges’ shooting night wasn’t all that pretty at a 6-of-18 final tally but he was 10-for-10 at the foul line and had seven assists to go with his team-high 23 points and five rebounds. His confidence the last few weeks remains a stark difference from the offensive player we once knew.

Ayton’s touch shots were falling all night. He was 9-for-12 with 20 points and nine rebounds.

Cam Johnson played 15 minutes and only nine in the first half across two stints. Williams said that was still a matter of managing Johnson’s minutes. Johnson played 91 total minutes in his last three games prior to Wednesday, indicating he was perhaps past this, but he is not just yet. Johnson confirmed the restriction was planned.

Phoenix’s bench had four points at halftime. That group has a lot of great individual stories and everyone has had a big spurt of games at some point but they ultimately cannot be relied upon on a night-to-night basis.

The Suns now embark on a five-game road trip, the longest left of the season, and it starts by going all the way across the country to Boston.

Wednesday could wind up being the last game at Footprint Center as a Sun for some players with the trade deadline a week from Thursday. Mat Ishbia’s acquisition of the team looms as what could be a pivotal moment for Phoenix to finally begin wheeling and dealing with its healthy amount of assets and flexibility.

The Suns’ first game back home won’t be until Valentine’s Day, and that could be the case for Devin Booker as well. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported Wednesday Booker’s return from a now-19-game absence due to a left groin strain could come as soon as Tuesday.

While the Hawks loss will be dispiriting for some, the Suns are still a game over .500 and have won six of their last eight games. A stretch like that without Booker didn’t seem remotely feasible. Reinforcements are on the way soon, and it’s just a matter of how well they can continue to tread water until those bodies arrive.

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