EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Suns let another winnable game slip away, lose to Lakers

Mar 22, 2023, 11:16 PM | Updated: Mar 23, 2023, 7:26 am

Devin Booker #1 of the Phoenix Suns takes a shot against the Los Angeles Lakers in the second half ...

Devin Booker #1 of the Phoenix Suns takes a shot against the Los Angeles Lakers in the second half at Crypto.com Arena on March 22, 2023 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

(Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

The Phoenix Suns keep letting winnable games slip away in uncharacteristic ways.

Their fifth loss in the last six games on Wednesday, 122-111 to the Los Angeles Lakers, once again featured a run allowed in the second half of a close game that put them behind the eight ball.

After an admirable effort and better overall team play when looking past the consistent mistakes we’ll get hit on in a minute, Phoenix trailed by one with 7:29 left. After 1:59 more ticked off the clock, it was down nine due to a 10-2 Lakers spurt.

As Devin Booker went for his last rest of the game, the Suns ran two sets for reserve guard Terrence Ross (1-for-6) that didn’t produce points. On the other end, a Lakers and-1, late Suns double on Anthony Davis and another foul to give Davis free throws was the 7-0 portion. After Chris Paul, the player that should have been the initiator and focus of the offense out of the timeout, hit a midrange jumper, an easy kick-out pass by Davis on a drive found D’Angelo Russell for a 3.

That was enough to close out the game, and Phoenix could have well been in control of it had it not committed similar mistakes earlier. Yes, the Suns win this game if Deandre Ayton (right hip contusion) and Kevin Durant (left ankle sprain) play. They’d also win it if they stopped committing errors that resemble a scrappy 40-win young team on the rise learning how to be more.

The Lakers had 12 points off Phoenix’s six turnovers in the first quarter, once again featuring a few that were basically free points as sloppy passes set up transition opportunities.

It also kept fouling, something that persisted in the second quarter and beyond. Los Angeles got up to 17 free throw attempts at 6:38 remaining in the half before reaching 27 at halftime and 46 for the game.

This is not a recent development despite its inclusion in the latest discourse.

The Suns rank last in opposing free throw rate, but to support the latest trend, that ranking is even more worrisome since the All-Star break. Phoenix’s .334 opposing free throw rate entering the night and following the break is a full three ticks behind Detroit’s .303 in 29th. For reference, that .03 gap on the full regular season leaderboard is the difference between 30th and 16th. It has been that bad and the updated numbers from Wednesday will make ’em worse.

Head coach Monty Williams after the loss cited the 46-20 edge for the Lakers and said he feels it’s not a fair whistle for the Suns, his latest complaint about the officiating.

Williams has a point. Forty-six is too high of a number in what has been a particularly rough year for referees.

While players and teams earn the right to build up a reputation to get free throws, for whatever reason, Lakers guard Austin Reaves has received this blessing and has attempted 53 in his last four games. That included 13 on Wednesday. Chris Paul told azcentral’s Duane Rankin that he said to Reaves that one of Reaves’ and-ones wasn’t a foul and Reaves admitted as much.

Reaves understands how to draw fouls and did just that in college. But the decision to grant a second-year player just coming onto the scene as a scorer those calls is difficult to explain. Not everyone gets those because if everyone was whistled like that, teams would average 40 a night. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, for example, will make All-NBA this year and leads the league in drives per game, so him taking 19 in Sunday’s Suns loss makes a lot more sense.

But with Williams’ point and all that aside, the majority of Los Angeles’ 46 free throw attempts were justified, and it speaks to what Phoenix is struggling with right now.

If Phoenix played to its normal standard of execution, it would have been up double digits at halftime. It trailed by seven, even after some much better effort and movement on both ends.

The Suns channeled that through to the third quarter to trail by just three and got it back to that one-point deficit in the fourth quarter before it got away from them.

Booker somehow got to 33 points on 11-of-16 shooting given the defensive coverage he was seeing. Booker was marked by Los Angeles wing Jarred Vanderbilt, who is a long 6-foot-8 with some real quickness. Vanderbilt was attached to Booker everywhere, including full court if Booker wanted to bring the ball up.

When Booker could get space off him inside the 3-point line, the closest helper was sneaking off the wings or big to reduce his space. Booker was still making some tough contested looks through this, but when Vanderbilt wasn’t on him or it was a semi-transition chance without helpers in position, he pressed to score. He does this all the time to escape the scheme and is normally quite effective at it but on Wednesday he was initially not.

After some turnovers — he had seven on the night — Booker adapted, scoring on a few possessions when he simply let the double come to him, reset the possession and attacked again. In the late third quarter, he found his rhythm, and it guided him to 25 of his 33 points in the second half. He’s gone berserk a handful of times this year.

At some point over that time, though, Booker was moving a bit oddly in the fourth quarter as if he had taken a knock somewhere. It was not noticeable enough to see where he got hurt or like it was something to keep him laboring, but his movements were just off in the closing stages of the game. We’ll see if he’s included on Thursday’s injury report and keep an eye on how he’s moving in Friday’s game in Sacramento. He played 41 minutes.

Paul was 8-of-17 for 18 points and Landry Shamet added 15 off the bench. Shamet’s defensive energy has been a big boost to the team since his return on Sunday and it was a good sign for him to get some shots to fall as well.

Reaves scored 25 points with 11 assists, continuing his tremendous form as of late, while Russell provided 26. Davis’ 27 points included a dominant stretch of the third quarter that the Lakers needed.

Phoenix’s 38-34 record still has it sitting fourth in the Western Conference despite the recent skid but its cushion is just about gone, with the Los Angeles Clippers (38-35) one behind in the loss column and both the Golden State Warriors (38-36) and Oklahoma City Thunder (36-36) just two back. The Suns could afford a stretch like this because of the inability for teams below them to tear off some wins, but they are playing with fire if they stack up a few more losses again the rest of the way, even with only 10 games to go.

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