EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Shorthanded Phoenix Suns start new KD era with loss to Hawks

Feb 9, 2023, 8:09 PM

After a seismic trade before the deadline, it’s funny how the Phoenix Suns find themselves in the same short-term position.

With the newly acquired Kevin Durant (still not used to typing that) rehabbing an MCL sprain in his knee, the Suns just need to stay afloat until Durant returns at some point after the All-Star break.

This is a similar spot to where Phoenix was when it was ravaged by injuries earlier in the season, at points missing seven of its top eight most important players.

But Thursday, a 116-107 loss to the Atlanta Hawks, was different.

The Suns were shorthanded because the likes of forwards T.J. Warren and Darius Bazley aren’t with the team yet. And when a team gives up as much as the Suns did for Durant, the weight of his absence will be heavy.

Add on Devin Booker sitting for left groin injury management while Cam Payne (right foot sprain) and Landry Shamet (right foot soreness) remain out and that’s quite the burden.

Atlanta was in control all night. It didn’t play well enough to blow out the Suns in the second half, a testament to how hard Phoenix was playing with only nine guys, but it never got within two possessions.

Thursday was also different because of the emotion involved in the day.

At the team hotel, the Suns had to say goodbye to Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson, the two key pieces of the Durant deal. As written elsewhere, they were the heart and soul of the team. Bally Sports’ Eddie Johnson and Kevin Ray both noted on Arizona Sports’ Wolf & Luke how tough of a moment it was for everyone.

Head coach Monty Williams discussed that pregame.

“Those two are near and dear to my heart,” Williams said. “They literally are like my family. They know how much we care about them. They understand the business side of it but they also understand that there’s a human side, an emotional side, a connection that is greater than the business side.”

While Booker works toward his regular minutes allotment and Durant heals up, there is some serious playing time up for grabs, and who seizes it over the next two months is one of the biggest things to monitor for the Suns the rest of the way.

Josh Okogie contributed 22 points, four rebounds, three assists, three steals and a block. Given the unique defensive responsibilities Bridges had, he’s a great candidate to take on a bigger role.

Ish Wainright is playing the best basketball of his life and provided 17 points, three rebounds, an assists, three steals and two blocks. Wainright’s been really good defensively the past couple of weeks, putting in some serious shifts off the bench and even closing a few games. If he can knock down shots, he’s got as good of a chance as anyone for a rotation spot in the wing rotation.

Deandre Ayton added 23 points while only grabbing two rebounds and Chris Paul had 15 points with eight assists, three steals and two blocks.

Trae Young scored a game-high 36 points for Atlanta.

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