PHOENIX — Owners of the worst field goal defense in the NBA and a withering offensive threat, the Phoenix Suns’ margin for error is close to nil.
This Tuesday night, there were so many errors the Indiana Pacers never had reason to feel threatened until the Suns rallied from 20 points down to three with only 2.6 seconds remaining. It was not enough time to hope Indiana could miss enough free throws to lose.
The Suns fell 97-94 at Talking Stick Resort Arena on a night they committed 22 turnovers and struggled to find offense outside prideful gunning from 19-year-old rookie Devin Booker.
Booker had a career-high by the third quarter and closed with 32 points, including 6-of-11 shooting from three-point range. But coach Jeff Hornacek found more to talk about in Booker’s defense.
“He’s going to score points in this league. I was much happier with his defense tonight,” Hornacek said. “Don’t always be the nail. Hammer into somebody once and let them take the brunt of the blow, and he did that a few times. He made some strides defensively. When you play well defensively I think it does help your offense. You’re into the game.”
Booker’s strides went along with the Suns’ team efforts as a whole. Following a three-game road swing, Phoenix put its players through a grueling Monday practice with the focus on playing better halfcourt defense.
Despite risking tired legs, it worked.
Take away those and 24 Indiana fastbreak points and 27 points scored off Phoenix turnovers, and the Suns holding the Pacers to 41 percent shooting (4-of-20 from three) indicates there were strides made on the defensive end.
“If you have a turnover you know, just throw it out of bounds so we get to set our defense,” Booker said afterward. “They’re getting run-outs on our turnovers.”
Meanwhile, the offense was hard to come by for myriad reasons.
For one, the Suns lost Jon Leuer (back spasms) in pregame warmups, Markieff Morris in the first half to a strained right shoulder and Mirza Teletovic in the third quarter to a sprained ankle.
It didn’t help then that second-year forward T.J. Warren lasted three minutes before getting a quick hook in the second half for “jogging” after a loose ball.
“We’re looking for guys who want to hustle,” Hornacek said. “If you aren’t hustling, we take you out.”
The team’s leading scorer on the year, Brandon Knight, went 1-for-8 with six turnovers and a single assist in the first half before finishing with 21 points, four assists and eight turnovers. Hornacek said the Suns don’t have the luxury to allow Knight to defer.
“Guys are going to have bad halves,” Hornacek said. “We just kept telling him to shoot the ball. I think he got tentative there when he missed a couple.
“We need him to put the ball in the hole.”
And while Booker is not free from criticism, with four turnovers himself, and having success matched up most of the evening against 22-year-old journeyman Glenn Robinson III, who started for an injured Pacers backcourt, the fact remains that the rookie was the closest thing to reliable offense.
Booker provided the single positive impact on offense early on, scoring 12 points in his first 14 minutes after the Suns’ shooting percentage plummeted to 24 percent four minutes through the second period. His 30th point, a top-of-the-arc three, cut the Pacers’ lead down to five, 90-85, with 56 seconds remaining, and a late Knight trey put Phoenix within three points with 2.6 seconds remaining. That the Suns were in such a position late was a minor accomplishment on an evening where the mistakes cost the team 27 points.
If it’s any consolation, things could have been worse. Phoenix shot 32 percent at halftime and worsened their chances with 13 turnovers. Yet, the Pacers only led 44-35 at halftime courtesy of sound three-point defense (2-of-9 shooting for Indiana) and the Suns scoring 12 points off eight Indiana turnovers.
Tyson Chandler recorded 10 rebounds in 17 first-half minutes and finished with 14 on the night. Alex Len, in his return from injury, added 12 more to go with six points.
With Morris remaining in the starting lineup for the second game in a row to provide a more dynamic offensive option, the Suns still struggled to score in the first quarter. They trailed 25-17 after 12 minutes as Morris went 1-for-4 from the field and finished the night with two points in just more than 11 minutes played.
Phoenix opened the night with three power forwards but ended up playing with none. Jon Leuer suffered with back spasms in pregame warmups, Morris strained his shoulder in the first half and didn’t return, and Mirza Teletovic came up hobbling in the third quarter. Hornacek did not know the severity of any of the injuries.
The Suns turned the ball over three times in the first 1:30 of the second quarter and by halftime had 13 that led to 15 Pacers points. Knight accounted for six of those turnovers and only dolled out one assist following a five-turnover, one-assist game Sunday. He also shot just 1-of-8 in the first half.
HE SAID IT
“It comes with experience. When you’re fresh out there, you’re a rookie, you don’t know what’s going on. I’m getting a lot of time out there, getting a lot of opportunity.” — Devin Booker on his improvements and comfort
STAT OF THE GAME
43.4: The Suns’ excellent effective field goal percentage (it accounts for three-pointers being worth more) that, even considering the Pacers’ easy buckets, kept them in the game.
– Suns owner Robert Sarver had a video replay after the game on an inbound play by the Pacers that showed a handoff, which would have been illegal and given Phoenix the ball with a three-point deficit. The officials told Hornacek they did not see it as a handoff and did not review it.
– Booker is the third-youngest player in NBA history to score 30 points. Only LeBron James and Kevin Durant have done so. Booker’s previous career high was 21 points, recorded Jan. 2 against in Sacramento.
– Len returned to provide the Suns with needed depth following a three-game absence due to his hand injury.
– Tucker recorded his first double-double of the year. He posted 12 points, 10 boards and five assists.
Phoenix continues a difficult home stretch against three winning teams with a Thursday night, nationally-televised TNT broadcast against the San Antonio Spurs.
Gregg Popovich’s team is chasing the first-place Golden State Warriors and has a 36-6 record thanks to a current 11-game winning streak.
Tip-off is 8:30 p.m. with pregame coverage beginning a half-hour earlier on Arizona Sports 98.7 FM.
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