EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Phoenix Suns’ defense ‘not good enough’ again in loss to Knicks

Dec 16, 2023, 12:13 AM

PHOENIX — The Phoenix Suns suffered another health setback in Friday night’s 139-122 loss to the New York Knicks, but the team’s recent issues in simple areas have been much more problematic than the injuries stacking up.

They have to start taking defense seriously if they want to win. If they are, the focus on that mentality has to grow dramatically. Suns head coach Frank Vogel said more or less the same thing.

“We just gotta make a decision whether we want to take care of our business on that side of the ball or not,” he said. “Because what we’re doing is not good enough. Not tough enough, not alert enough.”

Kevin Durant provided a good example of how basic these issues are.

“(The) shooters, get up into ’em, make ’em dribble. Like Quentin Grimes, he can’t get six 3s up. He doesn’t dribble at all,” Durant said when asked about New York’s 17-for-29 (58.6%) 3-point shooting night. “He doesn’t have any free throws on the season, he doesn’t have any assists it feels like but he’s getting 3s up? That’s the stuff we can’t have. It’s frustrating but I think we’ll figure it out.”

Like Wednesday’s loss to the Brooklyn Nets, this was a contest with attention paid elsewhere more than the standard game.

Less than five minutes into the game, Bradley Beal severely rolled his right ankle after knocking down a 3-pointer, going down in a lot of pain. Knicks guard Donte DiVincenzo was given a Flagrant 1 foul for impeding Beal’s landing zone as a shooter, and Beal’s injury is the exact one the league is attempting to prevent with the implementation of the rule. Beal knocked down his free throw before going to the locker room and shortly thereafter was ruled out for the remainder of the game.

Just one game after the Big 3’s debut, the trio only got 24 minutes together before another injury, one for Beal that looks like it will keep him out a decent amount of time.

Vogel afterward was asked how the team battles through this stretch, both its own play and the rotation juggling through injuries.

“Urgency and patience. They can contradict each other but both are needed,” Vogel said. “We got to have the big-picture patience to work together, to get it going in the right direction and we got to have the urgency to get it done as soon as possible.”

The Suns have not been poor defensively in the ways pessimists could have projected coming into the year when looking at the roster. The stuff they are messing up is what good-to-great teams have down to a T, regardless of how good or bad of defenders are on the team.

Their transition defense was rough on Friday, making any sort of semi-transition opportunity for New York seem like it always led to a good look. That does not come down to the personnel. That’s effort, focus and so on. Ditto for the breakdowns, which we’ve seen a handful of in each game the last week, the types of possessions for opposing offenses that feel free with how easy it was for them to generate a great opportunity.

Phoenix will have to be lights out offensively to win games shorthanded if it plays defense like this, a big drop-off from the promising start to the season when buy-in on that end appeared high.

This was almost one of those nights. The Suns ended the first half scoring 19 points across 2:45. A 31-point third quarter was Phoenix’s third reaching 30-plus.

The problem is, that was also the case for the New York Knicks’ 34-point third quarter, leaving the Suns with a two-point lead that should have been in double digits.

In the fourth quarter, New York (14-10) maintained the pace while mental mistakes and turnovers doomed Phoenix, another weakness of the team that just comes down to being better in the ways top squads are. The Knicks put up 42 points, with an early fourth quarter stretch scoring on six out of seven possessions through to the 6:02 to mark to go up 10.

The man of the night, Jalen Brunson, drilled back-to-back 3s a bit later to really stamp it on the way to 50 points. He added six rebounds, nine assists and five steals.

Devin Booker (28 points, nine assists) and Kevin Durant (29 points, six assists) both had great nights but combined for 2-for-12 shooting in the final frame.

Jusuf Nurkic was very good as well for the second straight game with 21 points and 12 rebounds but also got played off the floor in the fourth quarter.

Grayson Allen was 5-for-5 from the field in his first game back since suffering a right groin strain.

The Suns have now lost six of their last eight games to drop to 13-12. The schedule, however, offers a generous stretch to round out 2023.

The 4-20 Washington Wizards come to town on Sunday and a matchup with the Portland Trail Blazers (6-17) is next, with a Blazers matchup on New Year’s Day, as well. There’s the 7-16 Charlotte Hornets the week of Christmas, along with improving but still young teams like the Houston Rockets (13-9) and Orlando Magic (16-8).

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