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Monday’s literal last-second loss to the Memphis Grizzlies was just about as close to an outlier as you could get for the Phoenix Suns — not because the Grizz are a bad team or anything like that, but because it was so far outside the norms of what this group is capable of at full strength.
Playing without Deandre Ayton, Jae Crowder and head coach Monty Williams due to COVID health and safety protocols made it an atypical contest from the start. The continued absences of Frank Kaminsky, Dario Saric and Abdel Nader, with Ish Wainright joining them on the injury report, made it even more difficult to gauge.
The Suns were built with considerable depth, but no NBA team can be expected to perform to its usual standards with two starters, a head coach and that many bench players out. Consider it the latest challenge for a Western Conference power that has gotten used to overcoming adversity early in this regular season.
“We had a slogan as far as last year, going back to last year, it was just navigating uncertainty, and here we are,” associate coach Kevin Young said. “So you kind of get lost in the task at hand, to be honest with you. You don’t really have time to worry about, ‘it’s unnatural,’ or this or that. You just got a job to do, and that’s kind of the approach that I think we’ve all taken.”
It’d be easy to just flush this one and write it off as irregular since so many key Suns were out, but since we don’t know when Ayton, Crowder and Williams will be back, and since we have no way of knowing who might be joining them in health and safety protocols here soon, let’s navigate a little more uncertainty with three takeaways from Monday’s 114-113 loss.
1. Suns’ fight matters more than the result
On the surface, losing a home game on a Ja Morant game-winner with 0.5 seconds left felt demoralizing, especially after Devin Booker had just hit a go-ahead 3-pointer with 5.1 seconds remaining. Phoenix only needed one stop to cap off an 18-point comeback and couldn’t get it.
But I’m sorry, did you see the shot Morant had to hit for that to happen?
Yes, it sucks that the Suns’ comeback was ruined at the last second, and sure, maybe he did lift his pivot foot at the start of the play, but after being thoroughly dismantled through the first three quarters, the fact that the shorthanded Suns even made it a game is still something. We’re long past the point of moral victories for a legitimate title contender, but the fight still matters, considering how the last 48 hours have played out.
Keep in mind, this group found out Crowder would be sidelined yesterday, then saw their starting center and head coach get added to the list on Monday, just hours before game time. From a preparation standpoint, that’s hard to overcome.
“What’s unique, I think, about this situation, it’s not just, ‘Hey, you’re the head coach, good luck,'” Young joked before the game. “It’s like, ‘Hey, you’re the head coach, and by the way, like two starters are out, one you found out about shortly.'”
Despite having so many notable faces missing, the Suns were five seconds and one stop away from a win against the fourth-best team in the Western Conference. Sure, the Grizzlies were missing a few key players too in Dillon Brooks and De’Anthony Melton, but there’s no shame in a COVID-impacted loss to a quality team.
“I feel like we did well,” Cam Payne said. “Beginning of the season, even last season, coach Mont always say we gotta fight through the unexpected. You never know what’s gonna happen. Honestly, that’s why we build our culture, ’cause if someone goes out, someone else steps up. It’s been crazy, but we know what’s going on in the world. It’s tough. So just gotta be ready to play.”
Despite a slow start, the Suns had plenty of guys respond when their backs were against the wall. Devin Booker led the way with 30 points and what would’ve been the game-winner, but it extended to the other guys too. In his first start of the season, Cam Johnson notched 19 points and 7 rebounds on 4-of-10 shooting from beyond the arc. Jalen Smith chipped in a career-high 15 points and 9 rebounds off the bench, knocking down two 3-pointers.
Payne had one of his better games in weeks (more on this in a bit), and acting head coach Kevin Young, who was filling in on such short notice, drew up a beautiful play that got Booker so wide open the Suns wound up leaving too much time on the clock after he drilled his go-ahead 3. Even Book seemed surprised by how much space he had:
“The play he called to get Book an open 3 that he hit, that’s big-time coaching right there,” Cam Johnson said. “And we appreciate him for that. We just wish we would have got that one.”
A win would’ve been better, but stressing out over such an unusual game when it was more lack of rhythm than lack of fight is pointless.
2. Monty, DA and Jae are worth every penny
No offense to Young, JaVale McGee, Jalen Smith or even Cam Johnson, but Monday provided a stark reminder of just how valuable Monty, DA and Crowder are to this team.
On the coaching front, Young did about as good a job as could be expected for someone thrown into that kind of position. His substitutions early on were also nonstop as he searched to find a rhythm for himself and his team.
“I think the first thing, you want to be responsible with the minutes, so you have a plan going into it,” Young said. “That plan at times can get foggy based on the way the game is going, so we were trying to find our footing a little bit from that standpoint. I thought it kind of balanced itself out as the game went on. The way the minutes played out, I thought, wasn’t bad, so from a standpoint of cleaning it up as we move forward here, that’s something we’ll take a look at.”
The Suns looked listless for most of the middle quarters, and while the shorthanded rotation likely played a role there, it became clear at various points that having Williams’ more experienced hand might have helped.
Of course, Young can hardly be blamed for DA’s absence, which loomed the largest while Memphis’ guards repeatedly attacked the lane and Steven Adams feasted with 9 offensive rebounds. The Grizzlies outscored the Suns 62-46 in points in the paint, beat them 21-14 in second-chance points and out-rebounded them 50-35.
McGee obviously picked a poor time to foul out, finishing with just 6 points, 4 rebounds and a team-worst -17 in 22 minutes, but having Ayton probably would’ve helped prevent Memphis from terrorizing Phoenix on the interior!
DA’s presence definitely could’ve helped on Morant’s game-winning drive. Booker contested it as best he could; Morant’s shot was just slightly better. But if Ayton had been the help defender instead? No one can say for certain that it would’ve been a different outcome, because Morant is simply that crafty. But having a 7-footer there who’s capable of altering tough shots certainly could have been the difference.
Both Ayton and Crowder are two of the Suns’ chief communicators defensively as well, and there was a clear mixup between Chris Paul and Mikal Bridges at the start of that play.
“We had some miscommunication on the initial action as far as switching it, and then once he got it, Taylor [Jenkins] ran a really good play to kind of take advantage of it,” Young said. “So what I would say to that is it’s really good preparation for the playoffs when you have to deal with really great players in close games, and there’s a lot of things we can use as reference points as we build our way throughout the season.”
Learning from losses is never a bad thing. But if one thing was clear from Monday’s heartbreaking defeat, it’s that Monty Williams is worth every cent he’s paid as a leading Coach of the Year candidate, Crowder remains sorely underrated, and Ayton deserves a max contract next summer.
3. Suns need more from Cam Payne
This one is especially true in the interim, but it’s been true for awhile now. As long as Cam Johnson is starting, the bench will need additional firepower. On Monday, Payne provided it, racking up 15 points and 4 assists on 7-of-16 shooting. One 3-pointer he hit in particular had the home crowd fired up as the Suns cut the deficit to 8 points, injecting life into a game that had mostly felt disjointed.
But a look at Payne’s season numbers shows the Suns’ backup point guard has significantly regressed from being one of the game’s best pull-up shooters. His shot selection has been unsteady as the misses have piled up, almost as if he’s trying to do too much — even more so when Phoenix has been shorthanded.
The results were there on Monday, but even in that game, he started 3-for-9 before finishing 4-for-7 to salvage his night. On the season, he’s now shooting just 38.6 percent from the field, including 30.6 percent from 3. That’s way down from the 48.4 percent he shot from the floor last year, including a team-high 44 percent from downtown.
Increased usage hasn’t done him any favors. Last year, Payne only had 13 games out of 60 appearances where he recorded more shots than points. This year, he’s already had 12 such games in just 28 appearances, and he’s getting close to that not-so-desirable territory with his season averages (10.4 points to 9.8 shots per game).
It was good to see Cam Payne bounce back from that 5-turnover performance against the Golden State Warriors on Christmas, but if he’s going to continue taking 33 percent more shots than he did last year, the Suns will need a lot more makes than they’re currently getting.
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