EMPIRE OF THE SUNS
Phoenix Suns collapse in 4th quarter of road loss to Thunder
Mar 19, 2023, 3:47 PM
(Photo by Ian Maule/Getty Images)
There won’t be many more positions the Phoenix Suns find themselves in the rest of the season as favorable as Sunday’s against the Oklahoma City Thunder, especially without Kevin Durant (left ankle sprain) and Deandre Ayton (right hip contusion).
Phoenix was up as many as 15 points in the first half and still was leading by double digits early in the fourth quarter but completely collapsed in a 124-120 loss.
Phoenix has had some moments across this two-week stretch where it resembles a team trying to learn how to win, unable to avoid self-inflicted errors and back-breaking runs to close out games either in crunch time or before they get there. That, of course, is not the team the Suns are. They know how, which has made it all the more perplexing.
A 9-2 Thunder run in the last 71 seconds of the first quarter and a 5-0 Thunder run in the last 17 seconds of the third quarter was a 12-point edge that was completely avoidable. So too was 31 Thunder points off the Suns’ 14 turnovers, a ludicrous number that speaks to how bad the majority of those turnovers were in the live-ball variety.
The Suns were up 10 early in the fourth quarter before surrendering an 18-2 run across just 4:13 that included some of those turnovers to trail by six.
Phoenix eventually went down 10 with 2:44 to go and the math would require nearly a perfect ending to get a comeback of its own. That did not materialize.
The Suns had something to say to an official after nearly every possession in the fourth quarter, as its insistence on not receiving a fair whistle as of late continues.
Devin Booker kept up his scorching March with 46 points on 18-of-28 shooting. He’s now averaging 34.1 points per game on 57.1% shooting in the nine games this month.
Head coach Monty Williams used a 12-man rotation and played eight of them between 12-21 minutes outside of Booker’s 36, 33 for Chris Paul and Torrey Craig’s 31. It has been an in-game effort from him to figure out who is rolling on a game-to-game basis and the reserves are clearly struggling with finding a rhythm off both that and increased roles once more when Durant was sidelined.
Williams postgame took the blame on that, particularly in not finding the right defensive combination off the bench. At the same time, it’s not all on him, and the players simply have to be better on that end.
Sunday marked the return of reserve guard Landry Shamet after missing 25 games with a left foot injury that he told azcentral’s Duane Rankin the team caught right before it would have become a stress fracture.
Shamet got the nod as the second guard off the bench ahead of Damion Lee and Terrence Ross, two guys who will be in the mix there as well. Williams got them in as part of the rotation then even went with a four-guard lineup of Payne, Shamet, Ross and Booker in the third quarter.
Shamet’s role is a particularly interesting one to discuss because of how much it changes after the Durant trade. Phoenix really needed Shamet to be a more aggressive, decisive ball-handler and decision-maker prior to the deal due to the lack of on-ball options outside of Paul, Booker and Payne. But while those attributes would still be a plus now, Shamet’s duties once the Suns are fully healthy again will come down to more of just providing shooting and defense.
He can do that. Shamet’s 37.1% 3-point percentage in 99 Suns games is still lower than expected given the type of marksman he was prior to Phoenix but he’s still a plus shooter and is just north of 39% on catch-and-shoot looks in the Valley.
More importantly, Shamet’s a good defender. It’s been the surprise of his Suns tenure. He’s great about navigating screens and is one of the team’s better on-ball defenders.
Lee and Ross are two veterans who often find themselves a step behind defensively despite the credit they deserve for trying hard and understanding what’s going on. The intent is there but sometimes that’s not enough. That difference could end up as the crucial factor deciding who is the ninth man in the rotation as the other guard alongside Payne off the bench.
All three played fairly well. Ross scored a dozen points, Shamet added 10 and Lee contributed six.
Paul was 5-of-15 from the floor with 14 points, six rebounds, 13 assists, three steals and a block. He missed a handful of the midrange jumpers we are used to seeing him knock down.
Oklahoma City’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander nearly matched Booker’s effort with 40 points of his own.
Williams has found small pockets of games since the trade deadline to give Darius Bazley a quick peek at some run. While Bazley is in his fourth NBA season and has a whole lot of starts under his belt, he’s still only 22 years old, making him the youngest player on the roster.
Bazley’s playing time faded this season for a Thunder team that had a big-time influx of high-end talent, so it’s not fair to say that strictly occurred because of his play. He’a also going to have to come into practices and games and prove he can keep up with everything going on around the floor. The process is always going to be easier with some live minutes, hence Bazley receiving them.
He’s a tremendous athlete at his size and Williams tried the 6-foot-9 forward out as a small-ball 5 across seven minutes on Sunday, letting him dive with Paul on ball screens.
Oh my, Darius Bazley 😳 pic.twitter.com/p4TVuuSnF2
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