Over the past few weeks, the Phoenix Suns seemed to have turned a corner when it comes to competitive play. On Wednesday night against the Philadelphia 76ers, that didn’t come to pass this time around. After a first quarter where they allowed 44 points — trust me, there’s more coming on that disturbing trend later on in this story — Phoenix was unable to make another rally attempt like they did versus Denver.
Not only did the Suns shoot the ball at a below-average rate throughout, but they allowed Philadelphia to impose their will in the paint led by a dominant outing from Joel Embiid. Embiid, if he would have wanted to, had the opportunity to foul out almost every member of the Suns’ starting lineup. From Deandre Ayton and Richaun Holmes to Kelly Oubre Jr. and T.J. Warren, absolutely nobody stood a chance one-on-one against him.
I’ll hit on this point as well, but the refs disrupted the entire rhythm of this game. At halftime, 55 (!!!) free throws were already attempted combined from both sides. That’s absurd — and it continued all the way until the final buzzer featuring Hack-A-Simmons, widening the total attempts up to an eye-popping 86 in 48 minutes.
It cooled down a little bit in the second half as the Suns somehow made one of those runs again from down 25-30 points where they get it within single-digits midway through the fourth quarter.
Anyways, let’s dive into my usual ‘Thumbs Up’ and ‘Thumbs Down’ from the Suns’ latest performance where they dropped to 9-30 on the season.
Thumbs Down: The Whistle
Bouncing right back into the point I wanted to lead off with, this was the game where the refs couldn’t seem to help themselves. If James Harden was a 7-footer, Joel Embiid would classify because any time a Suns player got near him the whistle was inevitably blown.
Even from the Suns’ side as well, Booker took complete advantage racking up 14 free throw attempts himself by halftime. On the season, Booker’s high mark was 17. Even though this was a performance where Booker’s numbers didn’t really matter as much, since the game was so out of hand quickly, and the refs definitely played a part in that.
I’m not one who likes to haggle on whether whistles should be blown or not, but this reminded me way too much of the Orlando game on Dec. 26. Sometimes, it’s too obvious to ignore when refs are having a bad night themselves.
Thumbs Down: Guarding Joel Embiid
This factors into my first point, but there’s still no excuses for having Embiid dominant them like he did. At halftime — I repeat, HALFTIME — Embiid had 30 points and 14 rebounds in 17 minutes.
Embiid definitely played with a purpose on Ayton’s bobblehead night, making Phoenix’s No. 1 pick work for it on both ends while paying for it getting in early foul trouble. When the 76ers’ star big is having outings like this, it’s a tough task to stop them. Especially factoring in Ben Simmons’ own brilliance attacking the basket at will, Phoenix didn't really stand a chance to keep this in single-digits.
Remember, Jimmy Butler was a late scratch with an upper respiratory infection. I can’t imagine how even more lopsided this game would’ve been if Butler suited up alongside Embiid and Simmons.
Thumbs Up: Devin Booker
Even if this was a lopsided loss for Phoenix, Booker still showed up and produced like he usually does. In the end, Booker tallied 32 points and 8 assists on 8-for-19 shooting.
Booker has been getting more and more comfortable as the Suns’ primary ball handler, but it’s becoming obvious this team still needs to make a move near February’s trade deadline. Whether it’s a stopgap veteran like Darren Collison or Patrick Beverley, Phoenix desperately needs more playmaking to pair with Booker.
The lack of experience from Melton and Okobo shows through each game, and Crawford’s play has continuously gotten worse as the season progresses.
Whatever option co-interim GM James Jones can think of over the next month-plus, finally solving their point guard woes should be their top option. Majority owner Robert Sarver even said on 98.7 FM less than 24 hours after firing Ryan McDonough that point guard was Jones’s top priority.
In a few weeks, we will have reached the three month point since Sarver made those comments. It’s time for action from the Suns’ front office to help ease the burden on Booker in another lost season that won’t end their longstanding playoff drought.
Thumbs Up: Kelly Oubre Jr.
On an night where positives were hard to come by, Oubre Jr. at least provided his usual energy spark off the bench. Honestly, I was surprised head coach Igor Kokoskov didn’t go to him earlier in the game as Philadelphia continued to pick on Melton with switches coming versus Simmons.
Though it is a small sample size, Oubre Jr. has been the Suns’ best wing when playing next to Booker and Ayton since he joined the roster carrying a plus-5.5 net rating in 75 minutes* (totals calculated before including game versus Philly).
In the long-term, I wonder whether Kokoskov places Oubre Jr. into the starting lineup. If he proves he’s an even better fit within that unit, maybe it convinces Phoenix to pay up once July rolls around. Oubre, who will be a restricted free agent, could see some big offers come his way as a wing with valuable 3-and-D tools at his disposal.
Oubre Jr. finished with 9 points — most of his scoring damage was done early in the first half — while playing some strong on-ball defense compared to his teammates. (By the way, Josh Jackson was a helpful spark to the Suns’ comeback attempt, so Oubre Jr. wasn’t out there.)
Here’s an intriguing question I wanted to poll the Bright Side readers on: Which wing would you keep past this season? Kelly Oubre Jr. at a salary estimate of $15 million per year (an ambitious team with cap space will throw Oubre more money than Warren received for his extension) or Josh Jackson in his third season hoping for the switch to flip with his development?
What’s a better option for the Suns?
This poll is closed
Matching an offer sheet for Kelly Oubre Jr. and trading Josh Jackson
Let Oubre Jr. walk and keep Josh Jackson
Depending on what happens with the Suns’ draft positioning, this could be a question Jones needs to answer very soon. There’s also the option where they match Oubre’s restricted offer and keep Jackson anyways, but that aforementioned draft positioning will really decide the fate of some players on their roster.
Thumbs Down: Terrible Trend of 1st Quarter Defense Continues
As I alluded to previously, the trend of Phoenix playing matador defense versus their counterparts has been one of the main reasons for their latest slide. Since mid-December, the Suns’ first quarter defense has been atrocious. After their latest stinker tonight, they now rank last in opponent points per game in the opening stanza since Dec. 15.
And if it wasn’t for these poor first quarters, Phoenix might have a few wins on their home stand already.
As we reach the back of this 7-game stretch at Talking Stick Resort Arena (Clippers, Hornets, Kings), this will be the main key I’m watching out for. If they come out and play within themselves, there’s no reason why the Suns shouldn’t keep them close and possibly pull a few of them off.