So much for that defensive improvement with the Suns. They ran into a buzzsaw tonight with Indiana, one of the hottest teams in the NBA finding its groove at the right time. Being near the bottom of the standings, this game shows truly how far Phoenix still needs to go until they can flip that switch.
The Suns cut down the lead to nine early in the third quarter, but then it ballooned all the way up past 30 late. Honestly, this lack of defensive effort and lack of rhythm was surprising after their recent week-long stretch where they went 2-1 without Devin Booker.
Speaking of Booker, he looked out of rhythm like the rest of the roster. We’ll save that for later, so let’s dive into my ‘Thumbs Up’ and ‘Thumbs Down’ from tonight’s blowout loss at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
Thumbs Up: Deandre Ayton
It’s hard to really come up with many positives in a game where they lose 131-97, but the first half from Ayton was encouraging. He was able to have his way down low when he was aggressive. However, that went away in the final 24 minutes as the game got out of hand once more.
Ayton finished tonight’s game with 14 points, 8 rebounds, 1 steal, and 1 block on 7-16 FGA. He barely got involved afterwards as that rhythm seemed to be gone with this team. Should Ayton become even more of a focal point for the Suns’ offense? I believe so, but we’ll have to see how it develops as Booker gets back into his own rhythm over this road trip.
Thumbs Up: Kelly Oubre Jr.
If it wasn’t for a horrendous night at the free throw line going 1-for-6, Oubre Jr. would’ve had yet another outing where he scored 20-plus points. He’s really starting to fit in well as a main cog in head coach Igor Kokoskov’s system. Whether it be attacking off the dribble and getting contact or bringing constant energy on the defensive end, Oubre Jr. seems to fit what this team is trying to build.
The question should be asked after this game whether Oubre Jr. should be moved into Phoenix’s starting lineup. I do, because it’s starting to seem obvious the fit between T.J. Warren, Booker, and Ayton just won’t really ever work defensively. With Booker and Ayton, you need solid defenders around them most of their minutes. If Warren were to move into his more natural Lou Williams-like role as a sixth man and allow Oubre Jr. to play as the small-ball 4, it could allow more versatility with Phoenix’s lineup combinations.
Oubre Jr. seems to have the green light, too, as he attempted 13 shots in 24 minutes but also stuff the stat sheet with 16 points, 5 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 steal, and 1 block.
This is more of a long-term question, but it should be asked as we approach February’s trade deadline: Will keeping all four of these wings work out over the next year? At least from an identity standpoint, Oubre Jr. might be a more smooth fit than Warren, but, as mentioned, if Warren buys in as a sixth man there’s nothing to worry about.
However, majority owner Robert Sarver said in early October when he fired former GM Ryan McDonough that James Jones’ No. 1 priority was finding a solution at point guard. It’s January and it still hasn’t happened. It stagnates potential opportunities for growth with this young core, especially with Ayton and the wings who need good looks consistently to really gain momentum.
Thumbs Down: Early start, no defense
At the end of the first quarter, the Suns trailed Indiana 38-19. Yes, they were doubled on that fast.
It was ugly from the get-go tonight for Phoenix, who seemed outmatched in almost every facet of the game. Not only could they not stop anyone on defense allowing the Pacers to shoot 52 percent, but they were unable to create efficient shot opportunities for themselves as well.
Following their best defensive stretch of the season prior top tip-off of Tuesday night’s game, this outing showed this is still a very young team who will have growing pains now and then. When it’s one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference who hadn’t played in four days either, that makes it an even harder hole to climb out of.
With Phoenix’s next game against an ever better opponent in Toronto headlined by MVP candidate Kawhi Leonard, how will they respond? If tonight was any indication, their next game could be even rougher if they can’t get in sync fast.
Thumbs Down: Devin Booker
After missing three games with bask spasms, Devin Booker donned a headband for the first time since last season but it didn’t matter as he arguably put together one of his worst games. He was unable to capture any momentum on either end of the floor finishing with only 8 points on 4-for-12 shooting. Booker also had four turnovers to five assists plus five fouls in 27 minutes.
Not much else to really add on Booker, but the defense needs to improve with him being back. That will be a key not only this season but throughout his 5-year $158 million max extension.
Phoenix will be back in action on Thursday in Toronto, so we’ll see how they respond from a blowout loss we haven’t been accustomed to lately against a legit NBA Finals contender.