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Suns lose the game, but win in all other respects

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How can a Phoenix Suns loss to the Los Angeles Lakers be a good thing?

NBA: Los Angeles Lakers at Phoenix Suns Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

How can a loss to the worst team in the West be a good thing?

To the Phoenix Suns players and coaches, it’s not a good thing. They hate losing, which is a good sign for a young team on pace for 55+ losses this year alone.

“It’s really disappointing,” Devin Booker said afterward. “We beat top teams, competing with top teams in the league... every team is talented, but they’re one of the losing teams like us and we should of just came out here and competed hard.”

But to fans of the Suns, and even to the front office of the Suns that’s trying to build a future playoff team, losing to the Lakers could be the best thing to happen.

After winning 3 of 4 games coming out of the All-Star break, including big wins over the playoff-bound Thunder and Celtics, and competitive last-second losses to the Bulls and Bucks, the Suns suddenly appeared to be a team that just might win too many games and ruin their chances at a top-5 in the upcoming NBA draft.

In fact, in six games since the Break, the Suns were 11th in offense, 17th in defense and 18th in point differential - a perfectly average team that might come close to splitting their last 18 games if they found consistency.

But we are still talking about a team trotting out four players aged 21 or younger (Tyler Ulis, Derrick Jones Jr., Marquese Chriss and Devin Booker) every night, another three still on their rookie contracts and yet another teenager coming back soon (hopefully) from an ankle injury.

So don’t write off that Top-5 pick quite yet.

Teams with that many kids in the rotation will be inconsistent, and Friday night’s showing against the also-lowly Lakers shows the Suns have not yet “arrived” even after big recent wins.

“The same way we played today is the way we practiced yesterday,” Suns coach Watson said after the loss, clearly frustrated. “We didn’t lose this game today, we lost it yesterday. The older guys played against the younger guys, which is basically who sits and who doesn’t play, and those veterans kicked their butt, and it carried over into today.”

“I don’t think we brought our fight tonight,” guard Devin Booker said. “The Lakers felt like they had something to prove after last time. We played and they came out and showed that. We didn’t have any fight tonight.”

The Suns opened up the game with a 28-20 lead, but true enough both teams were going though the motions. And eventually, the Lakers found a spark from their own band of young guys to take a commanding lead by mid-second quarter.

A late second-quarter run put the Suns back on top at halftime. After scoring a league-high 53 fast break points on Tuesday night against the Wizards (highest FB scoring for any NBA team in eight years), the Suns tallied 26 more in the first half alone.

But the Lakers came out hungrier in the second half than the Suns did. The Lakers got a boatload of offensive rebounds, and crashed the glass to tamp down the Suns running game. The Suns only got 11 FB points in the second half.

“In this league you have to bring it every night,” Watson said. “Mentally and physically. And with us being so young, we need that edge. We need blocks, we need steals, we need transition, we need the energy of the crowd and we have to get them involved.”

Ahh, the crowd.

You all know how many Lakers fans live in the valley. The crowd on Thursday night wore a lot of yellow. I saw more Kobe jerseys than all the Suns jerseys combined (though I didn’t notice a single fan wearing a current-Laker jersey, and that says it all about Laker fans).

For the first time almost a month, the Lakers got to celebrate a win. And for the first time in SIX years, they were able to celebrate on the Suns home floor, having not won in Phoenix since 2010.

So, the Suns are now only one game out of 2nd place in the reverse standings, and a full two games ahead of the next-worst team with only 17 to play.

Projection models now give the Suns a strong lead in the race for 3rd worst record in the league before the Draft Lottery in early May shakes it all up. The Suns are projected to finish with 27 wins, while the next worst team (Sixers) are projected to win 29.

Other good notes from Thursday’s game:

  • Alan Williams (16 points, 10 rebounds) became the first player in Suns history with five straight double-doubles off the bench.

Watson: “He gives it consistently every night. This is a part of a season where we’re evaluating consistency, because that’s all you can really depend on, consistency.”

  • T.J. Warren (17 points, 13 rebounds, 3 assists and 3 blocks) delivered his second consecutive double-double, including a career-high rebounds, and his eighth consecutive 14+ point game, the longest stretch of his career. It was also his 5th straight 7+ rebound game, the longest of his career in that area as well.

Watson on Warren’s increased rebounding: “You see him down there being physical, he’s athletic, he’s tall enough to make plays on the ball. He’s getting big rebounds even in traffic at the four and the three.”

  • Devin Booker had 23 points, which was the 36th 23+ point game of his career - putting him 6th all-time among NBA players under 21 years old. Just two more 23+ point games this year (or early next year) would put him alone at 4th all-time behind LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Durant.
  • Marquese Chriss had 18 points and 6 rebounds. This was his 4th 18+ point game of the season, second only to Jamal Murray (9) among 19 year olds this season. He’s also the ONLY teenager besides Devin Booker to have multiple 18+ point games in Phoenix Suns history.

Next up: the surging Dallas Mavericks on Sunday, in Dallas.