EMPIRE OF THE SUNS
Phoenix Suns’ comeback loses steam late in loss to Bucks
PHOENIX — The Phoenix Suns’ margin for error just isn’t much without Kevin Durant (left ankle sprain) and they aren’t playing well enough right now to win through it.
There was a lot to like about Tuesday’s 116-104 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks, mostly their fight and energy that livened up a raucous crowd during a comeback that took over two quarters to gain some traction.
But Phoenix’s (37-32) problem lately continues to be execution, just not finding enough precision with what it wants to do in the stretches that have decided its last three losses.
Once the game was tied at 97 with 6:48 to go, the Bucks’ 11-4 run across three minutes to put them back in the driver’s seat was not expert shot-making or outstanding individual defensive plays. It was just doing more right.
In the Suns’ first defensive possession after a timeout, Devin Booker briefly lost focus and allowed Milwaukee’s Pat Connaughton to get an open corner 3. After a Deandre Ayton missed jumper, Milwaukee (50-19) turned it over but then Ayton was blocked at the rim after Booker was doubled on a drive.
During the dead ball, the Suns got a delay of game technical foul. On the Bucks’ ensuing possession, Bucks center Brook Lopez hit a floater through contact at the rim.
That was the 6-0 portion of the aforementioned 11-4 run. While there was still over five minutes to go after just a minute had passed, that six-point Bucks lead felt enormous, similar to some of the games in the 2021 Finals.
Some of that had to with how Milwaukee schemed against Phoenix’s offense both back then and now.
This was never a team that generated a ton of rim pressure, but that’s even harder to make happen as currently constructed without Durant.
Teams are naturally going to play a certain amount off Torrey Craig and Josh Okogie, with the latter’s lack of defensive coverage getting extreme at points. Both are capable shooters but defenses are more than happy to let them dictate things.
From there, defenses are now leaving Suns centers more space more often. Ayton is allowed to get the ball outside of 10 feet, with his defender more commonly in a deep drop and offering up the real estate free of charge. The opposition is OK with sacrificing a midrange jumper and knows Ayton’s inconsistent with using his dribble from there. That is the default coverage for Lopez, a Defensive Player of the Year candidate, so he was at home on Tuesday.
“It’s tougher because they’re giving you the shot DA got,” Suns head coach Monty Williams said of it. “That’s what they want. They’re one of the best at taking away 3s, especially corner 3s. … That’s their identity. … They don’t mind giving up that pocket shot.”
Ayton finished 8-of-19 for 16 points and was 3-for-10 in the second half. The two misses for him on those runs were both plays where Lopez was granting Ayton that space. He’s got to punish that when he gets it given how strong of a midrange scorer he usually is.
On a baseline out of bounds play, Phoenix’s Jock Landale was thrown the ball five feet away from the inbounder and drilled a 12-foot jumper. Lopez didn’t even act like he was there.
The “four-point line” is a way of encouraging extreme spacing, having someone like Okogie a few feet behind the line to try and even out the margins. That’s an example of how Phoenix is trying to salvage it but the offense is just completely lacking rhythm.
That was the crux of a 16-point deficit in the first half, and so was the bizarre turn of the supporting cast and bench failing to contribute for the last week after it helped Phoenix win game after game through injury after injury leading up to March.
It was definitely taken for granted, because anytime a reserve has a few nice plays these days, it stands out. Those guys were able to get through mix-and-match lineup combinations with no problem but the lack of continuity in that regard plus three new faces has seemingly caught up to them.
Suns reserves started the game 1-of-12. I should note Cam Payne’s 13 points, a much-needed night for him to see the ball go in the basket a bit.
We went this far without talking about free throws, too long in many eyes.
Bucks star forward Giannis Antetokounmpo attempted 24 and made 14, compared to Phoenix’s 14-for-16 number as a whole team.
The frustration, especially after how problematic it was in the Finals loss, was there again on Tuesday.
“I can sit here and go through what all of you guys already know,” Williams said. “You just gotta put my name on the quote. You saw it. It’s just, it’s not fair. Book has three free throws. … And Jrue Holiday is one of the most physical defenders in the game. He has three.
“Giannis has 24 free throws. It’s ridiculous. There’s no other way to put it. Our guys are fighting. DA can’t play. When a guy just runs into you the whole game. We’ve dealt with this so many times with this team. And credit to him. He saw the way the game was being called, he kept doing it, but that’s hard to swallow.”
Chris Paul was asked a few questions about the discrepancy and the numbers for Antetokounmpo and Booker. At a certain point, he was done with that particular discussion, asking the media surrounding his locker what the Suns should do.
“Y’all opinions valid,” Paul said. “Write what y’all see.”
Here’s what I see.
Antetokounmpo has borderline mastered playing downhill basketball as a scorer, to the point where a majority of the time he is going to receive a whistle if there is contact. And there better be contact or else that man is dunking that basketball. Sometimes he does anyway. And guess what, he’s getting fouled a lot. Booker made sure to point out he’s not trying to discredit every single free throw.
Now, there is such a thing as legal contact. If a defender slides its feet, beats the ball-handler to the spot and takes the bump right on the chest without hands getting in there, all good. We’ve seen ace defenders like Holiday excel at this delicate dance.
But that is where Antetokounmpo, more often than not, gets the shooting foul.
“He has his spot and [Antetokounmpo] just goes directly right through him and you call a blocking foul,” Booker said of a specific example involving Craig. “The next play down that’s going to make you hesitant. Like, I don’t know if you want to just ole and get out the way and go let him dunk the ball but there’s going to be some type of contact. If he’s gonna initiate it every time it can’t be free throws every time.”
For me, and this is subjective, there is some validity in rewarding a player driving through contact and taking on that punishment on the way to or at the basket. I also believe in the legitimacy of a “star whistle” to some extent, a top-tier player getting the benefit of the doubt for something they do all the time. An example is Booker’s ever-present battle to get a shooting foul every time he draws that bump from an out-of-position defender 10-20 feet out and hurls the ball toward the rim while taking it on. It’s a smart, heady play. Give him his free tosses for it.
At the same time, as Booker is saying, there has to be a balance. Like when Booker gets that call for himself or doesn’t. Right now, at least in these matchups against the Suns, there isn’t one with Antetokounmpo.
And, most critically, players have to be able to adjust to the whistle. Sometimes a game will get called tight. Other times, they’ll let them play. Fair enough. That dynamic is part of basketball, and players will consistently conversate with referees, not to only complain, but get feedback on what the official is seeing so they can adapt.
I asked Booker if those talks have been constructive for him and he’s been able to adjust.
That’s a problem, and the biggest one in all of this.
Booker’s own frustration reached a boiling point with two minutes to go when he got a post touch with Holiday draped on him, gave him one really hard bump to create space, a second and then Holiday drew a charge on the third.
Booker was really good in this game. For the second straight night, he willed the team back during the third quarter. It ended with a bucket over former teammates Jae Crowder in isolation that jolted the crowd, and he let Crowder know about it of course.
Devin Booker over Jae Crowder at the horn!
What a way to end the third quarter! pic.twitter.com/f8AMsJdAg8
— Arizona Sports (@AZSports) March 15, 2023
Booker’s 30 points marked the sixth game out of the last seven he’s reached that threshold. He played 43 minutes, way too many on the second game of a back-to-back (and Williams said as much), but it’s only the third time in the 13 games since his return from injury that he’s gone north of 38, so at least there’s that.
Antetokounmpo ended up at 38 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists in 35 minutes. Some of that game-deciding run took place with him on the bench. The Bucks, down two starters in this game (Khris Middleton and Grayson Allen), are pretty darn good.