The Phoenix Suns had the lead all night against an injury-depleted, struggling Memphis Grizzlies team that desperately needed the win. Ultimately, the Grizzlies converted a couple of late possessions while the Suns came up empty, and the Grizzlies went home with a 103-97 win.
"Losing Tyson (Chandler) at halftime really hurt us," head coach Earl Watson said. "Every time we play Memphis we control the paint. The second half they had 28 points in the paint."
Chandler developed back spasms in the first half, but the Suns starting unit just did not have the juice in this game to get ahead of the Grizzlies. And in the third and fourth quarters, the Grizzlies wings and bigs drove to the rim harder than ever.
The Suns best players did not have good games. Devin Booker and Brandon Knight combined for only 9 of 30 shooting, and Alex Len disappeared back into the woodwork. Even Mirza Teletovic was off, making 2 of 8 shots. Only supporting players like Jon Leuer (13 points, 13 rebounds) and P.J. Tucker (15 points, 4 rebounds, 4 steals) kept the Suns in the game.
Second unit push
It was the Suns second unit that gave them a big first-half lead that nearly held up for the win. An all-bench unit of Ronnie Price, John Jenkins, Chase Budinger, Mirza Teletovic and Jon Leuer ran off an 18-2 run in the first half of the second quarter to give the Suns a big 15-point lead.
"Second unit was positive," Watson said. "They came in, they played in point-five, which we call catch, drive, shoot, pass the ball, they play quick. They had some aggressiveness but in the second half the second unit really couldn't get it going again."
And neither could the starters. Alex Len looked like he was refusing to shoot, but after some positive passes in the opening quarter Len looked lost when the Grizzlies collapsed around him in the post after Chandler went out.
"I think Alex Len is mentally battling himself," Watson said of Len's issues since being drafted. "It's part of the process with A-Len. When you become a primary scorer in this league, your team needs your aggressiveness with the ball, you can't worry about bad-shot good-shot. You have to lose yourself to the game and just play aggressively. Once you start over-thinking the game, it becomes more complicated than it really is. So we have to get A-Len going again."
Len has been overthinking the game since he entered the league. Partially, that's due to his relative lack of experience and partially because he's just simply a thinker rather than a talker. Coach Hornacek and now Watson have been trying to get Len to just play on instinct, and he's been great when he's able to do that.
But sometimes, too often, Len gets caught up in thinking the game and ends up doing poorly. Len had 9 points, 6 rebounds (only 2 after halftime when he was the biggest guy on the court), 3 blocks and 2 assists. Not bad, but clearly not the guy who needs to lead the team.
Brandon Knight has been a big source of criticism this year for his struggles as a point guard, and much of it has been deserved. Knight's been pressing, and his shot has been off a lot lately. He's now shooting just 41% for the year, including 34% on threes. For a guy who's a shooter more than a playmaker, those are tough numbers to swallow.
Still, coach Earl Watson is giving him the keys because he's the best options they've got.
"We want to develop more of Brandon," Watson said. "We have to find a way to make Brandon effective."
Against the Grizzlies, Knight missed his first 7 shots and finished with only 4 made shots in 17 attempts. Yet the Suns kept the lead because Knight was passing well (7 assists, against only 2 turnovers) and rebounding (6 rebounds).
Knight finally made some big fourth quarter shots, scoring 10 of his 13 points in the second half (including 3 threes) when the game got a lot closer and the Suns had to nurse the lead.
In the end though, Knight had the ball in his hands on the Suns final possessions which all came up empty. They weren't necessarily Knight's fault - he had no turnovers, and missed just one shot - but Knight didn't carry the Suns to a win.
Booker, just 19, has been a better "closer" for the Suns and likely will continue in that role for the next 10-15 years.
Watson said a lot more in the presser than I've posted above. Watch it here.
The opponents are already gameplanning against 19 year old Devin Booker.
"I thought Tony Allen was just tremendous," Memphis coach Dave Joerger said, "Devin Booker is a heck of a player. He's going to be a very, very good player in this league and for this organization."
Allen tracked Booker all night long.
"You always know he's there," Booker said of Allen, who did not play in the two previous games against the Suns.
Despite being guarded by one of the best defensive guards of all time, Booker had more than enough chances to make shots in this game. The Suns did a good job of getting Booker open off screens, and the Grizzlies did a good job of losing him in transition on broken plays.
But Booker only made 5 of 13 shots (including 2 of 8 threes) for 18 points, and at one point was really mad at himself for missing consecutive wide open shots. He's going to have nights like this, folks. Lots of them.
Watch Booker's presser here as he talks about keys to the game, and looking forward to Kobe Bryant on Wednesday.
Lanky Jon Leuer was the star of the night, and one of the reasons the Suns almost pulled out a win. Leuer scored 13 points and grabbed 13 rebounds, mostly in relief of Tyson Chandler.
Leuer had a chance to seal the game on a nice out of bounds play with a skip pass from Len to Leuer in the corner, but Leuer missed.
"We had a chance at the end," Leuer said. "I put it on myself to make that shot. It's a shot I know I can get, I just left it a little short."
The Suns failed to grab the offensive board and Memphis soon took the lead for good.
For the second straight game, 21-year old Archie Goodwin was a DNP-CD (did not play - coach's decision). Goodwin had been playing okay, but he still doesn't have a clean NBA position and now appears to have lost the trust of his second NBA coach.
As a point guard, he is limited in his playmaking abilities and will provide about 4-5 assists over the course of a game at the most. As a shooting guard, he's too passive on the wing without the ball and often gets lost. Defensively, he hasn't earned the minutes either.
He's at his best with the ball and a driving lane, but NBA defenses know this and adjust.
When asked about Goodwin's DNPs, coach Watson simply said he's trying to get the whole roster a shot to play and now John Jenkins, 24, is getting a turn as the shooting guard off the bench.
Jenkins performed well, with 5 points, 3 rebounds and 2 assists in that huge 18-2 run by the second unit that gave the Suns a huge lead. He finished with 8 points, 4 rebounds and 4 assists in only 18 minutes of play.
While you might ring your hands over Goodwin being sat, you have to give credit to Jenkins for such a good showing. it really is tough play 5 guards a night, so either Jenkins or Goodwin has to rotate in and out since neither is a point guard.