The Phoenix Suns lost their 5th straight game, further solidifying their position at the bottom of the standings in the Western Conference.
There’s no playoffs in sight for this franchise as they try to bring along some of the youngest players in the league against a grueling NBA schedule where every other team is favored night after night.
“We have to fight, do whatever we can to stay into games,” Suns coach Earl Watson said. “And our guys fought as hard as they could.”
Despite getting into twin 7-0 holes to start each half, the Suns got the Clippers’ lead down to one possession on nine different occasions (five in the fourth quarter) only to come up short. Blake Griffin was sublime in his return, and the Clippers role players made a lot of important shots to keep them in the lead.
The Suns players are frustrated and, at times, despondent in the locker room but on the court they play with effort though not with any kind of consistency.
“Younger teams have to learn how to play defense,” Watson said. “We gave up way too many points, we always find a way to score, we have talented scorers in the backcourt, we’ll find a way. But we gave up too many points.”
Devin Booker (20 years old, 37 minutes), Marquese Chriss (19, 27) and Dragan Bender (19, 13 recovering from an ankle issue) all played big roles on Wednesday night, and all were alternately victims of the Clippers’ target-oriented offense for most of the game.
For a lot of the game, it appeared that a strategy of the Clippers was to win with physicality. Chriss and Booker, especially, were getting beaten up whenever possible.
And then there’s this.
This play is emblematic of the whole game for Chriss. He made some nice athletic plays (4 steals, like the one here) and unabashedly attacked the Clippers’ All-Star big men in the paint (like the one here) - usually failing miserably while doing it (3 for 15 from the field for the game).
After the game, Chriss said he felt fine despite the big fall. He hit his knee, but as you can see by the landing he could easily have hurt a wrist or shoulder, or even knocked his head.
Chriss finished with 9 points, 5 rebounds and 4 steals in 27 minutes, mostly against Blake Griffin - who toasted him at every turn. Griffin didn’t play in the earlier matchup, so this is the first time Chriss has seen a player just as athletic as him with gobs more skill and strength to boot.
“He’s extremely explosive and athletic,” Chriss said of Griffin. “And I think he plays off those angles, so I think when he has you beat at an angle, it is kind of hard to recover.”
DeAndre Jordan was ejected for that play, which Chriss later played off as just part of the game. The Suns briefly got new life after Jordan’s departure, but just could not close the gap.
The Bled Show
At least during these dark times of the franchise, there are glimmers of light coming from the back court.
Eric Bledsoe, while still not the greatest playmaker in the game, has raised his do-it-all game to another level.
On Wednesday night, Bled matched his career-high with 41 points. He now has three 40-point games this season (each in the last six games). He’s not just scoring, also averaging 8 assists per game during this stretch.
Watch all the scoring and assisting here!
Check it out, from the Suns ball communications team now led by Cole Mikelson:
Bledsoe’s 11 days needed to record three 40-point games (Jan. 22, Jan. 28, Feb. 1) are the fewest in Suns franchise history, two days fewer than the 13 days that Charlie Scott needed to score 40+ points three times from Dec. 7-19, 1973 (Basketball-Reference).
Bledsoe’s three 40-point games are the most by a Sun in a season since Amar’e Stoudemire did so three times in 2006-07; Bledsoe also reached 10 30-point games on the season tonight, the most by a Sun since Stoudemire had 15 30-point games in 2009-10. Bledsoe has at least eight assists in each of his three 40-point games this season, meaning he is now tied with Russell Westbrook for second-most 40-point/8-assist games in the NBA this season behind only James Harden (six).
Bledsoe is playing at an All-Star level and might have a chance to show it to the world if not for the crazy amount of great guards in the West these days. Harden, Westbrook and Stephen Curry are all MVP candidates, and the team is so deep that Chris Paul, Damian Lillard and Mike Conley can’t even get in.
It’s tough to embrace a great player in his prime when the team is so bad (now 15-34 on the season), but man I hope we appreciate how Bledsoe will now be in the Suns record books. It’s been a decade since anyone has three 40+ point games at all, and more than 40 years since a Phoenix Sun had 40+ three times in anything close to such a short time span.
The Charlie Scott-led Suns were 30-52 that season (1973-74), in the middle of five straight years (and seven of nine to kick off the franchise) outside the playoffs. Scott was the fledgling franchise’s best player by far in those years, reaching the All-Star game five years in a row during those playoff-less seasons before being traded to the Celtics for rookie Paul Westphal in 1975. Suns fans might not remember Charlie Scott for his play these days, but he’s still in the franchise record books four decades later.
For his part, Bledsoe still has ZERO interest in patting himself on the back for his accomplishments.
“My teammates did a great job fighting with me,” Bledsoe said in response to a question about him trying to will the team to a win. “We just came up short. We just got move on to the next one.”
“There’s not many point guards out there that can do what he is doing,” said Devin Booker of his point guard teammate.
Bledsoe is achieving individual feats only matched or beaten by Harden and Westbrook, both of whom are easy All-Stars. You saw the 3+ 40/8 list is only three deep (Harden and Westbrook), but it’s not just a handful of mirage games. The 20/6/5 list for the whole season is almost as short, with some guy named LeBron James joining those three in the 20/6/5 club.
“Goes under the radar because we are losing,” Booker said. “But once we start getting wins, we think he’ll start getting his name up more. People will start realizing how good of a player he is.”
Case in point is Damian Lillard of the Blazers. Lillard is arguably better now than his rookie year, but he made the All-Star game when the Blazers were winning (and EXPECTED to win) and now is an afterthought when they’re not in playoff position.
We might as well keep these record-book comments going.
Devin Booker, who reached special heights among teenagers last season, is now breathing rare air as a 20 year old, and as a second-year player of any age.
Booker’s 14 straight 20+ point games has not been done by someone 20-years old or younger since LeBron James in 2004-05 (15 straight, two times), and among second-year players of any age he’s the first since Blake Griffin in 2010-11.
- One more, and he’ll put Griffin in his rear-view and be the first among second year players since James.
- Two more and LBJ is in his rear-view mirror as well.
“I mean I hear it from other people,” Booker said of the streak. “But I’m not really focused on it. I’m out there trying to get wins. That’s the main objective. If it comes along with it, then it comes along with it, so it’s not a big deal to me.”
It really is a big deal, but like Bled it will be a bigger deal in retrospect more than anything else. You can’t minimize the 20-point streak by saying “it’s empty points on a bad team” because there’s been oodles and oodles of bad teams in NBA history - with 8-10 every year - and every one of them had high draft picks and good individual scorers who were expected to score every game.
The fact that so few of those high, second-year scorers on bad teams (Griffin, LBJ) have shown Booker’s level of skill and consistency says a lot about his future in this league.
During this 14-game stretch:
- Booker is the league’s 10th leading scorer overall (Bledsoe is 11th)
- Booker is the only player under 21 among the Top 50
- Among the top 10, Booker is 3rd in 3-point shooting at 45.7%, though the #1 guy Towns (48.5%) only takes just over 2 a game
Booker is doing this as the secondary scoring option to Eric Bledsoe (#11 in scoring over that span, but a higher usage rate than Booker).
To compare to those other second-year 20-point streakers, the next highest scorer on LBJ’s 2004-05 team (42-40 that year) was Zydrunas Ilgauskas at 16 points per game. Blake Griffin had another 20-point scorer in his lineup in 2010-11 in Eric Gordon, but Blake had the higher usage rate that year.
I’m not saying Booker and Bledsoe are the best in the league. Neither is an All-Star and may never become one.
I’m just trying to note the real special seasons Bledsoe and Booker are posting in their own unique ways.
“I think Bledsoe is playing at an elite level,” Watson said after the game. “So we have to make sure moving forward our team, and everything we do, we cannot waste his valuable time.
“So Bledsoe is at an elite level, Book is coming up, he’s playing at that level also, we got to start building up internally players immediately, different styles of play, identities, and just capture this momentum that those two have in the back court.”
But Watson also knows it’s time for the young guys, not just to power through his old guys like he’s been doing. Chriss’ minutes continue to increase, and Bender has only been held out due to injury. Tyler Ulis will get time once the back court clears up a bit ahead of him (hopefully at the trade deadline).
Watson says they have some serious growing pains to endure, including watching Marquese Chriss get dominated by Blake Griffin for 27 minutes on Wednesday night and watching Devin Booker get beaten up on every possession.
The Clippers clearly targeted Chriss, Bender and Booker when executing their offense without the magician Chris Paul, and while trying not to overextend Griffin before he gets his legs under him after a long layoff.
“They got some points scored on them,” Watson said of the young guys. “It is what it is. Those guys, our young guys, are going to be targeted in every game. If it’s not them two, it’s going to go right back to Devin Booker, and that’s just the strategy of basketball.
“But those guys have to go through that experience, they have to either fail or succeed. No matter what, it has to be unconditional love for them. Get up and try again and try again, until they start to figure it out and become wiser.”