EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Suns stumble through latest inexcusable effort, lose to shorthanded Spurs

Mar 25, 2024, 7:50 PM | Updated: 8:00 pm

Devin Booker #1 of the Phoenix Suns argues a call with official Pat Fraser n the first half as Jere...

Devin Booker #1 of the Phoenix Suns argues a call with official Pat Fraser n the first half as Jeremy Sochan #10 of the San Antonio Spurs listens at Frost Bank Center on March 25, 2024 in San Antonio, Texas. (Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images)

(Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images)

After the flawless type of win against a bad team that has been a rarity this season, the Phoenix Suns followed up Saturday’s over the San Antonio Spurs with Monday’s offering being more of what we’ve come to expect in 104-102 loss against a Spurs team without Victor Wembanyama (left ankle sprain).

The foggy, muddled beginnings to games continued at the start of Monday after an ever-so-brief hiatus on Saturday. That meant we were in for a teeth-pulling effort from the Suns if the Spurs were ready to put up a fight. They were.

Even after Phoenix somewhat recovered in the middle quarters, San Antonio ended the third by extending a 15-0 run into the fourth to go up eight, where it was an excruciating effort by the Suns to try to put together enough stops to retake the lead. It looked so difficult for them to do so.

Phoenix (42-30) eventually got there in the last few minutes, up one with 2:29 to go. Two Devin Booker free throws with 51 seconds left put the Suns back in the lead by one before Spurs (16-56) wing Jeremy Sochan (a bad shooter) was left open for a 3-pointer he buried with 30 ticks to go. It’s the type of bad break the Suns have no one else to blame for but themselves because of how they put themselves in a position for that to decide the game against one of the worst teams in basketball missing its star player.

Booker then attacked to get Kevin Durant a decent look from 3 he missed. An offensive rebound by Booker led to a kick-out to Durant, and he found Booker on a fading 3 at the buzzer that also didn’t go down.

To make matters worse and really leave Phoenix staring at a daunting task to close the regular season across 10 final games that are all against teams above .500 and littered with contenders, both Bradley Beal (right finger sprain) and Jusuf Nurkic (right ankle sprain) were injured in the game and did not return.

Phoenix will need some heroics to avoid the play-in tournament. That’s going to be too much to ask for because something is fundamentally broken with the team.

Given what plagues the Suns the most, such as careless turnovers and terrible play in the fourth quarter, the easiest place to point is how they mesh together. And not in a basketball sense on the floor in regards to fit. Whether that’s the coaching staff and the players, the top players with each other or the whole roster, feel free to take your best guess. This is long past injuries and needing time to jell.

When considering what we know about Booker and Durant as competitors, it has to be one of those things. That also should not exonerate them in any way. It’s on them as leaders of the team to make this work. A team with that duo not being a contender for a championship still feels bizarre to type, even though we’ve known that’s who this group is for months now. The lack of urgency this far into the year with the position Phoenix finds itself in both in the standings and how it performs on the floor is far beyond any rational explanation.

Heading into the season, we were trending toward this era of Suns basketball post-Finals appearance being known for its massive disappointments and severe inability to meet expectations based on empty promises of reaching a ceiling it could never even get in range of. That sure seems like where we’re headed.

In the mid-third quarter, Sochan was bringing the ball up after a miss and stopped his dribble to deny Nurkic’s path down the court, a common tactic in today’s NBA known as keeping a defender “in jail.”

For a man of Nurkic’s size, he didn’t have the ability to adjust in time and in the process stepped on Sochan’s foot, spraining his right ankle.

Nurkic has consistently been the most valuable Sun this season in terms of how much better the team is on the floor as opposed to when he comes off.

Even in a post-All-Star-break stretch of 15 games when Nurkic hasn’t played to the level he had prior, Phoenix outscores opponents by 6.8 points per 100 possessions when he’s out there, the best mark on the team according to NBA.com. When Nurkic sits, it’s a team-low -2.6 net rating. On the entire season, including the stretches when Nurkic has played terrific basketball, it’s a team-high 9.1 net rating on the floor and a team-low -3.7 net rating off it. That’s not including trade deadline addition Royce O’Neale, who owns those top overall spots.

A fair bit of it for Nurkic has to do with the problematic backup center minutes, which would turn into problematic starting center minutes if Nurkic misses any time. And the timing is of course brutal, as the 10-game gauntlet awaits. Nurkic has been a warrior this year playing through a handful of different bumps and bruises over the season so the Suns will have to dance that delicate line of not rushing him back too soon so that ankle is fresh for the playoffs and/or the play-in tournament.

Midway through the fourth quarter, Beal was in significant pain holding his right hand. At the timeout, Beal had it looked at by trainers before not returning back into the game and having his ring finger and pinky finger wrapped together. Head coach Frank Vogel said Beal sprained his right ring finger and X-rays were negative, per the Suns’ Amanda Pflugrad.

In the tale of the season for Beal, just as he was finding a groove and starting to maximize his play within a lesser role, he got injured. Beal needs to play eight of the Suns’ last 10 games this year to reach 50 on the year.

Booker contributed 36 points, six rebounds, four assists, a steal, three blocks and five turnovers. Durant added 29 points (12-for-17) with eight rebounds, six assists and three turnovers. Both guys had stretches in the second half taking over the game but it wasn’t constant enough for the full two quarters while Phoenix couldn’t compile enough stops.

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