The smaller things turned into a major issue over the past two weeks, specifically effort on the defensive end. Following six-straight blowout losses, the Phoenix Suns finally showed some consistent fight going up against Kawhi Leonard and the Toronto Raptors.
Per my usual recap format, what were the ‘Thumbs Up’ and ‘Thumbs Down’ from the Suns’ tilt versus Toronto? Let’s analyze it all below.
Thumbs Up: Finally, head coach Igor Kokoskov finally pulled the plug on his current rotation and made tweaks to it. Not only is Richaun Holmes the second unit center ahead of Tyson Chandler, but we’re seeing more Elie Okobo and less Jamal Crawford backing up Isaiah Canaan. Also, I have noticed Kokoskov has tried his best to stagger minutes between Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton, keeping one out there most of the time. That’s a smart decision, especially when you see what happens with neither on the court.
It only took Kokoskov seven games, but he finally did what was for the greater good of the roster. Less veterans and more energetic young players filling their minutes. It’s a step in the right direction after their disastrous start.
Thumbs Down: Josh Jackson’s role was reduced when we saw Mikal Bridges check in before him, but his play continues to prove why his minutes should continue to dwindle. Everyone else outside of Jackson has had great shot selection, but Jackson’s shots have been the usual head-scratching decisions. Jackson’s erratic step back mid-range jumper went in, but his rhythm is off and it’s easy to notice. The Suns’ No. 4 pick in 2017 had a few nice sequences in the third quarter, but the point still stands that he’s been the worst Suns wing so far.
Jackson finished with 11 points and 3 rebounds on 5-8 field goals in only 11 minutes. His role has definitely been reduced, and performances like this in limited opportunity will have to happen in order for Jackson to earn his worth within Kokoskov’s revamped rotation.
Thumbs Up: Even though Ayton’s defense has been subpar to say the least, more on that later, but he’s continuing to produce efficiently with the touches provided to him. Ayton already logged his double-double by halftime, but ended tonight’s game with 17 points and 18 rebounds on 7-10 shot attempts. And it should be said, Ayton needs way more than 10 shots and needs to become more of a primary scoring option alongside Booker.
Ayton’s production is also vital to the Suns’ offense as a whole. Whenever Ayton exited the game, their rhythm and spacing seemed to be thrown off. It was really the first game where you noticed Ayton’s gravity effect helping out others, and it showed with four of five starters finishing in double figures. No surprise that when Ayton entered back in, Phoenix would make their runs.
Thumbs Down: Even though Ayton was great scoring and providing space for others, he struggled again protecting the rim. I will say, though, he had an awesome sequence against Jonas Valanciunas in the third quarter where he stayed in his airspace, forced a shot up late, and blocked it with emphasis. Canaan ran over right after Ayton did this and hit him in the chest a few times to fire him up, but that’s exactly the type of moments you want to see out of Ayton on the defensive end.
Back to the negatives, however, as Ayton still ball watches far too often allowing his man an easy driving lane. It’s the small things with their No. 1 overall pick, but they go a long ways toward him reaching his astoundingly high ceiling.
Thumbs Up: Isaiah Canaan played with a steady hand returning to the starting lineup after suffering an ankle strain in Oklahoma City. Canaan played not only within the flow of the offense, but he was a reliable hand whenever Phoenix needed a bucket. Canaan actually finished as the Suns’ leading scorer with 19 points while hitting 66.7% of his shot opportunities. Another area I noticed is how often Canaan played off-ball, which continues to rise as Booker gets more comfortable within Kokoskov’s motion-heavy scheme.
Canaan is simply a stopgap option at this point, but he’s not being a negative out there.
Thumbs Down: Booker returned from his strained hamstring Friday night against the Raptors, but he definitely wasn’t fully healthy. Multiple times throughout the game, Booker would grab at his hamstring and come up with a noticeable limp for a few moments before getting back within the flow of play. Booker finished with 18 points, 4 rebounds and 6 assists on 8-20 field goal attempts.
There was way more playmaking assignments for Booker to handle, and it still seems to defer within that role. Until that point guard trade is made (D’Angelo Russell? John Wall?), the Suns will continue to struggle and most importantly Booker at trying to play to his maximum strengths.
If there was a must-win game in November, Phoenix’s next two going up against Memphis and Brooklyn are exactly that. Afterwards, their schedule gets even tougher as they sit at the bottom of the Western Conference standings.