EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Phoenix Suns’ problems persist in blowout loss against Sacramento Kings

Dec 22, 2023, 10:45 PM

Malik Monk #0 of the Sacramento Kings goes up for a shot on Yuta Watanabe #18 of the Phoenix Suns a...

Malik Monk #0 of the Sacramento Kings goes up for a shot on Yuta Watanabe #18 of the Phoenix Suns at Golden 1 Center on December 22, 2023 in Sacramento, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

(Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

The Phoenix Suns came into Sacramento with a level of focused effort and intent for the start of the game. It still wasn’t nearly good enough in a 120-105 loss to the Kings on Friday, the latest Suns defeat really spotlighting the current problems they’ve got to figure out right this moment.

Phoenix (14-14) was only down five after a first quarter littered with inconsistent execution through the aforementioned upticks, and even though that improved in the next period, the Suns missed some good looks to trail by 11 at halftime.

And that’s when all of that faded for enough time to put a wrap on the game.

Sacramento (17-10) was the team with its foot on the gas to begin the second half, getting through one motion or two of its actions into great opportunities or using transition off misses. Its first four baskets were a Domantas Sabonis layup, lob to Kevin Huerter, Sabonis dunk and wide-open 3 for Keegan Murray to bump its advantage to 20. That extended to 26 a few minutes later, signaling the proceedings were finished ahead of schedule. Phoenix gave up 31 points in the first 6:06 of the third quarter.

The Kings were an excellent opponent to showcase Phoenix’s biggest weakness, because it was a dramatic difference in the quality of each team’s offensive process. Sacramento knows each other and its system well, challenging the Suns’ defense by gliding through its movement and pace to great results. The ease of that compared to how much of a chore Phoenix makes that process look was what really stood out on the night. Phoenix’s defensive connectivity continues to be poor even when guys are clearly giving their all, and against good execution from good offensive teams, it stands no chance at the moment.

All of this that has really heightened across the last two weeks continues to make Phoenix look like a bad team despite getting high quality production from Devin Booker and Kevin Durant. Durant had one of his bad turnover nights with seven but managed 28 points on 9-of-14 shooting while Booker added 24 points (9-for-20) with seven assists and no turnovers.

At a certain point, the star duo is forced to play off to its supporting cast as well and this was one of those games where the Suns didn’t get much from that group.

The Kings, meanwhile, had four players with at least 19 points, led by a Sabonis triple-double of 28 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists.

With the lack of cohesion on the court between the players, the rotation decisions from head coach Frank Vogel lean more toward the thinking of the execution of the individual player being more of an issue as opposed to the group chemistry. He used three new players in the rotation.

Two-way signing Udoka Azubuike backed up Drew Eubanks with Jusuf Nurkic (personal reasons) out, Azubuike’s first legitimate minutes all year. Ditto for two-way guard Saben Lee as the fifth Sun off the bench while Yuta Watanabe returned a reserve role, playing over Nassir Little and Keita Bates-Diop. Little then in the early second quarter became the 11th Phoenix player to play.

Some of it could have had to do with game flow. Eubanks got two fouls in four minutes against an ultra-physical Sabonis and Jordan Goodwin was struggling with the De’Aaron Fox assignment like Grayson Allen was too.

The two sides of the argument are that because of how the Suns have started this year, they need to ditch the experimentation and focus strictly on 9-10 guys so they can find their own continuity. The roster also has a lot of options, and mixing and matching was something implored in the preseason when this team was presumably going to have less trouble winning.

This was a big test for Eubanks that he failed. He has struggled more than anyone on the roster this year, looking nowhere close to the useful two-way rotation big he was in Portland each of the last two seasons. Eubanks, Bates-Diop and Watanabe were three minimum signings that looked great on paper and were praised but have yet to pan out. Eubanks, in particular, is someone the Suns really need to find some rhythm due to the lack of options behind him.

Azubuike, a giant 6-foot-11 center with a 7-foot-7 wingspan, is a tremendous finisher due to his strength and quick bounce around the rim. The 24-year-old former first-round pick still has lots of room to grow with picking up the cadences of the game on both ends but Phoenix found him by the basket to use his best skill and he played hard through his physicality. Azubuike finished with 11 points and 11 rebounds and deserves to get another look on Christmas, even if Nurkic is back.

Phoenix has now lost eight of its last 11 games.

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