EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Suns preach big-picture patience after 4th-quarter dud, loss to Thunder

Nov 13, 2023, 6:06 AM

Jalen Williams, THunder vs. Suns...

Jalen Williams #8 of the Oklahoma City Thunder drives to the basket against Jusuf Metu #20 of the Phoenix Suns during the first half at Footprint Center on November 12, 2023 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Kelsey Grant/Getty Images)

(Photo by Kelsey Grant/Getty Images)

PHOENIX — Dead spots on offense have already tanked the Phoenix Suns several times through the first 10 games of 2023-24.

It got worse in a 111-99 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder on Sunday, with that dead spot lasting an entire fourth quarter.

Phoenix’s shooting percentage plummeted from 51% in the first half to 38% by the end of the game at Footprint Center.

The Suns shot 2-of-21 (10%) in the final period and allowed the Thunder to go 9-of-15 (60%) from the field. Phoenix additionally committed 10 fouls and turned it over four times. And yet Phoenix head coach Frank Vogel kept his calm, optimistic tone as the team fell to 4-6 with injuries to two stars still very much leading the list of early storylines.

His message for the Suns, whose tailspin saw the Thunder win by the biggest margin of the day: Keep it big-picture.

“Every situation is different,” Vogel said of what should be a reasonable timeline for the revamped Suns to click. “We’re very eager to get it going. We’re working hard at it. It’s going to come.”

And to be fair, Phoenix is not alone in the tier of teams who believe they are contenders yet sit below .500 this far into the season. Vogel saw improvement from the Friday loss to another of those teams, the Los Angeles Lakers.

“I felt like our execution was better,” Vogel said of the game Sunday.

The circumstances are still working against Phoenix.

Devin Booker (calf) remained out, and guard Eric Gordon was sidelined with a shoulder injury suffered Friday. Then there was Bradley Beal, who against the Thunder went 6-for-18 to close with 15 points, five assists and five turnovers after tweaking his lingering back injury in the first half.

“… There was a question about whether he was going to return and he toughed it out,” Vogel said. “The guy wants to be in there. He’s a warrior, he’s playing through injury.”

The turnover battle went 17-8 in favor of Oklahoma City, leading to a 13-point differential in its favor. That trend might be most concerning for a Suns team that entered the night with the third-worst turnover rate in the NBA.

“We play too fast sometimes, trying to make the home run play when we could just hit singles,” Kevin Durant said after scoring a team-high 28.

Suns center Drew Eubanks, who contributed 15 points off the bench, said the turnover trend is a symptom of learning new teammates’ tendencies.

“Just trusting that next pass is something we got to get right,” he said. “I think we come from different backgrounds for sure, all over the NBA, different play-styles. It’s still early.”

Maybe the offense is not the most concerning thing for a team with three elite perimeter players who’ve yet to debut as a trio. Durant, as he tends to do, simplified the result to be about shot-making.

“I missed like four shots (in the fourth) that went back-rim that looked good leaving my hands,” he said. “I think if I don’t make shots it just puts pressure on everybody.”

Phoenix’s defense for sure has to be highlighted after two poor performances in a row. On Sunday, it got diced by Shai Gilgeous-Alexander for 35 points on 13-of-22 shooting.

Second-year pro Jalen Williams, a local product out of Gilbert’s Perry High School, came up a point shy of his career-high with 31 points on 11-of-16 shooting. After the Lakers preyed on the Suns’ double teams and failed rotations Friday, Phoenix against Oklahoma City tried to guard more straight up.

That didn’t go well with Williams either hitting threes or attacking closeouts and Gilgeous-Alexander killing Phoenix in the mid-range against single coverages.

If there was a positive for the Suns, it was getting strong contributions from a four-player bench despite the absences and continued limitations on Beal’s minutes.

Keita Bates-Diop, back in the second unit with Josh Okogie starting, finished with a bench-worst -4 plus-minus. Eubanks, Jordan Goodwin and Yuta Watanabe were all in the positives (the starters were all in the red).

Goodwin scored 11 to go with six boards, a block and a steal — he also hit a trio of threes. Bates-Diop attacked on cuts and in the dunker spot, while Watanabe nailed two threes.

Eubanks had applied rim pressure in a variety of ways, even taking 2022 second-overall pick Chet Holmgren off the dribble from the three-point stripe for a dunk. Eubanks was sorely needed with Jusuf Nurkic not matching up well against a rangy, five-out team led by Holmgren in the middle.

Oklahoma City sought to exploit that on the first two plays, setting Holmgren up for a lob to draw a foul on Nurkic and then a three. Holmgren finished with 18 points.

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