Phoenix Suns’ strong start slips away for shocking last-second loss to Spurs

Oct 31, 2023, 11:18 PM

Kevin Durant #35 of the Phoenix Suns walks off the court amid the San Antonio Spurs bench after mis...

Kevin Durant #35 of the Phoenix Suns walks off the court amid the San Antonio Spurs bench after missing a last-second shot during an NBA game at Footprint Center on October 31, 2023 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Mike Christy/Getty Images)

(Photo by Mike Christy/Getty Images)

PHOENIX — The basketball gods will come knocking in the NBA, summoned by slumbering.

The Phoenix Suns didn’t put away an energized and spirited San Antonio Spurs group through two-and-a-half quarters it more or less dominated. Then after they nearly finished them off anyway, a shocking end-of-game sequence left Phoenix stunned in a 115-114 loss on Tuesday.

With the Suns (2-2) up three and over a minute to go, a Kevin Durant isolation at the free throw line saw him jab step and slice to the rim so quickly that it made defender Keldon Johnson slip before Durant’s dunk, announcing to everyone in the building that he just got cooked. That felt like the game was done and dusted but the Spurs continued to persist.

A Victor Wembanyama 16-footer was followed by Phoenix creating one of its best shots possible, an open Yuta Watanabe in the corner, where he had already hit a pair of 3s on the evening. But this one did not fall. The Spurs rolled forward without a timeout and Devin Vassell’s attempt at a game-tying 3 for San Antonio was well defended. Wembanyama, though, had a beat on the ball and was the only one to really break for the glass, resulting in an easy tip-in dunk with six seconds to go.

The Suns then inbounded, wisely getting the ball to Durant but unwisely doing so in the corner where he was swarmed by three defenders. Durant, pivoting around to find a pass while surely expecting a foul call at any moment, had Johnson come from behind him to rip the ball away. Johnson took off for the rim, where Josh Okogie nearly saved the game with a heads-up leap of verticality that Johnson finished through anyway to put the Spurs ahead.

Durant was shocked, seemingly at no whistle going off.

As Johnson takes the ball away, Spurs guard Tre Jones makes contact with Durant’s arm. That’s a bang-bang play but Jones also leapt into Durant entering the play, with his forearm on him.

It should have been a foul call at some point. It wasn’t.

“They fouled him,” Suns head coach Frank Vogel said. “The refs didn’t call it. They whacked him on the arm before the ball gets ripped out of his hands.”

Durant didn’t go that far, saying he simply should have held onto the ball.

The Suns’ sideline out of bounds look with 1.2 seconds left got Durant shooting over a double-team on the baseline, attempts he’s made before, but it didn’t go down and sealed the loss.

Those are not the main reasons why the Suns lost. If there is one play to point at, it’s Durant and Okogie not boxing out Wembanyama. And Vogel not calling a timeout to advance the ball to half-court was a slip up as well.

Phoenix just couldn’t put San Antonio away and the Spurs’ tremendous effort to keep clinging on won them the contest.

“Anything can happen in this league. And we know better,” Suns guard Eric Gordon said. “They kept on grinding and pushing away.”

The Suns were up 17 early in the second quarter, signaling this might be just like Saturday when Phoenix was ahead nearly 30 by the early third quarter and cruised from there. But even when Phoenix led by 20 in the early third quarter on Tuesday, there were a few too many lulls from Phoenix when it could have blown the doors open.

On a few different occasions, a lead trending toward reaching the 20s was cut down by San Antonio to single digits. The Spurs hit seven 3-pointers in the third quarter to hang around enough to find a breakthrough of sorts.

“We let our foot off the gas a little bit in the third quarter. … It’s an early-season lesson for us,” Vogel said. “Teams are never going to stop playing, especially in the modern NBA when 3s can get you back in the game.”

San Antonio got within five in the early fourth quarter. Wembanyama, the rookie sensation, was having a relatively underwhelming game before two asinine plays only he could make closed the gap.

Phoenix’s offense had briefly flatlined through rough shifts for Jordan Goodwin and Nassir Little. This forced Vogel to put Durant back in with over eight minutes remaining in the game, putting Durant on pace to finish with 37 minutes.

His presence immediately stabilized the situation, as stars do, but San Antonio once again swung back, cutting its deficit down to three with 4:18 to go to keep it tight up until the climax of the game.

Vogel described it as a “brilliant” game for the Suns before the wheels fell off, full of “offensive sharing and trust” along with “defensive disposition.”

Phoenix had its best performance of the season so far when it comes to ball movement, generating buckets full of good looks from 3 that unsurprisingly resulted in an 18-for-39 (46.2%) conversion rate given the shooting the Suns put out there. Some of this was aided by a young San Antonio team still learning its rotations but Phoenix playing without Bradley Beal (low back spasms) and Devin Booker (left ankle sprain) should also be factored in.

While the Spurs tried to leave lesser shooting threats like Okogie open to cut some of the court off, the Suns’ elite shooting trio of Grayson Allen, Gordon and Watanabe need just one young Spur to be a step out of position to punish them. And in typical Durant fashion, the guy who most of the time wants to keep his shot attempts around the mid-teens, he only had 19 attempts to go with 26 points, seven assists and five turnovers.

Allen or Gordon, starting again in place of Beal and Booker, were almost always the Sun one pass away from Durant when he was going to work. That leaves the defense a choice of either helping from an unconventional position (which will not go well), leaving Durant a 1-on-1 matchup or doubling from the near side to gift Allen or Gordon an open 3.

Gordon hit four triples and got to 20 points while Allen’s 19 included five 3s of his own.

Part of the learning with this amount of passing and pace is turnovers, which reared their head again after Phoenix fixed that issue in Saturday’s win with 19 turnovers. The 29 assists were again encouraging, though.

Wembanyama was making mistakes across the floor all rookies do on bad teams but that didn’t stop him from inspiring shocked reactions from the crowd a handful of times, with the first hyped-up moment coming when Durant isolated him to end the first quarter.

Even Wembanyama, the player who blocks shots from angles we’ve never seen before, couldn’t quite get to Durant’s step-back fadeaway baseline jumper.

More fireworks came near the end of the first half when a baseline out of bounds play resulted in Durant catching Wembanyama at the rim on a bad angle.

Next time down, Wembanyama got his back.

He finished with 18 points, eight rebounds, four blocks and five turnovers. Johnson scored 18 of his 27 points in the second half.

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