The Suns just weren’t going to win this game against the Utah Jazz. The Jazz, despite being down Rodney Hood and Derrick Favors, are just too good for a Suns team starting a lineup with two teenagers in it.
Tyson Chandler and Jared Dudley had the night off, so rookie Marquese Chriss, 19, and Alex Len, 23, joined T.J. Warren, 23, and Devin Booker, 19, in the starting lineup with point guard Eric Bledsoe, the old man at 27.
The Suns looked to get blown out early (down 31-23 after one), but kept the game close and even took a third quarter lead before falling 104-99.
Just like on Monday night, the starting unit got rolled in the opening quarter (31-23 this time vs. 30-20 on Monday night) before coming out with the same lineups to blitz their way to a lead. On Monday, it was a 12-0 run to take the 52-51 lead, while Wednesday night it was a 6-2 opening run and 21-14 overall to start the third quarter to take a 66-63 lead.
But this time the Suns couldn’t hold the lead. Booker and Bledsoe basically sat the rest of the game while Tyler Ulis and the gang tried to hold the fort. They didn’t hold it well.
Fouls and physicality
Lots and lots of fouls were called, resulting in the two teenagers eventually fouling out entirely. Chriss and Booker both got six fouls after semi-productive nights. Chriss put in 11 and 8 but made only 4 of 15 field goals in his frenzy. Booker put up 13/4/3 but didn’t make an impact the way he did against the Spurs on Monday.
“Rookies struggle with fouls (during) most of their transition to the NBA,” Watson said. “No matter what. Just the way it is. You have to earn your stripes, figure out the contact speed, everything is different.”
What Chriss brings, as well as Alex Len and others, is some physicality. Both the Jazz coach and Rudy Gobert noted this in their post-game pressers.
“They’re very physical,” Gobert said. “They got into us pretty good.”
Gobert was fouled hard on his dives to the rim, getting 14 free throws out of it. He somehow made 13 of them after only making 58% for his career. Watson called that the difference in the game.
“They got physical with us and I didn’t think we responded initially to that very well,” Jazz coach Quinn Snyder said.
While Alex Len only had 4 points and 5 rebounds versus Gobert’s 21/10, coach Watson noted Len’s effort.
“I liked the fact that he came out and was aggressive,” Watson said of Len. “It was a lot of pushing going on. It can go either way, but a lot of times referees get in a rhythm like we are – it’s no difference. So, I love Alex’s intensity and the fact that he stood his ground in the paint. Whether he fouled them or felt for the ball, tried to box out, he’s a big guy. ”
Len collected two fouls in the opening minutes, but played 26 minutes on the night and got called only one more time.
Star of the game
Knight had arguably the best game of his Suns career, in that he scored the right way (at the basket, in the paint) with aggression and carried that aggression to the defensive end as well.
“Brandon led us in scoring,” Watson said. “That’s how it’s going to flow some games. Hopefully, the majority of the games. Because he comes off, he’s a great scorer. I want to put him in the position to be successful.”
Unfortunately, Knight did not make himself available to the media postgame, instead choosing to slip out while another player was getting interviewed. Suns personnel appeared a bit perturbed.
With Dudley out, Chriss got his first start in the NBA. Within the first four minutes, he went after the Stifle Tower Rudy Gobert four times, coming away with two swats followed by two scores.
What’s fun is that Chriss’ aggressiveness did not waver after getting rookie’d the first two times he attacked.
“I try to play with a chip on my shoulder,” Chriss said. “And just try to go hard on every play, doesn’t matter who it is.”
“I don’t think he’s intimidated by anyone,” said Watson of Chriss. “He might be one of our toughest players and you have to calm him down sometimes. He gets scrappy. He’s a rookie.”
Dragan Bender started slow once again, but flourished in the fourth quarter. He had a sequence of two strong blocks on Jeff Withey dunk attempts and a pair of nice assists on Suns jumpers. Then finally a couple of shots fell.
But before that, his defense has been solid on the perimeter as well as in the paint. He’s always making the effort play and generally the right read to help the Suns’ team defense.
“Like I said before, personally it doesn’t matter right now, 3 or 4, I can play them both,” Bender said. “Just a matter of what the team needs me to do, pretty much the same job, space out and shoot the ball, hit the open shots and play defense aggressively. Like a young guy, I need to bring the energy.”
After starting slow, Warren really picked up the pace during the Suns comeback late in the second quarter and into the third quarter. Warren finished with 15 points and 4 rebounds on the night, even playing some 4 with the three guards at the end of the half.
Warren has notably gotten better at defense over the past few months, and it’s a good sight to see.
“I’m more confident on the defensive end,” Warren said. “Probably just familiar and more experienced. Just taking the next step defensively, Earl has done a good job of helping with that.”