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It's not time for Suns to overreact, but Celtics beatdown requires more reaction than flushing

Gerald Bourguet Avatar
December 8, 2022

One play early in the Boston Celtics’ beatdown of the Phoenix Suns Wednesday night spoke volumes about the game as a whole.

In the first quarter, Grant Williams drove the lane, forcibly bodied Deandre Ayton to free himself up, and sunk a little floater right over the top. This was long before the score got out of hand, and DA was hardly the only one to blame for what followed, but the 6-foot-6 Grant hitting the 6-foot-11 Ayton with the “too small” gesture was the perfect representation of the night.

On what should’ve been an uplifting occasion, with Chris Paul returning after a sore right heel sidelined him for 14 games, the Suns got demolished in a 27-point loss at home. Jayson Tatum dominated Devin Booker in a battle between MVP candidates, Boston doubled up Phoenix in points from 3-point range, and as Suns fans streamed toward the exits in the third quarter and visiting Celtics fans got their own chants going, the whole affair gave off very unwelcome 2017-18 vibes.

Josh Okogie’s career-high 26 points were the lone bright spot, but even the relative newcomer recognized how un-Suns-like the performance was.

“It was tough to watch, because that isn’t who we are, as a team,” Okogie said. “We’re a team who competes every possession, we play very hard. I think we’re top five in defense, top five in offense. So that’s something we take pride in, and that’s not what we displayed tonight.”

So how are the Suns processing a thorough waxing at the hands of the best team in the league, after a game where they trailed by as many as 45 points?

“Take our ass-whuppin’ and keep moving,” Chris Paul said.

The Suns aren’t alone in adopting a “flush it” mindset after a lopsided loss. In a league where teams play 82 games each before the playoffs even begin, there are bound to be off-nights, games where an opponent gets hot or performances that simply aren’t up to title-contending standards.

Even the teams with the cleanest records are bound to stink up the joint once in a while.

“You can’t take much from a game like that,” coach Monty Williams said afterward. “You can say some things that fall under the category of ‘coach speak.’ We just got beat in every area of the game tonight.”

But coming off a 19-point rout at the hands of the Dallas Mavericks, what about after back-to-back beatdown losses? Surely the approach changes a little bit under those crappier circumstances?

“Two flushes,” Devin Booker offered with a grin.

Unfortunately, to extend our unsavory metaphor, some turds are too big to be flushed; otherwise, they’ll clog up the whole toilet. Those poopy performances need to be unpacked first, and in most bathrooms, the plunger is usually located right underneath the mirror.

How deep the soul-searching needs to be between now and the first of two meetings with the New Orleans Pelicans — the new No. 1 team in the Western Conference thanks to Phoenix’s current 1-3 skid — is a matter of opinion. It’s not time to overreact, but a proper reaction is still required.

For the more level-headed, a look at the standings provides some reassurance: At 16-9, the Suns are still second in the West, with the NBA’s fourth-best record and fourth-best point differential. That’s not terrible for a team that just lost back-to-back games by a combined 46 points!

However, if the ultimate goal is to win a championship instead of just play at one, the last two games reinforced glaring flaws with this roster’s makeup and some of its personnel — issues have been looming in the backdrop for months. The Suns were able to sweep them under the rug, chugging along despite the absences of Paul, Cam Johnson, Deandre Ayton, Torrey Craig and Landry Shamet for various stretches, not to mention the ongoing roster vacancy that is Jae Crowder.

But Phoenix’s impressive finds with Damion Lee, Jock Landale and Josh Okogie can’t distract for an unmistakable void of improvements to this team’s top-six players. Internal growth and continuity can’t overshadow the lack of needle-movers added in the offseason, and for all the consternation over consecutive off-nights from Book, the Suns’ complete inability to even remotely overcome them speaks to the deficit of a true No. 2 guy behind him.

At age 37, it’s probably not Chris Paul anymore. And until Mikal Bridges can consistently do it, or Deandre Ayton learns to create his own offense without needing to be “fed,” it’s not them either.

“Mikal had a few open shots early, he couldn’t knock those down,” Williams said. “It happens, but we have to be able to do something else in a different environment when [Booker and Bridges] can’t. ‘Cause I put a lot of pressure on Book. I mean, you can’t have the cape on every night.”

Nobody should let Booker off the hook; in back-to-back games against MVP candidates spearheading opponents that Phoenix might see in their path to a title, he’s tallied 28 points total on 10-of-30 shooting. If he’s an MVP candidate and certified superstar now (which he absolutely is), criticism is warranted when his team falls well short of expectations.

However, this inexplicable slump comes off a four-game stretch where he averaged just under 40 points a game, and that comes off winning Western Conference Player of the Month honors for a scorching first month to the season. As Williams alluded to, every superstar has off nights. The problem is, in their current state, the Suns can’t afford for Booker to be off.

On Wednesday, with Booker missing makable shots for the second game in a row, he started forcing it, and all those misses trickled over to the defensive side of the ball.

“The lack of shot-making early, I thought, deflated us, and we just can’t do that,” Williams said of his team. “You have to be able to overcome that. Usually your defense can make up for that, we didn’t have either — shot-making or a high-level defense on the floor.”

Booker agreed things “fell off a cliff” after those early misses and said the Suns gave in once they were down by 20-25 points.

“We can’t control making or missing shots,” he said. “We can try our best in that department, but the effort always has to be there.”

That tendency to let misses compound defensive mistakes has become a bad habit over the last few months. Game 7 wasn’t the only time the Suns have let things snowball into a social media-shattering meltdown they couldn’t recover from. For whatever reason, whenever this group gets down early, they’re susceptible to funks that are nearly impossible to recover from, with the team’s season opener being a rare exception.

But after watching Dallas kick their teeth in for the 14th time out of the last 16 quarters, and then watching the Celtics do it two nights later, it was a reminder that not only does Jones need to find more offensive creators and scorers, but that, Point God or no Point God, this team needs to rekindle its competitive spark.

“That’s a tough intro back into the league [for Paul], to play against a team that’s just coming off a Finals run, and you could see it,” Williams explained. “They had a purpose, they’re chasing something. And we are too, we just didn’t execute and achieve the things that we wanted to to have a chance tonight.”

“It’s funny, they look a lot like we did last year,” Paul remarked. “Coming off a Finals loss, they look like a well-oiled machine. I watch them play a lot too. They got a lot of confidence, you see they got a lot of trust. And so we gotta keep building.”

In the Suns’ defense, they’re not a team that routinely withers against elite competition. If anything, it’s what made Wednesday’s result so stunning. Over the last two years, they’ve sported 31-13 and 27-11 records against teams at or above .500 — the best mark in the NBA in both seasons. Dating back to the start of the 2020-21 campaign, they’re also 35-11 following a loss, which is the league’s best such record over that span.

Williams has repeatedly called the Suns a bunch of “sore losers” for the way they stew on losses and come out motivated to avenge them. But in a battle between the top team in the West and the top team in the East, it was the Celtics who looked like they had something to prove.

“It was frustrating because we don’t lose two in a row, and when it comes to, like, good teams competing, we show up for those games,” Ayton said. “Tonight, we didn’t.”

As Booker pointed out, the Suns have been in a state of flux thanks to all the injuries, and getting both CP3 and Torrey Craig back is still a positive. And as Paul mentioned, while there’s no excuses, thrusting a player of his caliber back into the mix after being out for a month is bound to force a lot of guys to recalibrate what they got used to doing without him.

But none of that excuses a second-straight piss-poor effort. None of that explains this team’s growing tendency to wilt against playoff teams when things start to snowball, and none of it excuses the mess their general manager has avoided cleaning up as he waits for the perfect Crowder trade.

The Suns aren’t in free-fall, and they deserve time to re-establish their rotation with a healthy Chris Paul (as well as Cam Johnson, eventually). But unless something unexpected emerges internally, or someone reinvigorates the rotation externally, these two uncharacteristic losses indicate the CP3 era may already be clawing at its ceiling.

As often as the Suns have sworn they’ve flushed Game 7, the last two games indicate its stench still lingers in their minds. Until they prove to be mentally stronger than that foul memory, and prove it in the playoffs this time, losses like these will only compound a smelly, running joke.

“We gotta flush it,” Booker said. “That’s two in a row where we’ve gotten beat up pretty badly. You can’t blame scheme, you can’t blame rotation or anything on coach. This is something that we gotta look in the mirror as a team and we have to fix it.”

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