Unlike recent outings from the Phoenix Suns, this time around they decided to show fight and effort. It’s crazy what happens when you try, because the Suns actually kept this close in the first half, trailing only 60-50 after a late run by Miami.
In the end, though, they lost 115-98 but there were plenty of positives and negatives to parse through.
Without further ado, let’s go through my ‘Thumbs Up’ and ‘Thumbs Down’ from tonight’s tilt with the Heat.
Thumbs Up: Trevor Ariza
Ariza came out of the gates firing from deep, and it was working early for the veteran who the Suns paid $15 million for back in July. He was also engaged on both ends following an embarrassing showing Thursday night in Portland.
Ever since Ariza’s return to the starting lineup on Nov. 19 following his absence due to personal reasons, he has become one of the league’s most efficient catch-and-shoots marksmen posting a near-50 percent conversation rate.
In 33 minutes, Ariza finished with 10 points, 7 rebounds, and 6 assists on 2-4 three-pointers attempted.
It’s quite possible we’re approaching the swan song for Ariza in Phoenix, though. Only two more home games next week against the Los Angeles Clippers and Minnesota Timberwolves before his trade restriction is lifted.
Thumbs Down: Interior Defense
Whether it was matador defense, or just more of Ayton’s subpar rim protection abilities, Miami had their way against Phoenix. Even though they didn’t have a strong night shooting from deep, the Heat made up for it by bruising the Suns all night in the paint. Bam Adebayo even had 20 points at halftime, showing just how ugly Phoenix’s protection around the basket truly was.
It didn’t get much better in the second half either. Once the Suns knew the game was over early in the fourth quarter, their effort level begin to seriously dwindle. Miami got it up to 13, then back-to-back three-pointers really put the nail in the coffin with eight minutes left. Kokoskov immediately called a timeout with almost all the Suns walking off the court with their heads down defeated.
Rock bottom has hit, at least in terms of consistent effort on both ends. With another back-to-back set coming up on Monday, it’s going to be interesting to see how the Suns climb out of their latest hole.
Thumbs Up: Josh Jackson, Sans Turnovers
The turnovers continue to be an issue for Jackson, five alone in this one, but he’s starting to rid out the bad shots we’ve seen over the past few weeks. Jackson’s shot selection has constantly sabotaged his overall effectiveness, but on Friday, 2017’s No. 4 overall pick was driving at will racking up a season-high in free throw attempts with nine.
Jackson still has a long ways to go when it comes to reaching his immense two-way ceiling we all thought he had coming out of Kansas, but now he has to string together multiple performances in a row like this in order to gain trust from Igor Kokoskov and Co. on a regular basis.
During the pre-draft process, Jackson was advertised as a Swiss army knife who could not only be a versatile defender, but above-average secondary playmaker for a wing. So far this season, Jackson hasn’t developed along at the pace many would look. And these next few months could decide his long-term future with the Suns.
For tonight, when you cancel out the usual turnovers that have become a disturbing trend, Jackson is starting to play the game a tad bit more within himself.
Thumbs Down: Deandre Ayton’s Defense
The thorn in Ayton’s side continued on Friday with Miami targeting him from the jump. When their shots weren’t falling, it was time to go to work against Ayton on the inside.
Sure, there weren’t as many instances of Ayton flat out giving up on rotations, but he simply was outclassed on both ends by Adebayo while doing ball-watching far too often.
Ayton would benefit from being in a more switch-heavy scheme, which Kokoskov deployed a lot in Flagstaff during training camp but hasn’t just yet in the regular season. During his one year at the University of Arizona, Ayton’s quick feet helped negate mismatches against smaller scorers.
We’ll see how Ayton continues to adjust in his new role as anchor, but, so far, it’s been plenty of growing pains to say the least. Who knows when the 7’1”, 250 pound big man will register another block in the box score. His lack of doing so continues to be a major red flag.
Thumbs Up: De’Anthony Melton’s Emergence
Melton received his first career start after two strong outings versus Sacramento and Portland when he was finally given extended run to work with. On Friday, Melton made the most of this opportunity by chalking up 12 points, 3 rebounds, 4 assists, and 1 steal in 24 minutes on 4-9 FGA (3-5 3PA).
One area that really pushed Melton down the boards during the pre-draft process was his shooting ability. His mechanics at USC were herky-jerky at best, with major inconsistency on shoots from distance. However, after sitting out the entire 2017-18 season following an FBI probe, Melton got to work with well-known shot doctor Drew Hanlen.
The former Trojan combo guard has really peaked my curiosity when it comes to his on-court fit with Devin Booker. Melton not only has the requisite length at 6’4” (6’9” wingspan), but his innate defensive instincts are an ideal pairing next to the Suns’ star guard in the backcourt.
If the Suns’ second rookie point guard continues to produce regularly on both ends, Phoenix could be on the verge of stumbling into something great with the Booker/Melton tandem.
Next up, Phoenix will have a few days off until they host the Los Angeles Clippers on Monday. Then, they travel to San Antonio for a Tuesday matchup signifying their first back-to-back double-dip since the season began.
Now sitting at 4-22, the 2018-19 season seems to have flipped the page again from focusing on wins and losses to overall player development.