A lengthy look in the mirror is the only reaction needed from the Phoenix Suns after allowing 41 points to Stephen Curry and watching as Golden State shot 57 percent overall and 58 percent on threes — the 22 makes from deep were one off an NBA record.
Few positives came from Phoenix’s 135-116 loss to the Warriors on Friday night, but second-year forward T.J. Warren’s career scoring night makes for one.
It could be easy to focus on the negatives.
In the first quarter, starting center Tyson Chandler left with a hamstring strain. By the end of the night, Markieff Morris and Eric Bledsoe combined for eight of the Suns’ 14 turnovers, many of which came on forced passes or uncertain decision-making.
Warren, on the other hand, looked far from rattled and hardly skittish against Golden State, which moved to 17-0 on the season.
He calmly floated shots over the Warriors’ bigs. He cut to catch dump-off passes from a driving Bledsoe, scored in transition and stepped behind the three-point line to shoot 2-of-3 from deep.
Warren shot 12-of-16 from the floor and went a perfect 7-of-7 on contested attempts, according to the NBA’s player tracking data. He also finished with six rebounds and two steals.
Part of this was about opportunity. Warren has averaged 19 points per 36 minutes but until Friday’s 35 minutes played hadn’t eclipsed the 30-minute mark this season.
The young forward became a necessity as Suns coach Jeff Hornacek attempted to solve matchup problems against Golden State.
In the first half, Suns starting small forward P.J. Tucker couldn’t make the Warriors pay for using backup center Festus Ezeli. Phoenix failed to bait Ezeli into defending shooting big man Mirza Teletovic, and Golden State instead matched their center up with Tucker, who missed open jumpers and couldn’t finish at the cup despite his speed advantage on Ezeli.
Warren also played as a center in a desperate fourth-quarter lineup made to test the Warriors’ small ball approach with Draymond Green at center — Hornacek said earlier in the week playing the matchup game is often a game of chicken, a test of which team can play with an odd set of pieces longer without giving up something in return. But Green, as expected, torched the Suns from the post as Phoenix ran Warren with Sonny Weems, Archie Goodwin, Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight. The odd experiment against a team with a plan could leave room for more inquiry.
From the wider-scale view, could Warren’s performance lead to changes in the Suns’ rotation?
““We’ll look at the tape and we’ll look at things,” Hornacek told the media after the game. “We’ll try to figure out who those five best defenders are and those will be the guys who are going to be out there for us because putting up all of those points — and I’m not just saying this about T.J., just any of our guys — we don’t care about the points, we’ve got to get stops and the points will come.”
Warren may indeed begin earning more than the 22 minutes of playing time that he’s received thus far, and his ability to shoot the three this year has changed things when it comes to the offensive side of the ball. His two treys Friday came at the right corner, where Phoenix often asks Tucker to spot up within the offense. And don’t look now, but Warren is shooting 41 percent from three after hitting just 23 percent as a rookie.
Still, the biggest issues against the Warriors came on the defensive end, where Warren and the rest of the Suns fared poorly, all-in-all. Warren knows it.
“Just playing my game and being aggressive when I’m out there,” he told the media afterward. “Just continue to play hard. I want to let that dictate my offense. It starts with defense.”
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