Phoenix Suns face reality check after comeback win vs. Wizards

Dec 17, 2023, 9:35 PM | Updated: Dec 18, 2023, 12:12 pm

PHOENIX — Perhaps you went into the season hesitant of the Phoenix Suns because of their health. Maybe the depth, change in the center rotation or coaching.

Whatever it was, it’s all irrelevant right now. What Phoenix is going through right now goes beyond fit, personnel and strategy. At times, the Suns are a spiritless basketball team, and the grand exhibit of this came during a 112-108 comeback win against the Washington Wizards (4-21) on Sunday.

Visible frustration on the floor has been popping up more in the past week. The Suns (14-12) go into every game looking to correct whatever went wrong the night before, and with the amount that is currently, a matchup against a lowly 4-20 Washington adds even more angst when things are still getting screwed up. Washington jumped out to a 21-9 lead, and on a Suns turnover leading to a free transition bucket, a small sampling of boos came down on the court. It was so quiet at times you could hear a player cursing off a missed free throw from 25 rows up in the arena.

While a Suns 2-for-19 start from 3 didn’t help matters, the first half was just a waiting game for the Suns to snap out of it, fortunately for them getting a Wizards team that still played quite poorly.

And then we kept waiting. And waiting.

The Suns manufactured 31 points in the first 18 minutes against the team dead last in defensive rating. The Wizards went on a 19-10 run over roughly six minutes in the second quarter to increase their lead to 14. This is when you could sense the boos beginning to form. But the crowd made hardly a peep, sitting in silence with some combination of losing interest and being stunned.

Once Phoenix trailed by 11 in the second quarter with 4:48 to go, it didn’t cut the deficit down to single digits until the 4:37 mark of the third period. Over a full quarter of time.

A game after head coach Frank Vogel said postgame the Suns have to decide if they want to be a good defensive team or not, they allowed 89 points in three quarters to the Wizards, who rank 22nd in offensive rating.

Phoenix at least got an opportunity to take some baby steps forward in its biggest issue, fourth quarters.

The Suns entered the day last in fourth quarter net rating, getting outscored per 100 possessions by a ridiculous 17.4 points. That is -98 in 300 minutes. For context, the New Orleans Pelicans are 25th and their net rating is -5.5. Phoenix is 29th in offensive rating (103.5) and 27th in defensive rating (120.9). In the opening three quarters, the Suns’ net rating rankings are 12th, fifth and eighth, respectively.

There were a few meltdowns in the fourth quarter early in the season that were definitive warning signs, and now at the 26-game mark, it’s beyond a trend and more of a known factor until the Suns prove otherwise. Progress, albeit slight, was made on Sunday.

They went on a 9-2 spurt in the beginning 3:11 of it to get within one. A weekend crowd that was ready for a reason to get really loud finally got it there. Perhaps the waiting game was over.

A step-back 3 by Devin Booker from the corner with 7:17 remaining had Phoenix in the lead for the first time since the 8:51 mark in the first quarter. It extended the advantage beyond a possession three minutes later and a Grayson Allen 3 in the next minute put the gap to eight, seemingly a summit for the Wizards that shot 0-for-10 from 3 in the fourth after knocking down 14 of their 36 (38.9%) prior attempts.

But a turnover here, a missed free throw there and it was still much closer than it had to be. A Kevin Durant dunk at 27 seconds remaining put the Suns back up three, enough to win.

I can’t believe I’m about to type this for a team with Booker and Durant on it, but when this team is in a funk like they are now, it is a tough watch. It’s different watching a bad team be bad than a team that could be the best in the league occasionally stoop to these levels.

The blame game gets especially popular around these moments. This specific rendition should get assigned to those at the top of the pecking order in the locker room. That’s Vogel, Booker and Durant.

We’re going to see a reality check go down over the next month. Either this group will band together in a way to address the problems and leave the team in a good spot to improve enough over the second half of the season to still be considered a contender or this struggle will be the story of the year and the word “ceiling” will be used frequently when discussing what it is capable of.

Durant put together 28 points, five rebounds and five assists on 11-of-24 shooting, below the threshold he normally reaches.

Booker was rough through three quarters before his fourth quarter led the comeback. He finished with 27 points, four rebounds, eight assists and five turnovers on 10-for-24 shooting in 41 minutes.

The next-highest scorer was Eric Gordon with 13 points. Jordan Goodwin made a few key plays in that fourth quarter to end up with six points, eight rebounds and six assists.

Nassir Little became the 10th Sun to start a game this year, a statistic that serves as a good representation of where they’re at right now. The injuries have been a consistent but so too has been mixing and matching to try and find the right blend of guys playing around the Big 3, Jusuf Nurkic, Allen and Gordon. Gordon returned after a two-game stint out, giving Phoenix the Allen-Gordon duo back that helped them significantly in the opening stretch of the year.

Bradley Beal (right ankle sprain) and Josh Okogie (right hip injury) were out.

Washington got 26 points and 17 rebounds from center Daniel Gafford and Tyus Jones added 22 points, 11 assists and six steals.

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