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5 observations from Suns' brutal Christmas Day loss to Nuggets

Gerald Bourguet Avatar
December 26, 2022

Christmas Day provided Arizona sports fans with not one, but two overtime losses, as the Phoenix Suns followed in the Cardinals’ footsteps during the NBA’s late-night game. In Sunday’s 128-125 road loss to the Denver Nuggets, the Suns fell to 19-15 on the season.

The loss was twofold, as Devin Booker’s return from a groin injury only lasted about four minutes before he had to be pulled for the rest of the night. Nikola Jokic slapped up a 41-point, 15-rebound, 15-assist stat line against Deandre Ayton, Chris Paul missed half his free throws, and once again, the Suns wasted a career night from Landry Shamet.

It’s not all bad news, but in a high-profile game where so much happened, here are five observations that stood out from the best game of the NBA’s Christmas slate.

5. Clarifying that block/charge call

Whether you’re a Suns fan, Nuggets fan or casual NBA watcher who stayed up late enough to enjoy this overtime thriller, you may have heard that Aaron Gordon did a thing. An incredible, vicious, incredibly vicious thing:

That monster dunk was initially called a charge, with Shamet stepping in to take one of the most sacrificial hits you can possibly take in an NBA game. The Nuggets had already used their challenge, so the Suns had hope they’d get a good look at the final shot, down by one point, with 24 seconds left in overtime.

Their hopes were dashed, however, when the officials went to the monitor to review whether Shamet’s feet were in the restricted area. It was clear that he was well beyond the half-circle, but a few minutes later, the refs changed their call from a charge to a block, rewarding Gordon with an and-1.

So how did this happen? How were the officials able to review the play to check if Shamet was in the restricted area and then completely change the call, despite the fact that he was nowhere near said restricted area? Well, that provision is technically in the NBA rulebook:

By the letter of the law, that devastating reversal that put Phoenix down by four was within the established rules. And by the spirit of the law, yeah, that type of unbelievable dunk deserved to stand on principle. But if the trigger was whether or not there was doubt about Shamet being in the restricted area, that review never should’ve happened; it was pretty obvious where Shamet’s feet were in real-time.

Again, it was ultimately the right call, as Shamet somewhat shifted at the last second. Not only that, but cool dunks should be allowed to live and breathe without something as lame as a charge suffocating the fun. It was just a truly unfortunate path it took to get to that conclusion.

Should make for a riveting and totally non-controversial Last 2 Minutes report on Monday!

4. Suns waste another Landry Shamet gem

It’s a pity all anyone will remember about Shamet from Sunday’s game is the soul-cleaving poster Gordon threw down over him, because once again, the Suns wasted an absolute gem from a guy who’s struggled to find his footing since arriving in the Valley.

Finishing his night with a team-high (and career-high-tying) 31 points and 6 assists, Shamet carried Phoenix’s offense for long stretches. The 25-year-old sharpshooter went 10-for-20 from the field and 7-for-17 from 3-point range, and it marked the second time in the last week that he’s hit 31 points.

A four-game sample is nowhere near enough to say a guy is turning the corner, but as Arizona Sports’ Kellan Olson pointed out, this now marks four straight games for Shamet in double figures, which is the first time he’s done that since joining the Suns.  Over his first 18 games of the season, he scored a total of 122 points and made 27 3-pointers in 287 minutes. Over the last seven games, he’s tallied 113 points and 25 made triples in 201 minutes.

With Booker sidelined, and the Suns in need of someone to get up shots in his usual role, Shamet has found himself in more familiar spots on the floor.

The problems still appear when the Suns try to pigeonhole him into more playmaking reps. With Cam Payne sidelined and Duane Washington Jr. being more of an off-guard, Shamet has taken on extra reps as a primary ball-handler, and the results continue to be mixed.

His costly turnover with just under five minutes to go in the fourth quarter highlighted that struggle, kickstarting a 7-0 Nuggets run that turned Phoenix’s eight-point lead into anyone’s ballgame:

With that being said, when the shortcomings of the roster aren’t forcing Shamet into roles he’s just not suited for, he’s looked extremely comfortable as a movement shooter who’s getting the sufficient reps to make the most of those skills.

Here’s hoping he can rediscover that confidence while Booker’s sidelined, because whether it’s molding a useful bench piece or improving his trade value, the Suns are going to need more from a guy earning $9.5 million this season.

3. Devin Booker’s setback looms large

What started out as a lovely Christmas Day gift for Suns fans quickly devolved into a nightmare. After missing two games due to a hamstring injury, Booker returned for the Suns’ fourth matchup with the New Orleans Pelicans, carrying them to a win with a season-high 58 points. He then missed the next three games due to “groin soreness” before giving it a go in Denver.

On the Suns’ second possession of the game, Booker looked just fine, putting Michael Porter Jr. on skates with a move that was downright rude:

Unfortunately, that Christmas joy lasted all of four minutes and 20 seconds before he subbed back out of the game. The Suns quickly ruled him out for the rest of the night due to a “left groin” injury, and coach Monty Williams had no update on his status afterward:

The Suns put forth a ton of effort against the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference, but without Booker, they still fell short. Phoenix is 1-4 without their superstar this season, and that’s 1-5 if you include Sunday’s loss where he only played four minutes.

As the Suns embark on a six-game road trip, with perhaps their toughest stretches of the season coming up, this is a suboptimal time to be without Book. Their +5.8 Net Rating with him on the floor shrivels up to a team-worst +0.7 Net Rating without him. Given the way this group has played over the last month, and how the losses continue to pile up, Booker re-aggravating that groin injury comes at a brutal time.

2. Suns need more from two of their cornerstones

No loss can be fully blamed on one or two players. Over the course of a full 48-minute game (or 53 minutes, in this case), there are a collection of plays, mistakes and little moments that stack up to make the final result.

As easy as it’d be to fixate on Chris Paul’s 6-of-17 shooting performance or his 5-of-10 night from the free-throw line, that situation is what it is. We know he’s been an absurdly efficient shooter throughout his career who can make his free throws, and we know the man is 37 years old and has clearly lost a step. There’s only so much that can be done about that.

But at 26 and 24 years old, respectively, there’s less leeway for Mikal Bridges and Deandre Ayton to struggle the way they have lately in big moments. Bridges finished with 13 points on 5-of-12 shooting, and Ayton actually had a solid night on paper, finishing with 22 points and 16 rebounds on 9-of-18 shooting. It’s unfortunate that, much like the concept of their potential, this game didn’t simply play out on paper.

Because although Ayton has been putting up impressive scoring numbers with Booker sidelined, he’ll always be limited as a No. 2 option since he’s still largely incapable of creating his own offense. DA is an elite pick-and-roll threat and overall play finisher, but his output is still contingent on someone else handling the rock and setting him up in his sweet spots.

During Sunday’s loss, Ayton committed a team-high six of the Suns’ 13 turnovers. Those miscues served as yet another reminder that the scouting report is out on DA: Send a second defender at him from the backside, and he’ll frequently turn right into the double with a low-dribble spin move that’s easy to pick off:

As for Bridges, his turnaround jumper over Jamal Murray, while well-contested, was not only off the mark, but completely ill-advised.

All game long Bridges had done well getting his offense within the flow of the game. But with Booker out and more of the burden falling on Bridges’ shoulders, he’s struggled to find the right balance between shrinking from the moment and trying to do too much.

It’s a difficult balancing act to figure out, especially when he’s being tasked with taking the toughest defensive assignments on a night-to-night basis. But as much as this trial by fire may help him when he returns to his role as the third or fourth option, he hasn’t been able to rise to the occasion as a No. 2 guy on the offensive end, and that frustration is starting to seep into the defensive side of the ball too.

Aside from shooting just 39.2 percent from the field for the month of December and an uncharacteristic number of defensive lapses and on-court arguments, Bridges has had too many plays — like his brutal offensive foul at the end of the fourth quarter and his game-sealing turnover in overtime — where it just looks like he’s overthinking out there.

Last year, Ayton and Bridges thrived as the No. 3 or No. 4 guy on a night-to-night basis because Chris Paul was so clearly an elite No. 2 option. But with CP3 spending more time off the ball and struggling to fend off Father Time, the Suns have desperately needed one of their other two cornerstones to step into that void.

There have been stretches where both have seemed capable, but then they’ll submit a complete dud or two. The consistency and killer mentality isn’t there for Bridges to be that guy yet, and neither is the consistency and requisite skill-set for Ayton.

Until that changes, Booker’s absence will put a ton of pressure on the Suns to rely on their game-planning, execution, effort and more level contributions across the board in order to compete.

1. Suns showed more fight, but that’s still a brutal loss

After Friday’s blowout loss to the Memphis Grizzlies, Williams challenged his team, saying they were lacking an edge, letting teams hit them first and wilting when opponents played them with physicality. He said the Suns felt like prey and that they needed to get back to chasing something.

Despite finding themselves in another early hole against Denver, the Suns didn’t quit this time. Instead of getting beat down from start to finish like the Memphis game, Phoenix rallied from a 26-11 deficit in the opening period, using a 19-2 run bridging the first and second quarters to reclaim the lead.

It would’ve been easy to fold, down double digits, after watching Booker leave the game with another injury. Instead, they answered Williams’ call and showed a ton of fight in an overtime loss, on the road, to the top team in the conference.

Unfortunately, there are no moral victories in this league, and the Suns have now lost nine of their last 13 games. “Free fall” is too strong a term, and it’s impossible to fully judge this group when Booker just rejoined Cam Johnson and Cam Payne on the sidelines.

But it’s clear this group has become the hunted. The rest of the NBA has been waiting for their downfall after Phoenix’s sudden, unexpected rise to prominence, and now they can smell the blood in the water. Injuries have played a frustrating role in that, providing only individual snapshots of what guys can and can’t do in expanded roles, without giving a clearer picture of what the Suns might finally look like at full strength.

Sunday’s loss added insult to injury in that respect, with Booker going down and the Suns losing yet again. They can only feel so good about playing to their standard when it comes in another loss at this pressure-cooker juncture of their season. Until their fight is rewarded with wins again, that malaise will be hard to shake off.

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