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Suns can be competitive by staying healthy and on script

Despite losing, 107-98, a fully healthy roster showed that it can put up points and be competitive despite so much change over the last year.

NBA: Toronto Raptors at Phoenix Suns Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

This Suns season, like much of the past eight years, will be about adjustments. The team is on its third coach and second general manager since the start of the 2017-18 season, flipping almost its entire roster during that time. We knew that this would be a different sort of team with higher ambitions and a changed style, but one thing the Suns cannot afford is to have injuries halt their momentum like Devin Booker’s three-game absence did over the last week.

Booker is the only player who keeps defenses honest as a scorer and playmaker, and the Suns had no chance of scoring with the likes of San Antonio or Oklahoma City while he was out with a left hamstring injury, just a week after returning from the hand injury that sidelined him throughout the preseason. When he’s out, it signals a complete standstill for any developmental momentum.

“The problem with Book is we couldn’t replace him,” coach Igor Kokoskov said postgame Friday night. “When you play a physical team like Toronto … we can feel his presence for us, the way we were executing. But he knows it -- he’s got to be in better shape, in playing shape.”

Phoenix has been 7.4 points better per 100 possessions with Booker on the court this year, according to Cleaning the Glass, with the offense in particular in the top in efficiency when he plays and near last in the league when he sits. This has been true for two years, but the Suns need Booker even more now, with so much of Kokoskov’s system predicated upon his triple threat of passing, shooting and finishing at the rim.

Even a small injury like the hamstring, still clearly affecting him Friday, is felt throughout the whole team. Booker didn’t have his usual explosiveness in his first few steps driving to get to the rim and finish above the defense. He couldn’t pull up with his usual concise, efficient movement (this is a great play from Danny Green, but we’ve seen Booker finish this over better defense).

And Booker’s defense, which has not shown much of an improvement over last season even as the Suns struggle to develop on that end as a group, was not helped by the nagging in his leg.

“They made us pay for literally every mistake that we made,” Kokoskov said. Unfortunately, Booker’s injury has made it so that not only is he working into playing shape after two different injuries, but the team can’t reach its peak because he is not on the floor.

“It took me a quarter or two to figure out what was going on,” Booker said after the game, in reference to Toronto’s physical play and their gameplan. The Raptors defended Booker and Ayton differently with Jonas Valanciunas dropping back into the paint than most teams have this season. Those are the types of adjustments the Suns have to hope continuity will help cement into place.

If the Suns can stay healthy, they will get better. There is considerably more talent on this team than last year’s squad, even if the results have sometimes seemed like bad reruns of a documentary series on how to tank.

“(Booker) and Isaiah (Canaan) coming back, we were comfortable,” Deandre Ayton noted. “The offense we ran pretty good. Just spacing out the floor more, the paint not being crowded.”

The rookie has been incredibly productive even when his starting guards have been out. The two-man game that worked so well for Phoenix in its one win to start the year will carry the Suns’ offense when the floor is spaced and the team takes care of the ball.

It won’t be as simple as being healthy and expecting progress, but staying competitive against one of the league’s best teams in Toronto created a notably more positive atmosphere in the locker room postgame. The lift Booker and Canaan gave this team was clear in just their first game back, rust and all. Building on that momentum won’t happen if there are continue to be setbacks in the trainer’s room.

Check out these videos from the locker room Friday night

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