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3 irrefutable truths from Suns' controversial In-Season Tournament loss vs. Lakers

Gerald Bourguet Avatar
December 6, 2023
Devin Booker and the Phoenix Suns fell flat against the Los Angeles Lakers in the In-Season Tournament knockout round in a controversial finish

The NBA’s inaugural (highly entertaining) In-Season Tournament is officially over for the Phoenix Suns. Thanks to a 106-103 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers on Tuesday, the Suns are officially out of the knockout round, missing out on the semifinals in Las Vegas and their opportunity to exact revenge on a team that’s now beaten them three times this season.

To ensure they reach 82 games for the regular season, they’ll face the Sacramento Kings at home Friday night.

But before turning the page to the Suns’ two upcoming off-days and next game, this disappointing loss needs to be dissected and digested in full. Despite their recent strides, Phoenix reverted to some bad habits and worrying early-season trends against the Lakers. And because the game was marred by such a controversial finish, some questions need to be asked — and answered.

Bearing that in mind, here are three irrefutable truths from the Suns’ In-Season Tournament loss to the Lakers.

1. Suns got screwed on one late call, but not two

In the final minute of the game, two calls were a subject of major controversy.

The first was an intentional foul from Cam Reddish with 39 seconds to go and the Lakers up by 3 points. It stopped a Suns fast break, and because Reddish didn’t make a play on the ball, it was natural to wonder why the officials didn’t even review for a take foul, which would have awarded Phoenix with a technical free throw and the ball.

However, according to the NBA rulebook, the take foul does not apply in the final two minutes of regulation or overtime. The reasoning is that most intentional fouls in the last two minutes occur when trailing teams are trying to stop the clock and put their opponent at the free-throw line, at which point too many of those fouls could be interpreted as take fouls.

So as much as Reddish’s foul clearly would’ve been a take foul under normal circumstances, and as aggravating as it was for the Suns to have a promising fast break stopped dead in its tracks, the officials got this one right:

Unfortunately, that was not the case for the more agonizing call down the stretch. With 11 seconds to play, Kevin Durant scored to bring the Suns within 2 points. The Lakers inbounded the ball to Austin Reaves, and rather than foul right away, Phoenix tried to play for the steal or an 8-second violation.

Reaves stumbled after a slight bump from Booker, which the officials deemed as not enough contact to garner a whistle — the correct call, given how physical the game had been. As Booker and Durant swarmed him, Reaves lost control. There was a loose ball, and it looked like Grayson Allen was ready to recover it and either score or find a cutting Booker for the game-tying layup.

But somehow, the officials granted a timeout to LeBron James, who was frantically gesturing at the officials away from the play:

It was an incredulous decision live, and after watching the replays with different angles, it’s even more mystifying how a timeout was given. The NBA pool report defended the call, saying Reaves had the ball pinned to his leg for long enough to warrant possession, but only by freezing the instant replay frame-by-frame –rather than focusing on the video replay — could someone draw that type of conclusion.

Watching it live, there’s simply no evidence Reaves had the ball while James was calling for timeout. It should’ve been a turnover and game-tying bucket for Phoenix, but instead, LA got their timeout and made one of two free throws, leaving the Suns to resort to a half-court heave at the buzzer to try and force overtime.

This was a critical call in the final seconds of a one-possession game in the NBA’s new In-Season Tournament, and the league’s officials totally botched it.

It wasn’t some unpopular opinion outside of California either. Mikal Bridges, Tyrese Haliburton and a few other NBA players voiced their disbelief. It didn’t take long for Booker to chime in on his Instagram story, or Jusuf Nurkic to dunk on the officials and Skip Bayless in one fell swoop.

Booker said it best after the game: The Suns aren’t asking for favoritism, just a fair chance.

2. Suns put themselves in a losing position

With all of that being said, as bad as that blatantly missed call was down the stretch, Booker and the Suns have no one to blame but themselves for being in that position. They may have gotten hoed on the final play, but they also planted the seeds of their own destruction.

Heading into the matchup, coach Frank Vogel and several Suns players felt they were a completely different team compared to the first two times they faced the Lakers. But Tuesday’s contest didn’t show it, because much like the first two meetings, Phoenix was once again the architects of their own demise.

The Suns wound up taking 27 fewer shots than LA because they committed 22 turnovers as a team and gave up 21 offensive rebounds to a Lakers squad that ranks 28th in that category (averaging 8.8 per game). Regardless of what happens on the final play, you’re not going to win many games fighting that kind of basic math.

Because the Lakers got so many extra cracks at the basket, it didn’t matter that the Suns shot 49.3 percent to LA’s 37.3 percent. It didn’t even matter that Phoenix made 48 percent of their 3s while the Lakers only made 30 percent of theirs.

The turnovers were particularly egregious, especially for a team that talked about their extra energy, focus and preparation heading into the matchup. Most people have given the Suns a grace period on that front, since they have new players from all over the league and are missing one of their two primary ball-handlers. But after committing 10 turnovers in the first quarter, they were fighting an uphill battle the rest of the night.

This one-minute and 34-second clip is FULL of unforced (often live-ball) turnovers that gave a below-average Lakers offense life, all while taking away Phoenix’s opportunities to get up shots. Booker and Durant have to be better in particular:

On the offensive rebounding front, Los Angeles bullied the Suns, plain and simple. LA is not a good offensive rebounding team, and while having Jarred Vanderbilt back and a motivated Anthony Davis obviously spells trouble for a more undersized team like Phoenix, there’s no excuse for getting creamed on the offensive glass like that. They’re lucky LA only managed 19 second-chance points on 21 offensive boards.

It felt like the Suns got the short end of the physicality stick, which the Lakers might as well have taken and started hitting them with as well. Jaxson Hayes tackled Booker’s ankle, Cam Reddish grabbed Booker’s head and pulled his headband off, Jusuf Nurkic got hit in the groin, raked across the arms and smacked in the face at least three separate times — LA’s physicality set the tone from start to finish.

But give the Lakers credit: Despite a few dirty plays or fouls that went uncalled, they were the aggressors. The Suns never matched their physicality and got beat up all night as a result, giving up second, third and even fourth chances:

It’s a shame the finish was marred by an officiating gaffe, but it’s also a miracle the Suns were in this game in the first place with as many times as they shot themselves in the foot.

3. Suns can’t afford for Devin Booker to play like that

Heading into Tuesday’s game, Devin Booker was supposed to be the biggest difference between this matchup and the first two. The Suns had melted down in both fourth quarters against LA without Book, getting outscored by a combined 27 points while shooting 14-of-40 and committing 13 total turnovers.

The fourth quarter wasn’t the problem this time around, but Booker really chose a poor time to play his worst game of the season. The box score wouldn’t suggest it, since he still finished with 21 points, 11 rebounds and 6 assists, but those 7 turnovers and 6-of-16 shooting tell more of the story.

Before the matchup, coach Frank Vogel prophetically described Booker’s impact on the team’s offensive flow.

“He’s the leader of our offense in terms of organizing us, and it’s always tricky when he’s out of the game, trying to just get us organized and get our guys in the right spot,” Vogel said. “So obviously, he carries a big load offensively with his ability to score in a variety of different ways.”

As the leader and organizer on offense, Booker is the engine that makes this team go. For the majority of the games he’s been available, he’s looked like an MVP candidate having a career year as one of the NBA’s best playmakers — and yes, point guards.

“Thrown into the fire as a young player, I got the play through making mistakes and turning the ball over and seeing a bunch of different coverages,” Booker explained prior to the Lakers game. “And then just reading and reacting. I’m getting to the point where every year I feel like the game is slowing down a bit, and I watch the game more than ever. I keep falling in love with it every day, so it’s just something I love to do and pull back the layers of it.”

Unfortunately, Tuesday’s game offered a harsh reminder that you’re never done learning in this league. It also showcased just how slim the Suns’ margin for error is if one of their two available superstars has an off night.

Phoenix has gotten tremendous contributions out of guys like Nurkic, Grayson Allen and Eric Gordon with Bradley Beal’s extended absence, but at the end of the day, they’re role players being asked to do more than they’ll normally need to do. So until Phoenix gets their third star back, the pressure is on Book and KD to continue operating at MVP levels.

When they do so, the Suns can compete with anybody. But when one of them falls short of that mark — even on a night where Allen goes for 21 points, or Nurkic drops a season-high 31 points on the Denver Nuggets — it’s easy for this team to fall short too.

Booker also didn’t do himself any favors having this type of stinker in a single-elimination game while facing multiple double-teams either. Despite the high-scoring feats and memorable playoff performances he’s already accrued over the last three years, and despite manipulating doubles with All-NBA proficiency, all it takes is one performance like this to conjure up the same tired jokes about “Elimination Game Book,” how much Booker hates double-teams in pickup, or how the Suns “don’t have a point guard.”

Kevin Durant did his part despite the 5 turnovers, finishing with 31 points, 7 rebounds and 4 assists on 12-of-17 shooting. It may not have been a playoff game, but Booker fell short in the first In-Season Tournament game with more elevated stakes. The Lakers deserve some credit for the blitzes and traps they sent his way, but Booker simply has to be better than he was on Tuesday to put these tiresome narratives to rest — again.

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