REALM OF THE SUN
UPDATED: MARCH 14, 2023 AT 11:57 PM
PHOENIX – The Phoenix Suns just don’t have a great margin of error without Kevin Durant (left ankle sprain) and they’re not playing well enough to prevail at the moment.
There was a lot to like about Tuesday’s 116-104 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks, most notably their struggle and energy, which enlivened a vociferous crowd during a comeback that took over two quarters to gain some traction.
But Phoenix’s (37-32) problem of late has continued to be execution as they just can’t find enough precision in what they want to do in the stretches that have decided their last three losses.
After the game was tied at 97 with 6:48 to go, the Bucks’ 11-4 run over three minutes to put them back in the driver’s seat required no expert shooting or standout individual defensive plays. It just got more right.
On the Suns’ first defensive possession after a time-out, Devin Booker briefly lost focus and allowed Milwaukee’s Pat Connaughton to get an open corner 3. After a missed jumper from Deandre Ayton, Milwaukee (50-19) turned him over, but then Ayton was blocked off the rim after Booker doubled on a drive.
During dead ball, the Suns received a delay from a game technical foul. On the Bucks’ subsequent possession, Bucks center Brook Lopez hit a floater.
That was the 6-0 portion of the 11-4 run mentioned above. Despite having over five minutes to play after just one minute, that Bucks six-point lead felt huge, similar to some games in the 2021 Finals.
Some of that had to do with how Milwaukee dealt with Phoenix’s offense then and now.
This has never been a team to generate a lot of rim pressure, but that’s even more difficult to achieve as it’s currently designed without Durant.
Teams will, of course, play some part against Torrey Craig and Josh Okogie, with the latter’s lack of defensive cover becoming extreme at points. Both are capable shooters, but defense likes to let them dictate things.
From there, the defenses now more often give the sun centers more room. Ayton is allowed to get the ball outside 10ft, with his defender being in a deep case more often, offering the property for free. The opposition are okay with sacrificing a mid-range jumper and know Ayton won’t be okay with using his dribbling from there. That’s standard coverage for Lopez, a Defensive Player of the Year contender, so he was at home on Tuesday.
“It’s harder because they give you the chance that DA got,” Suns head coach Monty Williams said. “That’s what they want. They are among the best at taking away 3s, especially corner 3s. … That is their identity. … They don’t mind giving up that pocket shot.”
Ayton finished 8 of 19 for 16 points and was 3 of 10 in the second half. The two errors for him on those runs were both games where Lopez allowed Ayton that space. He’ll have to punish that if he gets it given how strong he usually is in midfield.
On an out of bounds play at the baseline, Phoenix’s Jock Landale threw the ball five feet from the inbounder and drilled a 12-foot jumper. Lopez didn’t even pretend to be there.
The “four-point line” is a way of encouraging extreme distance, having someone like Okogie a few yards behind the line to try and level the edges. That’s an example of Phoenix trying to save it, but the offense just lacks rhythm.
That was the sticking point of a 16-point deficit in the first half, as was the bizarre turn of the supporting cast and the bench, who made no contribution last week after helping Phoenix go game after game through injury after injury up win in March.
It was definitely taken for granted because whenever a reserve has some nice plays these days, it stands out. These guys could easily get through mix-and-match roster combinations, but the lack of continuity in that regard plus three new faces seems to have caught up with them.
Sun’s reserve started the game 1-of-12. I should mention Cam Payne’s 13 points, a much needed night for him to see the ball go in the basket a bit.
We’ve gone so far without talking about free throws, too long in many eyes.
Bucks star forward Giannis Antetokounmpo tried 24 and made 14, compared to Phoenix’s 14-for-16 total as a team.
The frustration, especially after the problematic defeat in the final, was back on Tuesday.
“I can sit here and go through what you all already know,” Williams said. “You just have to put my name on the quote. You’ve seen it. It’s just, it’s not fair. Buch has three free throws. …And Jrue Holiday is one of the most physical defenders in the game. He has three.
“Giannis has 24 free throws. It is ridiculous. It can not be said otherwise. Our boys fight. DA can’t play. When a guy crosses your path the whole game. We’ve covered this so many times with this team. And credit to him. He saw the game called, he kept going, but that’s hard to swallow.
Chris Paul was asked some questions about the discrepancy and the numbers for Antetokounmpo and Booker. At a certain point he was done with that particular discussion and asked the media around his locker what the Suns should do.
“Your opinions are all valid,” Paul said. “Write what you see.”
Here’s what I see.
Antetokounmpo has marginally mastered playing downhill basketball as a goalscorer, to the point where he gets a whistle most of the time whenever there is contact. And there had better be contact or this man will dunk the basketball. Sometimes he does anyway. And guess what, he gets fouled a lot. Booker emphasized that he’s not trying to discredit every single free throw.
Now there is such a thing as legal contact. If a defender slips their feet, hits the ball carrier on point, and takes the jab straight to the chest without getting their hands in there, all is well. We’ve seen ace defenders like Holiday excel in this delicate dance.
But this is where Antetokounmpo mostly gets the shooting foul.
“He has his place and [Antetokounmpo] just goes right through him and you call a blocking foul,” Booker said of a specific example with Craig. “The next game will make you hesitate. I don’t know if you want to just ol and get out of the way and let him dunk the ball, but there will be some kind of contact. If he initiates it every time, it can’t be free throws every time.
For me, and this is subjective, there is some validity in rewarding a player who drives through contact and taking that punishment on the way to or at the basket. I also believe, to some extent, in the legitimacy of a “star whistle,” a top player who wins when there’s no doubt about something he does all the time. One example is Booker’s ever-present struggle of getting a shooting foul every time he pulls that punch from an out-of-position defender 10-20 feet away and hurls the ball toward the rim while taking it. It’s an intelligent, exhilarating game. Give him his free throws for it.
At the same time, as Booker says, there has to be a balance. Like if Booker gets that call for himself or not. For now, at least in these matchups against the Suns, there’s none featuring Antetokounmpo.
And, most importantly, players have to be able to adjust to the whistle. Sometimes a game is called tight. Other times they let her play. Fair enough. This dynamic is part of basketball, and players will be constantly chatting with umpires, not just to complain, but to get feedback on what the umpire is seeing so they can adjust.
I asked Booker if these conversations were constructive for him and if he could adjust.
That’s a problem, and the biggest of all.
Booker’s own frustration reached a boiling point with two minutes remaining when he took a post touch with Holiday, hitting him a really hard punch to make space, a second and then Holiday pulled a charge on the third.
Booker was really good at this game. For the second year in a row, he forced the team back in the third quarter. It ended with a bucket over former teammate Jae Crowder in isolation that shook the crowd, and of course he let Crowder know about it.
Booker’s 30 points marked the sixth of the last seven games in which he has reached that threshold. He played 43 minutes, far too many in the second game of a consecutive game (and Williams said so), but it’s only the third time in 13 games since returning from injury that he’s gone past 38 at least there has been.
Antetokounmpo landed on 38 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists in 35 minutes. Part of that game-winning run happened with him on the bench. The Bucks, who lost two starters in this game (Khris Middleton and Grayson Allen), are damn good.