Suns show signs of life vs. Mavs before same story in 4th quarter

Dec 26, 2023, 12:52 AM

Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns...

Suns guard Devin Booker looking at video board (Jeremy Schnell/Arizona Sports)

(Jeremy Schnell/Arizona Sports)

PHOENIX — Every step forward for the Phoenix Suns in a losing effort will demonstrate how far the current group has to go in order to play at the level it wants to.

The first big one over a disjointed, sloppy and uninspired brand of basketball in December came in a 128-114 Christmas loss to the Dallas Mavericks on Monday.

A 38-27 Suns third quarter was Phoenix proving to itself it is indeed capable of showing focus and executing on both ends of the floor, taking the lead for the first time in the game. Far better organization in going at the Mavericks’ weak links plus a continuation of the better ball movement shown throughout the night brought on a breakthrough.

Until Dallas scored 37 points in the fourth quarter.

Phoenix’s team defense currently resembles that of a 25-win team. The rotations for each other off the ball are more often than not screwed up. All it takes is one mistake, a frequent occurrence the last month.

“It takes five people,” Suns guard Devin Booker said. “One slip up will leave an open shooter and that’s all it takes in the NBA. Five people have to be on a string and the communication has to be high.”

The final frame in close games always comes down to who executes the best, so it’s no surprise Phoenix is statistically the worst fourth quarter team in the NBA right now.

“Just poor rotations, poor gameplan discipline,” Booker said of the 37-22 fourth quarter. “When we do what we’re supposed to do out there, it works. And then as the game goes on, we just lose focus.”

The Suns (14-15) ultimately didn’t have their horses, either.

Dallas (18-12) was already without one of its two, Kyrie Irving (right heel contusion), but Luka Doncic was able to playmake and score through whatever the Suns were throwing at him in a proficient manner to 50 points, six rebounds, 15 assists, four steals and three blocks on 15-for-25 shooting.

Booker did a good job sparking Phoenix’s ball movements with his choices to the tune of 10 assists. The scoring avenues, however, weren’t found. He was 6-of-14 for 20 points while Kevin Durant struggled even more to find room, going 4-of-11 for 16 points, eight rebounds, seven assists and six turnovers. Durant now has 18 turnovers in his last three games.

The timing for Phoenix was bad on a night it got 32 points from Grayson Allen and a 23-point, 19-rebound effort out of reserve big Chimezie Metu.

As for the star duo’s low shot attempt totals, Booker believed that was more scheme-based from what Dallas’ defense was doing than a case of him and Durant needing to be more aggressive.

“Teams are gonna make us throw it to those guys and I’m gonna keep doing it and make sure the right guy is in the right spot and knocking down the shots,” Booker said, confirming it goes back to his principle of always making the right play.

For the third time in four years, Doncic reached at least 40 points and 10 assists in Footprint Center for a regular season game. That happened only twice for a Suns opponent in Phoenix the previous 50 years before that: Stephen Curry in 2017 and Elgin Baylor in 1968, per Stathead. Doncic clearly relishes this matchup, whether it’s his “rivalry” with Booker or taking it out on the team that passed him up with the No. 1 pick. He played 44 minutes, the sixth time this month he’s broken the threshold of 40.

Allen was the one primarily guarding Doncic and still managed to have his game of the season so far. He’s been the most consistent about playing hard this month. Allen knocked down eight of the Suns’ 14 3s, and Phoenix was 6-for-21 in the first half on very good looks. The 41 attempts overall were a good sign.

Metu was great about taking advantage of the Suns’ spacing (when it was there), diving with purpose after screens and crashing the offensive glass. He took over the majority of the center minutes in the second half after another rough go for Drew Eubanks with Jusuf Nurkic away from the team due to personal reasons.

Former Sun Derrick Jones Jr. produced 23 points and looks every bit the part of the explosive 3-and-D wing he showed the potential of becoming years ago, albeit as far less of a developed player than the one he is now. Rookie center Dereck Lively II looks like a success for the Dallas front office as a Doncic pick-and-roll partner. He added 20 points and 10 rebounds.

Speaking of Jones, even through seasons reaching 60 losses, Booker almost never showed his frustration on the floor when he made the correct pass off extra defensive attention, only for that advantage it created to lead to a misplay by a teammate. He had a few of those moments on Monday and has in the last couple of losses as well.

He was asked how high the frustration is right now after losing his ninth game out of the last dozen.

“High,” Booker said. “Every loss is tough.”

At this point, it’s safe to say we are beyond what is classified as frustration. It’s closer to a combination of exasperation and irritation at how they are playing.

Concern about that boiling over?

“No,” Booker said. “We just have to get it together. That’s on me, that’s on coach, that’s on KD, Eric, all the leaders that we have in here to make sure that we’re more prepared when we come play.”

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