“We are coming together as a team lately,” Devin Booker said.
What a difficult 20 games it’s been. According to basketball-reference.com, the Suns have played the league’s toughest schedule this season.
Through the first 13 games of the season, the Suns margin of defeat was a league-worst-by-far -13.5 points per game, including 8 of 11 losses by 17+.
Over the last seven games, that average margin of defeat is only -2.5 points, a stretch that includes wins over San Antonio and Milwaukee and four of five losses to teams with winning records.
“These top teams, these playoff and title contending teams,” Booker said. “We realize when we fight, we can compete with everybody. Now I think it’s on to chemistry and execution for us.”
The Suns are still just 28th in offensive and defensive ratings on the season, but over the last seven games they are 18th and 19th respectively.
Progress is progress.
You’ve read about the new starting unit finding a rhythm and once again they held their own against a tough, physical Pacers team while the second unit let the game get out of hand for a bit to start the second quarter before rebounding in the third and fourth quarters with better showings.
Igor was asked about this before the game, because this pattern started to show once the new starting lineup was formed.
“You always got me. ‘We gotta start better, and how we gonna finish the half’...” Igor joked with Hoopshype.com’s Gerald Bourget, referring to the constant question early in the season. Kokoskov was frank about it: “We gotta plug all these holes. The water is coming from all sides.”
Earlier in the season, all the lineups were failing. Now he’s got an effective starting unit with Mikal Bridges and T.J. Warren taking Ryan Anderson and Isaiah Canaan’s spots. So that hole is plugged, but it sprung a bigger leak on the bench.
The problem is that the Suns just don’t have enough players playing well enough to earn their rotation spots.
Frankly, Igor SHOULD be able to count on a second unit that contains a recent #4 overall pick (Josh Jackson), a $15 million player (Trevor Ariza played with that unit when they got killed in the second quarter), an energy big (Richaun Holmes) and three-time Sixth Man of the Year (Jamal Crawford) as four of the five players on the floor, regardless of the point guard (Isaiah Canaan).
He SHOULD be able to count on them to hold the score for three minutes. But he can’t.
There’s just not enough gum and duct tape to plug all the holes.
But there IS progress. T.J. Warren is an unsung hero, with another 25 points and 7 rebounds in that starting unit. Josh Jackson seems to be playing better lately. Ariza had a boost after taking a couple games off. And Richaun Holmes is a whirling dervish out there every night. Add in the effective starting unit with Point Book leading the way, and you’ve got a blueprint for improvement.
“Every game,” rookie center Deandre Ayton said of their progress. “We just got to finish it out. At the start, we were getting blown out by 20 by half. Then we started to lock down. Conditioning is there now. So we just gotta finish out games.”
The Suns have been “in” every game in the fourth quarter lately against what continues to be a very difficult schedule. The fact that we’re even talking about late-game execution is a welcome relief.
The Suns rookie gets a lot of flak throughout the internets, and even his take-a-seat defense in the first half of Tuesday’s game got more attention than the milestone he reached on his way to an 18-point, 12-rebound performance.
Ayton became only the 4th rookie in 36 years with 300+ points and 200+ rebounds in their first 20 games. The others: Blake Griffin, Tim Duncan, Shaquille O’Neal. That’s it. Just three other rookies have been as prolific as Ayton.
Yes, he flips up short hooks when he should bully-ball with dunks. Even the coach mentioned it post-game. But he’s also in the 90th percentile in finishing at the rim this season among all NBA players so, as coach says, that’s who he is right now.
“They were a lot more physical than we thought,” Ayton said afterward of the Pacers. The Pacers grabbed 17 offensive rebounds and out-rebounded the Suns by 10 while taking 11 more free throws.
Ayton and Holmes did their part (19 rebounds between them), but the Suns undersized power forwards gave, in particular, Domantis Sabonis a chance to grab seven of the Pacers 17 offensive boards.
Booker’s thoughts on being the point guard
We’ve all wondered how much Booker likes being the point guard for the Suns in their revamped starting unit that includes Ayton and three wing players.
“I honestly don’t look at it like that,” he said. “I just look at it as a playmaker. I’m fine with it. Whatever they have me doing, I’ll do. I always want to credit myself as being a basketball player. Not a shooter, not a scorer, just an overall player doing a little bit of everything.”
On finding a balance between his natural shot-taking instincts versus setting up his teammates:
“On situations, understanding the game. My dad was a point guard. He’s been preaching this stuff to me for a very long time. I used to tell him, no I’m just a scorer. I don’t have to worry about all that. That’s obviously changed.”
On how he sees the game:
“I’m seeing the game from a whole different angle now,” he said. “Used to be I started on the baseline, and now I’m at the top of the key. All of my shots are off the dribble, not many catch and shoot shots anymore.”
A year ago, nearly 40% of Booker’s shots came after taking 0 or 1 dribbles. This year, that’s down to 30.5%.
Still, he’s remaining efficient. His true shooting percentage (TS%) is nearly as high as his career-best last year (55% vs 56%) while his assist percentage (34.5%) is higher than any Suns point guard in six years. He ranks 11th in the league in assists per game (7.2). Booker is one of only four players this year averaging at least 20 points and 7 assists (James Harden, Russell Westbrook, John Wall), and he’s got the second-best TS% of them.
For now, Booker is just happy talking about execution and late-game situations, rather than lack of energy and dealing with blowouts.