EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Suns’ shocking lack of urgency continues in loss to Bucks without Giannis

Mar 17, 2024, 12:35 PM | Updated: 4:39 pm

Damian Lillard #0 of the Milwaukee Bucks dribbles the ball against Grayson Allen #8 of the Phoenix ...

Damian Lillard #0 of the Milwaukee Bucks dribbles the ball against Grayson Allen #8 of the Phoenix Suns during the first half at Fiserv Forum on March 17, 2024 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)

(Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)

The Phoenix Suns are playing like they have been afforded the luxury of time. At least, that’s a kind way to interpret their energy in the last couple of games.

But they don’t have time, both to develop into the contender they should be and figure all that out while avoiding the play-in tournament. And a 140-129 loss on Sunday to a Milwaukee Bucks team without star forward Giannis Antetokounmpo was through a maddening lack of urgency in game No. 68 of the season.

Phoenix began the game getting whatever it wanted offensively with good pace, which probably lulled it into a false sense of security after Milwaukee’s quality of looks weren’t as high. The Suns’ defense following that story of the opening nine minutes relaxed immensely, continuing to allow terrific downhill pressure from Damian Lillard to open up 3-pointers elsewhere.

Bobby Portis was one of Milwaukee’s average to below average shooters getting space. As soon as he and his team got hot, Phoenix’s complete inability to adjust by chasing the Bucks off the line burned them. Portis scored 25 points in his first 10 minutes and Milwaukee reached a total of 15 triples with 3:30 to go in the second quarter. Again, most of this was effort.

The Suns continued to stay in that haze to give up an 18-for-27 mark on 3s at the half compared to their own 3-of-13 output to trail by 22. The Suns have no chance at getting up more 3s in a natural way that doesn’t feel forced. They clearly tried to in Friday’s sluggish victory and were overcompensating in a way that bogged down the offense. The one thing they can do is deny the amount of 3s other teams get up but it normally starts with Phoenix’s bad on-ball defense requiring rotations off shooters. It’s a compiling effect.

Regardless, all of these are December tweaks. It’s mid-March. The play-in tournament begins four weeks from Tuesday. They are who they are now.

Suns head coach Frank Vogel smashed the emergency glass he often does in bleak situations, taking out Jusuf Nurkic and going small. This change in the mid-third quarter resulted in an immediate 11-0 run in under two minutes to cut the deficit down to 10. A great push led by Bradley Beal got it as far down as six before a 9-0 run by Lillard to end the quarter had Phoenix back down 15 heading into the dreaded fourth quarter.

Another surge fronted by Beal got it within seven before Milwaukee knocked down four 3s across two minutes and change to counter that effort to stay up double digits, extending the lead to 14 as effectively the dagger.

The Suns are now 6-7 since the All-Star break and its 29th loss of the year puts it eighth in the Western Conference standings, one more than the Sacramento Kings in sixth and tied with the Dallas Mavericks in seventh that they lose a tiebreaker to.

Lillard was the man all afternoon. His numbers are down this year and he certainly won’t be the All-World guy he was in Portland for the entirety of his tenure in Milwaukee but he’s still one of the best guards on the planet. He finished with 31 points and 16 assists. Portis added 31 points as well.

Both Devin Booker and Kevin Durant lacked the usual high-end impact for the third straight game. Neither cracked 25 points in any of those fixtures.

While the last three Suns outings have sprouted little to be positive about, this was again another good performance from Beal. It bears repeating due to his importance and how him remaining healthy to keep this season-best rhythm going will keep making a difference by bringing a dimension Phoenix previously has not had. Beal’s line was 28 points and seven assists.

Due to the small lineup being out there for most of the second half and the chasing of a failed comeback, Durant played 41 minutes and Booker hit 40. Phoenix was playing its third game in four days but the margin was even slimmer because of the quick turnaround to an afternoon game on Sunday.

The sky is blue, the grass is green and the Bucks scored 24 points off Phoenix’s 14 turnovers.

Milwaukee got a rare sight at its team without Antetokounmpo, as he has been able to play through a left hamstring issue recently before he was held out on Sunday for just the third time all season. The Bucks improve to 3-1 in those contests. A boost off that was them getting back Khris Middleton after he missed 16 games for an injury sustained versus the Suns in Phoenix on Feb. 6. Middleton looked fresh with 22 points and seven assists.

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