The Phoenix Suns’ up-and-down season, interrupted when three games were postponed last week, continued with a loss and another learning opportunity
The Phoenix Suns brought plenty to the table, the good and the bad, in their return to action following a week off. Their fans were still looking for scraps following a disappointing defeat at Memphis.
To properly consume the fallout, let’s look at events and takeaways from each of Monday night’s four quarters.
Phoenix Suns scenes from a first quarter: Ayton and Booker produce a sputtering start
Up 7-4 with 6:40 remaining in the opening quarter, Deandre Ayton has Ja Morant on a low-block pin down. Chris Paul sees it and finds him but Ayton, upon seeing Desmond Bane (a 6-5 guard) come to double team, kicks it back out. Bane leaves. Morant stays on Ayton. Paul waits. And waits. But Ayton can’t figure out a way to establish a strong post position.
Frank Kaminsky hits a pair of 3s. I dunno. Not gonna try to analyze that development going forward. He was 1-5 on his other six field-goal attempts and finished a minus-9.
Up 18-8, Devin Booker almost single-handedly lets Memphis back into the game. He fails to shoot when he believed he was being fouled. He throws the ball in disgust, drawing a tech. The Grizzlies hit the T and then a three. Booker drives down the lane with his hair on fire and commits a turnover (though there probably should have been a foul called on Grayson Allen). Memphis scores.
Phoenix Suns scenes from a second quarter: Chris Paul pushes the upside of the team’s youth
Suns coach Monty Williams used “tertiary” in his start-of-quarter TNT interview.
A Cam Johnson runner and a Paul-to-Ayton lob jam and that’s part of the reason some experts had the Suns pegged to win 40+ games this season.
But the defense is impressive, too, in spurts.
Memphis closes to 35-33 and Langston Galloway knocks down a three. Under-the-radar great signing. Fills the instant-offense role but also ensures the option of a knock-down shooter if Cam Johnson and/or Booker are misfiring.
With just less than 3:30 left two strange things: Booker misses again to extend his streak to seven consecutive misfires. Grizzlies’ Gorgui Dieng hits a three-pointer.
Chris Paul still struggling with his shot. Bricks a three and that’s halftime. 52-48 Grizzlies.
Paul’s shooting is a concern, though it’s certainly not the team’s chief concern.
Two-point FGA, this season, last season: .490, .554.
Three-pointers, this season, last season: .303, .365.
Field goals, this season, last season: .444, .489.
The takeaway: Paul joins Booker in the shaky shooting category. Booker’s points per game, FG percentage, 3-point percentage and free-throw percentage (along with rebounds and assists) are all down compared with last season. And his turnovers are up. But Phoenix has won seven of its 12 games. (Glass half-full!)
Phoenix Suns scenes from a third quarter: The physical tools combine with flashes of Ayton aggressiveness
Clearly, Ayton’s conversion (via dunk!) of the second-quarter lob from Paul caused some overactive salivation, as both Paul and Booker eagerly attempt lobs in the first two minutes — both errant tosses help Memphis build a 57-50 lead.
Another two passes intended for Ayton (Paul and Cam Johnson) result in turnovers and this forcing the ball to Ayton immediately becomes a problem.
Ayton’s game is still tough for some fans to watch.
But maybe it’s truly darkest before dawn. Did it dawn on the No. 1 pick from 2018 that he needed to apply a little extra “want-to”?
Perhaps feeling the criticism, Ayton catches the pass and keeps it high — and lays it up. Seems easy.
And Ayton spins baseline, gives Xavier Tillman a nasty little hook/arm bar and brings plenty of Suns fans off their collective couches with an opposite-side jam.
Still trying to put it all together, the Suns trail 77-75 after three.
The takeway: To fill the inevitable gaps in production, Mikal Bridges should be a more prominent option — and the team needs be careful when feeding Ayton (no force-feeding).
Phoenix Suns scenes from a fourth quarter: The team’s foundational pair can’t lift their games enough to grab the W
Chris Paul has an awful start to the fourth: two turnovers and two fouls. But then he hits a free-throw-line jumper to put the Suns in front 80-79. And that stokes his confidence, as he buries an iso jumper to make it 82-80.
Ayton needs a break (according to Coach but not according to those who fear the potential damage wrought by Frank Kaminsky). The fears are unfounded (despite Kaminsky’s pair of clanks at the line); the Suns go on a 7-2 run.
Ayton returns with just more than three minutes remaining, and fans enjoy another great play from “old” reliable Mikal Bridges, who makes a great cut and converts a Jae Crowder dime for a four-point lead.
Not much good happens after that.
Booker misses a dunk, and shortly thereafter his 3 rattles out (he finished 5-21 from the field). Grayson Allen nails a triple.
Ayton remains the lone bright spot with a follow slam, but seconds later a national TV audience sees the best youngster on the floor close it out for his team.
Ja Morant hits a clutch layup, then draws a charge on Paul and the Suns fall 108-104.
The takeaway: When both Paul and Booker struggle, not even an 18-point/16-rebound line from Ayton can rescue the Suns — without some big, additional help elsewhere.
The big takeaway: Chris Paul’s constant, uh, let’s call them teaching techniques are paying off. The future Hall of Famer’s investment in targeting Deandre Ayton paid dividends as Ayton had perhaps his most complete game of the young season.
Now it’s time to learn important lessons during a victory.