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Demoralizing Suns Christmas loss to Mavs proves this team needs more from its leaders

Gerald Bourguet Avatar
December 26, 2023
Another Phoenix Suns Christmas loss proved this team needs more from Devin Booker, Kevin Durant and Frank Vogel

Another year, another Phoenix Suns Christmas shot to the gut.

Coming off that seven-game win streak that feels like years ago now, the Suns have lost nine of their last 12 games. Monday’s 128-114 Christmas loss to the Dallas Mavericks dipped Phoenix back below .500, which is an alarming, underachieving place for this roster to be as the new year approaches.

Their season still hasn’t even reached the halfway point, but already, doubts are festering about this group and how their current leaders have failed them.

And after watching Luka Doncic’s 50-point, 15-assist performance singlehandedly outpace Devin Booker (20 points and 10 assists) and Kevin Durant (16 points and 7 assists) combined, it’s hard to ignore how rudderless this supposed title contender has felt over the last month.

“We just have to get it together,” Booker said. “And that’s on me, that’s on coach, that’s on KD, Eric [Gordon], all the leaders that we have in here to make sure that we’re more prepared when we come play.”

In Booker and Durant’s defense, the Mavs’ defense — and every defense they’ve faced this year — was devoted to getting the ball out of their hands with blitzes and double-teams, forcing the other guys to make them pay. And for a time, it actually worked in Phoenix’s favor.

The truly unfortunate part about Monday’s collapse is the Suns did show signs of progress before their late-game meltdown. After taking a patented Doncic shot to the jaw in the first quarter and falling behind by 12 points, they won the next two quarters, including a 38-27 third quarter, to take a one-point lead into the fourth.

The ball was moving, the 3-pointers were flowing, and the role players were stepping up in a way the Suns hadn’t enjoyed in over a week. Grayson Allen finished his night with a season-high 32 points and tied a career-high eight made 3s, while Chimezie Metu recorded career highs in both points (23) and rebounds (19).

But then the Suns’ familiar fourth-quarter woes struck again. Untimely turnovers, missed shots, stagnant offense and defensive breakdowns doomed Phoenix, and the Mavs outscored them 37-22 in the final frame.

“I thought this game was different than the last couple,” coach Frank Vogel assessed. “I thought we really shared the basketball well and generated a higher shot quality than we’d been getting the last couple of games. We just weren’t able to slow down Luka and their backside double-team attack.”

Signs of progress are good for a team in a rut. But for a team with title aspirations? It still felt like one step forward, three steps backward.

“I just think for our group, we just gotta keep playing games,” Allen said. “I feel like every time we’re out there, we’re getting a little bit more together, you start to see little bits and pieces of stuff come together. We have great stretches, we have great quarters. We haven’t put together a 48 where we can truly say, like, ‘This is our identity. This is who we are.’”

Bradley Beal has only played six games this season, and the Suns’ Big 3 of Beal, Booker and Kevin Durant has logged a grand total of 24 minutes across two games. There’s no denying that’s impacted the success and identity of such a top-heavy roster.

But for all the “veteran minimum” guys on this team, the Phoenix Suns should be better than a 14-15 record. They should be better than the NBA’s 19th-ranked defense under a defensive-minded coach like Vogel, and they should be better than its 16th-ranked offense under the league’s highest-paid assistant, Kevin Young.

So when the offense only clicks for one or two quarters at a time, and the defense is routinely ripped to shreds, and the superstars and role players can’t ever seem to get on the same page in the same game? Well, turning around that type of all-encompassing failure requires some early-season soul-searching from each and every person in the locker room, and Beal isn’t going to fix everything.

“That’s all we’re consumed with right now, honestly,” Vogel said. “All of us. We’re all looking within and looking at the big picture, what we can individually do better, but just me in particular as the coach, just looking at the ways we can move the pieces around.”

Vogel will have to assemble those pieces quickly. Beal’s absence and the team’s roster construction hasn’t made his job any easier, but with the trade market being limited and the current situation starting to feel more untenable by the day, the inevitable fall guy will always be the head coach.

Firing the franchise’s first coach with championship experience just 29 games into his five-year, $31 million contract would be a rash decision, full stop. But under a new and aggressive owner, it’s difficult to project how much leeway Vogel will have if the team continues to underperform.

Vogel isn’t the only Suns leader who deserves to be under a microscope though. As great as Booker and KD’s numbers have been overall this season, they’ve played an indisputable part in the the team’s 3-9 skid.

Some will argue the “Point Book” experiment has deprived Booker of his ability to do what he does best, disrupting his balance between scorer and playmaker — something that looked smooth in the early going, but has since looked more and more discombobulated.

Some will argue Durant was lifting too heavy a burden early on and has grown frustrated with the Suns’ barrage of injuries and lackluster supporting cast. Some might argue they’re just going through a rough stretch after the team was dealt a gut punch in the form of Beal’s ankle sprain, which came right as the Big 3 were all finally healthy.

But no matter where one places the blame, both superstars have to be, well, superstars. Because even on a night where role players like Allen and Metu combined for 55 points, the Suns still fell short, simply because their two leading scorers couldn’t get their own offense rolling. Without Beal, this team can’t afford for their superstars to be anything less than top-10 players on a nightly basis, and it’s shown over the last 12 games:

  • Devin Booker before skid (9 games): 29.4 PPG, 8.9 APG, 49.7 FG%, 43.5 3P%, 8-1 record
  • Devin Booker during skid (11 games): 25.6 PPG, 7.7 APG, 45.2 FG%, 30.9 3P%, 3-8 record
  • Kevin Durant before skid (15 games): 31.4 PPG, 5.5 APG, 53.3 FG%, 52.2 3P%, 9-6 record
  • Kevin Duant during skid (10 games): 28.6 PPG, 5.5 APG, 49.5 FG%, 39.1 3P%, 2-8 record

Booker and Durant’s numbers during the skid really aren’t terrible! One’s putting up a 26-8 stat line on 45 percent shooting, while the other is still at 29-6-5 on nearly 50 percent shooting, including 40 percent from 3.

But considering the level they were at just before this 3-9 stretch, their production and efficiency are down, despite taking an eerily similar number of field goals, 3-point and free-throw attempts. As their output as fallen back down to “less than superhuman” levels, the team has faltered, and frustration is mounting.

“Disappointing to lose,” Durant said, monotone, Monday night. “We’re trying to figure out as best as we can every single day, and we did some solid things — every one of our games we played. We just haven’t put together a full game. So we just keep working and keep grinding, man. Keep grinding, and we’ll figure this thing out.”

Booker was more direct. He called the frustration level “high,” referred to the team’s “poor rotations” and “poor game plan discipline,” and called out how they “just lose focus” as games wear on. He was also overheard on a hot mic during the game calling out Metu for not running back after committing a turnover:

The Suns have strung together impressive quarters on both ends, like their third quarter against the Mavs on Christmas or their “bounce-back” first quarter against the Portland Trail Blazers. But this group has repeatedly found ways to cancel out good quarters (and then some) with appallingly inept ones. A turnover here, an easy fast break there — it always seems to snowball with this team.

And to be perfectly transparent, Durant hasn’t been holding up his end of the bargain recently either.

Durant’s ball security has been a minor gripe since the start of the season, but the jaw-dropping numbers he was putting up and the unfair burden he had to carry with Beal and Booker banged up swept those concerns under the rug. Now, they’re back with a vengeance, since KD’s coughed it up 18 times over the last three games.

When asked about it, he couldn’t help but point out the situation from a basketball perspective before owning up to it.

“Just playing around in a crowd, playing around three people I get in the pick-and-roll sometimes,” Durant said. “It’s a lot of people around. But I gotta be better, I think that’s holding the team back, turning the ball over.”

Like Booker, Vogel and the rest of the team, Durant said all the right things about being better, but the consistent theme has been failing to back those words up with action. Durant’s had a turnover problem all season, but that’s a minor quibble compared to the defensive focus and all-around body language that he’s displayed over the last week or two:

Any hater can cherry-pick unflattering clips over the course of a 48-minute game. KD is 35 years old now, and even stars in the primes of their lives will take plays off every now and then.

But the dejected body language after turnovers, the trotting back in transition, the exasperation when the Suns give up easy buckets, some of which he’s directly responsible for? That type of thing can visibly weigh on anyone, turning each opposing run into a potential snowball effect that could instantly turn wins into losses and close games into blowouts.

The whole “36 unbothered” thing was fun for a while, but it’s about time they got a little bothered and started playing like it. For now, though, the frustration will continue to seep into postgame interviews while the actual quotes remain outwardly optimistic — the only thing a team can do to prevent turmoil from setting in.

“I wouldn’t really say I’m concerned,” Durant said. “We’re just trying to get better as a team. I think we gotta get on the same page offensively and defensively, and we’ll be solid. But we’ve lost games before. Everybody in here has been through a losing streak before, so we’ll just keep grinding.”

That grind starts with the Suns’ leaders. It’s unfair to expect Booker and Durant to play like demigods every night, but it’s the only thing that can compensate for the mortal supporting cast around them. It’s unfair to expect Vogel to carve a top-10 defense out of the immobile chunks of wood he’s been given, but it’s the only way this team will start looking like a title contender.

The supporting cast is what it is, but it needs continuity and repetition to build cohesion. So until Vogel finds a way to reach this group, until Booker and Durant return to their otherworldly efforts on both ends, and until Beal returns as the final missing piece, the Suns’ struggles are going to feel like that 50-ball Luka Doncic dropped on their heads for Christmas.

“It’s very easy to look around and be frustrated because we have the talent to win more games,” Allen said. “The way our team is put together, I feel like we should be winning more games. But we are a new group, and we have to take the growing pains in stride and keep the positive energy, because we gotta be very optimistic about the flashes that we do put together that are good. Because that’s truly who we are and who we can be.”

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