"They key was getting out to a good start," Utah guard Rodney Hood said. "We had a tough game last night, a real tough physical game, and the key tonight was to get off to a good start."
The Suns scored only 12 first-quarter points while allowing 31 to the Jazz who'd just played the night before.
"It seems like we can't get together. Either we start off a game good or we finish a game good," guard Devin Booker said afterward. "The big deficit in the first quarter hurt us."
The Suns likely can't get it together because they are starting two guys who are still college age - Booker (19) and Archie Goodwin (21) - and their bench consists of two 10-day contract guys and another college-age guy in Alex Len (22).
When asked to comment on that dilemma, Watson brushed it off as "same guys we had the other night" before admitting there are some challenges.
"Right now we're learning how to try to compete to win without a point guard," Watson said. "So that's the biggest obstacle we have ahead of us, the biggest challenge."
Goodwin and Booker combined for two assists through most of the game until Goodwin got a couple of late assists when the Suns made a mini-run to cut the Jazz lead to six.
Point guards Brandon Knight and Ronnie Price are both projected to return after the All-Star break, leaving Watson at least two more games with no playmakers in sight. Backup guards Sonny Weems, Jordan McRae and Orlando Johnson have not shown the ability to generate offense either.
The Jazz, on the other hand, are down several guards too. Alec Burks and Dante Exum, who started a lot of games when healthy, are out for the season. Trey Burke missed last night's game too. But Utah had a head start on the rebuild effort and offer even more youth as players go down. Raul Neto played well in Burke's place, and Rodney Hood has become a potential star.
The Jazz hang their hats on defense though. Boasting a lineup including 6'8" Rodney Hood, 6'9" Gordon Hayward, 6'11" Derrick Favors and 7'3" Rudy Gobert, the Utah Jazz present a stifling defensive presence that goes way beyond their rangy center. Since adding Gobert to their starting lineup last year, the Jazz are one of the league's best. When Exum comes back next year to round out the lineup, there won't be a player under 6'6" in the starting lineup and all are good defenders. Yikes.
The Suns, meanwhile, are excited about their own youth but right now only Devin Booker looks like a long-term answer. Archie Goodwin still has to find his NBA niche, Alex Len still looks lost at times and injured T.J. Warren might not develop past being an offensive sparkplug off the bench. It should be noted that less than a year ago, there were whispers/rumblings that Gordon Hayward was overpaid, Derrick Favors was a square peg in their round hole and that Alec Burks might never develop. They were in their 4th/5th NBA seasons at the time. So let's be a bit patient with the Suns' youthiest youth.
Booker talked about being the primary focus of opposing defenses these days.
"I knew it was eventually going to get like this," Booker said. "Teams are going to make it harder on me. They're not going to let me get hot or get the looks that I want. I know that, so I have to go to the film and once my other teammates start scoring, then they'll have to help a little bit more and that's when other stuff opens up."
Later in the video, Booker talked about having no idea he'd be the #2 option on the Suns three months after playing his first game, but that stuff like that's been happening all his life.
Keef was his usual gregarious post-game self. Despite another awful, awful shooting game, he came close to posting a triple-double. After three quarters, he had at least 7 points, rebounds and assists on the box score. But he did not tally an assist or rebound in the 4th.
"I don't care about that," he responded abruptly when I asked about the assists. He offered more words in response to getting technicals than he did about his own positive stats.
Earl Watson had more to say on Keef, who made only 6 of 22 shots (which were 8 more shots than any other Suns player attempted in the game).
"I saw a player who lately has been getting double-teamed a lot," Watson said. "He's a player who's finding other ways to be effective. And with Markieff, he's so multi-talented and he has a bunch of different strategies and dimensions to his game. I don't care about the 6 for 22 (shooting), I care that he competes, he plays together, he plays with his teammates, he talks, and he's growing in front of our eyes and we have to embrace that. We can't always look and hold him accountable for things in the past and we know that. He's growing in front of our eyes and he's taking accountability to stand up and become more of a man in our community."
Okay. Markieff is your leader and you're more interested in body language and commitment than results. I am reminded of Deadpoolio's comment "If Markieff Morris is your heartbeat, then you've got arrhythmia". But with the injuries to Knight and Bledsoe, Keef really IS the Suns best offensive weapon.
Coach is all about being in the right frame of mind and making the commitment, and that the basketball will come.
"One thing we did change, we changed practice," Watson said. "The way we practice, how we practice, the intensity that we practice with, and the pace. We have to build a foundation of purposeful pace and intensity, and it looked like today our starters just didn't have it to start the game."
Coro mentioned yesterday that Watson has the Suns working harder in practices than they'd done before. This sounds a lot like Lindsey Hunter's mantra in spring 2013 - that the guys need to get in shape in practice and that will translate to the court. Hunter alienated a lot of guys though, while Watson is trying to reel them in. Let's see how it works out.
"They showed character," Watson said of the Suns not quitting after the first quarter 20-point deficit. "Character is big as we know. We have to start learning how to win games. We can't just take these character wins and move on. This is a competitive group, our whole staff and our whole family here is competitive, and our program is competitive, so we want to start building wins."
I asked Jon Leuer about his lack of playing time since Watson took over. Leuer played in only one of three games, and for just four minutes.
Leuer says he's healthy (had missed time with a bad back), but that coach said he's only going with four bigs right now - Morris, Teletovic, Chandler and Len - and that Leuer will need to be patient.
Prior to hurting his back a couple weeks ago, Leuer was having a career year while Morris skulked. He's one of the more complete bigs on the team, though he's not great at any one thing and he's not going to scare any defenses. With the Suns dearth of offensive firepower, Watson needs Morris' ability to draw two defenders away from the other guys, and Teletovic's hair-trigger shooting stroke.
Maybe after the trade deadline, when the makeup of the team is different, Leuer will get another shot.