As much as Monty Williams wants to develop a system that doesn’t rely on a single cog, a back to back against Boston and Sacramento this week without Ricky Rubio showed how vital the veteran play-maker is to this young Suns team.
Minutes before tip-off at home on Monday night against the Celtics, players and coaches got word that Rubio would be sitting with back spasms and second-year guard Jevon Carter would start in his place. Right away, Kemba Walker and the Celtics were able to dictate the rhythm of the game and the Suns’ offense looked hapless.
With Rubio out, Williams ran the offense through his big men at the elbow, which compromised spacing and failed to make use of Carter, who has turned into a pumpkin from deep since a hot start.
“We find out right before the game, I don’t know what happened, what was the real reason, but you can feel that on the court,” said Dario Saric. “We were without our play-maker and JC, he stepped up in his shoes, but Ricky is a different style of player.”
Carter played 19 minutes in the competitive portion of the game, and the Suns could not score when he was on the floor. To be fair, they couldn’t score much at all, eventually falling 99-85.
“We’re at our best when we’re playing (like) ourselves,” Carter said postgame. “We got out of character tonight offensively and defensively, and when we’re ourselves, we play better basketball.”
The ball was a hot potato against Boston, as Saric and Baynes looked uncomfortable initiating offense rather than screening and moving like usual. Booker, as with most games this year, did not take over the game, instead trying to operate within the scheme as best he could. No one led the team.
That led to uncharacteristic decisions by Suns players.
“There were times tonight when guys weren’t in the right spots,” Williams said after losing to Boston. “We were trying to take advantage of smalls, posting up in the paint, that’s not something we do on a consistent basis. Tonight I thought we just did it too much, as opposed to the ball moving side to side.”
Though Rubio technically played in Sacramento, he was a shell of himself. The Spaniard played 16 minutes, all in the first half, and was 0-7 from the field.
Losing Rubio not only affected the Suns’ ability to play their typical brand of quick-hitting offense, it cut into their depth. Second-year guard Elie Okobo played sparingly Monday but played the final 18 minutes of the loss to the Kings the next night, jumping Carter in the rotation. Okobo tallied five assists and played solid perimeter defense and may have earned another look if Rubio is out or limited Thursday at home against New Orleans.
Williams wants someone in Rubio’s place who will keep the Suns on course and can engineer efficient, decisive possessions on offense.
“He’s a leader on our team, there’s no doubt, but we’ve proven there’s a style of play that works for us,” WIlliams said. “It may not mean you’re going to win the game, but it will give you a shot.”
Williams pointed to the Suns’ preseason victory over Portland, in which the team was without Rubio, Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton but still whipped the ball around and caught fire from deep.
Heading into this dismal back-to-back, the Suns as a team had a nearly 2-to-1 ratio of assists to turnovers. Against the Celtics, they had 19 turnovers compared with just 22 assists. Until Okobo checked on Tuesday night in Sacramento, they were on course for another lopsided ratio.
The second half showed the identity the Suns have crafted under Williams, even as Rubio grimaced in pain from the bench and Aron Baynes sat sidelined as well. They created easy baskets off turnovers, helped one another defensively, and spread the scoring around.
Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson chipped in career-best scoring nights, while Booker, Kelly Oubre Jr. and Frank Kaminsky made key threes. But the bigger testament to the team’s response lies in the lesser-known players who helped the Suns make a run.
After rarely seeing the floor for the first month, Okobo and Cheick Diallo made the most of their opportunity by executing and playing with the level of energy Williams demands.
”I wasn’t surprised that we stayed in it and fought because that’s who we are, that’s who we’ve been and that’s who we’re going to be,” Williams told Duane Rankin of azcentral.
Ultimately, Phoenix’s run wasn’t enough to parry three-point blows from sort-of former Sun Bogdan Bogdanovic, who piled on a career-high 31 points on just 14 field goal attempts. The Suns didn’t remember who they were until they were out of it.
They need Rubio to reach their ceiling. But they don’t need him to stick to the identity they’ve crafted through two months on the court together. Everyone on the Suns’ roster knows right from wrong on the court. Rubio demonstrates those differences by example, but the Suns are at their best when everyone embraces the principles he embodies.